Why China Will Stop At Nothing To Create A Medal-Winning Surf Team

Cool runnings at the 2020 Olympics

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It was just past 11a.m. a few weeks before the start of the Hurley Pro, and a solid south swell was producing overhead sets at Lower Trestles. The air was hot and sticky and the lineup was crowded, looking like a tepid pool dotted with gnats between sets. As I stood near the water’s edge, I watched Gabriel Medina, Ian Gouveia and Filipe Toledo trade lefts in preparation for the upcoming World Tour event. But it wasn’t Brazil’s best that brought me to the cobblestone break. I was there to meet the pride of another nation — one seldom mentioned in conversations about top-tier surfing.

Conversations in Mandarin filled the air as seven visiting Chinese surfers — three women and four men, ranging from 14 to 27 years old — sat to my left and right, watching a set pour through the lineup. A few of the surfers, already in their wetsuits, began a coordinated stretching routine. Two of the youngest boys, Zhou “Alex” Qui and Yige Huang, stood next to each other, letting out ahhs of approval each time Medina or Gouveia smacked the lip and sent buckets of water skyward. One of the teenage girls, seemingly uninterested in the action in the water, was crouched over, drawing in the sand with a discarded tree branch.

Unlike Brazil, Australia or the United States, China isn’t exactly what you’d call a surfing powerhouse. In fact, before the 2010s, they were completely absent in almost all forms of competitive surfing outside of small domestic events or a few international longboarding contests. Among the almost 600 million people living along China’s coastline (the country’s entire population is 1.3 billion), only a couple of hundred surfers exist, and almost all of them caught their first wave less than a decade ago. So when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced the inclusion of surfing in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo back in August of 2016, the Chinese Government decided to take drastic action to prepare a handful of surfers for the international stage.

Standing a few feet away, characteristically clad in a pink ensemble and trying to manage an oversized Nike beach umbrella, was 65-year-old 1976 world champion Peter Townend. The day after the Olympics announcement, Townend was contacted by the Chinese Government. A few months later, the first-ever Chinese National Surf Team was formed. Since the waves in China are typically flat during the summer, Townend had this small subset of the team – the ones with the highest chances of qualifying for the Olympics – fly out to California for a few week’s training.

With the umbrella firmly planted, Townend could focus on the larger task at hand — namely, helping the Chinese surfers figure out one of the most competitive lineups in California.

“Pablo!” Townend shouted, using the nickname of his assistant coach and translator, Moyu Huang. “Tell them to paddle around the left so they don’t get swept down the beach.” Huang, one of the first generation of Chinese surfers, translated Townend’s advice for some of the younger kids, gesturing toward the lineup before grabbing his board and slowly heading out into the water. I asked Townend if he’s learned any Mandarin since becoming coach. “Only to order a beer!” he replied.

Sitting on a towel behind me, 27-year-old Yan Zhu was waxing up her board, her face caked in sunscreen and her chin-length bob pulled back behind her ears. According to Townend, Yan is currently the best female shortboarder in China. But like many on the national team, Yan didn’t grow up surfing. She was raised in a small town near Yueyang, almost 600 miles from the coast, and had never even seen the ocean until 2013, when, fed up with her cubicle-bound online marketing job, she decided to take a vacation. She Googled “surfing in China” and found a club in Hainan — a Waikiki-like island to the southeast coast of the country — that taught surf lessons.

“I started surfing and met my boyfriend there,” Yan recalled. “So I quit my job, went back to pack all my stuff and flew back to Hainan.” Yan started working at the local surf club and spent all her free time figuring her way around a longboard on the gentle, palm-tree-lined waves of Riyue Bay. She joined the small yet growing population of surfers who, like her, felt unfulfilled by their careers and preferred the simple life of riding waves and making just enough money to live near the beach.

Yan loved her new surf-centric life, but her family wasn’t thrilled about her career change. “Every time I went home, everyone in the city, including my parents, just looked at me strange because I’m too tan,” she said. “In my city, all the girls are white. I had never seen someone get tanned like me before.” One of the reasons surfing in China remains on the fringe is a culturally ingrained belief that having a tan is a sign of needing to work outdoors as a laborer and therefore being a member of a lower socioeconomic class. “When most people go to the beach, they have their faces covered. They don’t enjoy the sun. Some people will wear hats; others wear those face bikinis,” said Yan, referring to something resembling a rubber ski mask sometimes worn by Chinese beachgoers.

