The surfers traveled with sand collected from around the world – each grain a symbol of peace through the sport of surfing.
With the Pacific Ocean and the Huntington Beach Pier in the backdrop, after marching down Main Street proudly waving their country flags, about 250 surfers came together to mix the grains from their local beaches during the “Sands of the World” opening ceremony of the ISA World Surfing Games, which kicked off Friday, Sept. 16. It is the first time the event has been held in Surf City since 2006.
The eight-day, Olympic-style competition starts Saturday, Sept. 17, bringing wave riders from well-known surfing regions such Australia, and places not known for their surf scene such as Saudi Arabia. Leading Friday’s parade of nations was Afghanistan and the Ukraine had a team as well.
The athletes come not just for the prestigious title, but also a chance to nab their country an extra teammate at the 2024 Paris Olympics – a huge advantage when the competition goes to Teahupoʻo, a surf break off Tahiti.
Surfer Edoardo Papa and about a dozen teammates came in from Italy to compete, a place more known for its pasta than waves – but that’s changing.
“It’s really important to us, Italy is not a surfing nation but we’re growing a lot,” said Papa, drying off in the parking lot after a morning practice with his team as they tried to get to know the surf break on the south side of the pier. “There are a lot of people who love surfing. We’re not just representing ourselves, we’re representing every Italian cheering for us in Italy.”
Surfing has historically been considered an individual sport, but the International Surfing Association – and now the Olympics – has changed that with competitions that aim toward surfing not just for individual medals, but for their countries as well.
ISA president Fernando Aguerre reflected on the 1996 ISA World Surfing Games held in Huntington Beach, when he first announced the intention to make surfing an Olympic sport.
Aguerre reflected on how they changed from handing out trophies to handing out medals – gold, silver, bronze and copper – so they could mimic an Olympic sport. They created the “Sands of the World” ceremony to emphasize a global camaraderie.
“That was the time we told the world we had this vision, this dream for surfing to be in the Olympics,” he said. “You start with a crazy vision, then you make a plan – and suddenly it becomes a reality.”
It took a few decades, but surfing last year officially made its way to the Olympic arena at the Tokyo Games and has been announced as a permanent sport.
Two Olympic surfers – Australia’s Sally Fitzgibbons and San Clemente’s Kolohe Andino – reflected on what it meant to be part of that pivotal milestone in the sport.
Andino, sporting a USA hat, talked about how special it is to cheer on teammates. “Usually surfing is such an individual sport,” he said.
And it’s a sport that brings a special “cool” factor to the Olympics.
“I think that more than surfing needs the Olympics, I think the Olympics needs surfing,” said Andino, who along with fellow San Clemente surfer Griffin Colapinto and Northern California surfer Nat Young will compete for Team USA. “I think the Olympics are pretty stale and boring and I think surfing is the best sport in the world.”
Fitzgibbons, a veteran on the World Tour, talked about first stepping on the sands in Huntington 19 years ago, overwhelmed by what she saw.
“I was like ‘What is this place?’ The crowds were large, everything about this place was more than I imagined,” she said. “Coming back all these years, it’s really significant.”
Huntington Beach officials are hoping the International Olympic Committee members in town will think the same, with hopes that it will give them a taste of what an Olympic event could look like in Surf City as the 2028 Los Angeles Games near.
Visit Huntington Beach CEO Kelly Miller talked about the town’s rich surfing past, starting with Hawaiian George Freeth’s exhibition to show “walking on water” to the thousands who showed up to watch in 1914.
The first West Coast Championships were held in town in 1959, and soon the surf shops started sprouting up. The US Open of Surfing brings crowds and two hometown surfers – Brett Simpson and Kanoa Igarashi – have both taken two titles at the event. Then there’s the Surfers’ Hall of Fame and Surfing Walk of Fame and the International Huntington Beach Surfing Museum.
“We are proudly welcoming this event,” Miller said. “We are just totally stoked, without question.”
Seal Beach surfboard shaper Sean McCabe was particularly excited to see one of the surfers among the ranks of competitors on Friday.
McCabe started taking surfboards to Nicaragua years ago to help foster the surf community among local kids. He goes a few times a year.
Now, he said, “they rip.”
When it looked like surfer Caesar Amador wouldn’t be able to afford the trip, McCabe raised $2,000 to help make the journey possible.
“He’s so stoked,” McCabe said. “He’s never been to the U.S., ever. His head is spinning right now. It’s cool, I love it. It makes me feel stoked, it’s sick.”