Moroccan surfer Ramzi Boukhiam is looking sharp this year. Having already provisionally qualified for the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games, the 26-year-old also claimed the win at the Oi Hang Loose Pro Contest earlier this year at Fernando de Noronha in Brazil.
"Beginning the year with a victory at a QS 5,000 really gives me a boost for qualification onto the CT," said the Tour veteran. "I've been on the QS for a long time and I know I've made mistakes in the past. We've got the Olympics coming up. It just feels like things are moving in the right direction for me this year."
Boukhiam grew up in the coastal capital of Agadir to a Moroccan father and Dutch mother and started surfing when he was nine. At age 11 his father passed away, and shortly after that his mother moved Ramzi and his brother to Biarritz in the southwest of France.
It was a difficult transition for both brothers, all be it one aided by the great waves and competitive lineups around Hossegor. Boukhaim would also return to Morocco every holiday and stay at a surf camp in Oualidia in the north of the country.
By 15 his surfing talent was obvious. After winning the European Junior Title, the goofyfooter hit the QS full time. In 2012 at age 18, he won the Pro Zarautz QS. With his aggressive, stylish and highly technical surfing, it looked like it would be a manner of when, not if, he would graduate to the CT.
In the intervening years, Boukhiam showed regular flashes of brilliance, both in freesurfing and heats, yet never with the consistency needed to crack the big time. Footage of him surfing his native Moroccan points would blow minds, yet competitively he would go hot and cold. His highest end-of-year ranking came in 2016 and 2017 when he finished 44th on the QS; a long way from the qualification positions.
However, Boukhiam received a major confidence boost at the 2019 World Surfing Games in Japan. There he captured a provisional Olympic qualification slot as the highest finishing African, with a sixth place finish. It was a breakthrough performance for Boukhiam as he held his own against established CT stars like Italo Ferreira, Gabriel Medina, Kolohe Andino, and Kelly Slater.
While Boukhiam's Olympic qualification slot won't be solidified until the conclusion of the 2020 ISA World Surfing Games in May, which takes priority over 2019, the odds are highly stacked in his favor to fly the Moroccan flag in Tokyo come August.
Two Moroccans would have to be among the top five male qualifiers at the 2020 World Surf Games to strip away his slot. In his home country, his result was major news. He returned to a hero's welcome, mainstream TV coverage and even his portrait being painted on walls.
With a new coach Aziz Bouchgua and confidence from the Olympic provisional qualification, Ramzi entered 2020 with an added sense of purpose. It helped that one of the early QS 5,000 events of the year, the Taghazout Pro, was held for the first time at Anchor Point.
This is one of the righthand points where he learned to surf and that is responsible for his lethal backhand. While he was defeated by eventual Finalist Alonso Correa in the early rounds, the feel-good factor of hosting the world's best surfers in pumping waves was huge.
And last month in Brazil, the powerful, barreling waves of Fernando de Noronha suited his style of surfing. He eliminated many of the mistakes that had held his career back and peaked at the right time. He dispatched Brazilians Ian Gouveia, Jadson Andre and Weslley Dantas on the way to his biggest win since that rookie victory way back in 2012.
"I just tried to focus on myself and surf to my strengths and use powerful turns," he said after the win. "It seemed like everything went my way today."