Another reason surfing remains largely unpopular in China — despite the many waves dotting its long coastline and its receptiveness to typhoon swells — is that older generations always viewed the ocean as a dangerous, uncontrollable entity and forbid their children from swimming past the shallows.

Yan switched to shortboarding earlier this year when she heard the Olympic event won’t have a longboarding division. She admitted that she was chosen for the team because there are so few women in China who surf, and that in comparison to the surfers she watched flying above the lip at Lowers, she’s still very much a beginner.

“I’ve been wondering if other surfers are already so good, why we even started the team,” she said. “I’m not sure we can even get into the Olympics because these guys are so amazing.”

As I watched Yan nervously paddle out into the lineup and catch her first few waves, linking shaky mid-face bottom turns with a couple of awkward redirects, I also wondered if a handful of fledgling surfers could actually become Olympic medallists in the span of three short years. Is it possible, in a sport that typically takes decades to master, that a beginner surfer can be coached into performing as well as internationally acclaimed athletes, many of whom were pushed into waves before they could even walk?

Townend is no stranger to being in a coaching role. After becoming surfing’s first world champion, in 1976, and raising eyebrows at surf events with his velour jumpsuit as part of the Bronzed Aussies, he spent the subsequent decades training the likes of Tom Curren, Brad Gerlach, Mike Parsons and Courtney Conlogue as head coach of the National Scholastic Surfing Association (NSSA) and USA junior teams. Helping World Tour–bound surfers refine their natural skills was one thing, but teaching a group of late learners the basics of wave riding has proved to be quite the challenge.

After the national team was selected in March, Townend spent the next two months in Hainan. The team received a stipend from the Chinese Government and was moved into the Forest Inn overlooking Riyue Bay to begin training together full-time. Not long after, the government began construction on a high-performance training centre, commissioned especially for the developing surf team.

Out at Riyue Bay or other nearby sand-bottom pointbreaks, Townend had the team surfing as much as possible. When the waves were small, he’d run various paddle drills in order to build their stamina. But, more than anything, Townend, channeling John Candy in Cool Runnings, spent most of his time teaching them the ABCs of technique and wave selection.

According to Glenn Brumage, a business consultant at Wabsono International (a company working to grow China’s action-sports industry) and a friend of Townend, most of the surfers had a difficult time assessing their own skill levels.

“Their biggest challenge was that what they saw of themselves in photos and video wasn’t necessarily translating into how they’re actually surfing,” Brumage told me over the phone. “They would swish their board around a lot and would think that what they were doing was the same thing the pros were doing. They couldn’t see the nuances – that other surfers were on their rail. PT would have to show a photo of one of them next to a photo of Mick Fanning and say, ‘See this turn? Look at your turn; what do you see that’s different?’ He’s really having to take it down to the basis of what performance surfing is.”

Townend showed me a few laminated photos that he uses during lectures for the team. On one, there’s a grainy split image of Kelly Slater on the left and Courtney Conlogue on the right. Both are doing vertical hacks, Slater on his forehand, Conlogue going left on her backhand. “IF YOU WANT TO SCORE POINTS, YOU MUST GET VERT!” is printed in big block letters at the top of the photos.

“I realised that they’re really starting from ground zero,” said Townend. “They’ve had no surfing role models, no Surfer magazine to look at and study. They’re really starting from the basics and they’ve already developed some bad habits. Besides the surfing itself, they also really have no idea how to compete. There’s no competition structure like the NSSA or Surfing Australia for young people in China.”

In May, Townend took a small portion of the team to the International Surfing Association’s World Surfing Games in Biarritz, France, which turned out to be an eye-opening experience for the Chinese surfers. On the morning of the first day of competition, the team stood on the shores of La Grande Plage in their red, white and yellow uniforms, looking out at the punchy French beachbreaks in front of them. Many of them squeezed into wetsuits for the first time in their lives and paddled out for their Round 1 heats in chunky, wind-torn waves — some of the most difficult conditions many of them had ever dealt with. No one from their team continued on to Round 2. One member of the team couldn’t make it past the whitewater.

One of the most challenging parts of Townend’s new position has been adapting to China’s centralised sports system – an infrastructure that was designed solely to churn out as many Olympic gold medallists as possible.

In Australia and the United States, surfing develops at a grassroots level through organisations like Surfing Australia or the NSSA. But in China, all aspects of athletics are controlled in a top-down manner by the government under the General Administration of Sport. In the past, sports participation was never an important part of Chinese society. It wasn’t until 1932 that China entered its first athlete in the Olympics, and they remained underdogs for many years after. According to Guoqi Xu, author of “Olympic Dreams: China and Sports, 1895-2008,” in 1979, the government decided to create a state-run institution that would act as a production line of gold-medal athletes. “They were determined to use sports to project an image of a strong and powerful China,” Guoqi told me over email. “So they developed centralised sports management to achieve as many gold medals in international sports programs [as possible].”

In the decades since, China has adopted a Soviet-style of athletic development, building thousands of “sports schools” around the country to train and mold children into world-class athletes. Government officials travelled to cities far and wide, recruiting children, some as young as four years old, with specific physical attributes and enrolling them in these training institutes to focus on the sports they seemed best suited for. Now there are an estimated 400,000 children enrolled in sports schools throughout the country. In previous years, various international media outlets have released footage from inside these schools, showing tiny gymnasts or swimmers training for 10 hours each day.

Back in 2008, a reporter for Time magazine went to the Weifang City Sports School to interview some of its athletes. Chen Yun, a then 14-year-old daughter of a vegetable vendor in Shandong province, told the reporter that she was selected by recruiters to be a weightlifter based on her shoulder width, thigh length and waist size. Before that, the young girl had no idea what weightlifting was.

Depending on whom you talk to, this regimented style of manufacturing gold medallists may have loosened up over the last few years. But in Townend’s eyes, the expectation of the General Administration of Sport is that their funding of a national surf team will increase their overall medal count in 2020 and beyond — and they’re already developing metrics to decide how to recruit future surfers.

When he was first interviewed for the coaching position, Townend sat down for a formal dinner with one of the key officials in the General Administration of Sport. “He looked at me and, through a translator, said, ‘How are we going to get any good at this?’” Townend remembers. “And my answer was, ‘We have to learn how to swim first.’” Townend was speaking metaphorically, meaning that they needed to grasp the fundamentals before thinking about winning any medals, but the official took it literally.

He took Townend to Hangzhou, a populated city near Shanghai and home to China’s No. 1 swim academy. He walked him past the school’s natatorium and into the basketball gymnasium, where about 20 of the school’s top teenage swimmers were standing. Most of them had never even seen a breaking wave before, but the official asked Townend to figure out which ones could potentially be groomed into brilliant surfers. With no ocean nearby, Townend put a surfboard onto a mat and told each kid to jump to his or her feet. “If they stood up with one foot forward, then I knew they had some idea, whether from skateboarding or snowboarding. But if they jumped up parallel, then I knew they didn’t understand,” he said. He then had them roll around on a skateboard to measure their balance.

The group was whittled down to six and taken back to Hainan to see how they fared in an actual ocean. “The ocean terrified them,” said Townend. Not surprisingly, kids who had been trained their entire lives to swim in a chlorinated pool had no idea what to do with a surfboard.

None of the selected six remained in Hainan, but the government has continued its exports to backfill the pipeline, plucking kids from cities all over China and sending prospects to Hainan. “I’ve told them they’ve got to be able to get out on a 9-foot soft-top, turn around and catch a wave without assistance. Otherwise forget about it,” said Townend. At the time of this writing, about a dozen kids from six different provinces all over China — all of whom were junior athletes in paddling, swimming, windsurfing and kayaking — have been relocated to Hainan by the government to become surfers.

Townend’s biggest frustration is trying to get the government to understand that the sport of surfing is in a league of its own; you can’t manufacture talent and you can’t teach wave knowledge overnight. “The government wants to accelerate the process so that they can win medals and look good to the world, but what they don’t understand is that surfing has never been formulised like what they’re used to,” he said.

“Even with snowboarding, the mountain is constant. You go up a chairlift and the mountain doesn’t move. But the whole learning curve of being a surfer is much longer than [that of] a snowboarder because you have to learn the ocean. And it takes years of years of paddling out and getting smashed — like we’ve all learned.”

Townend said that this has been a bitter pill for the sports administration to swallow. But the Chinese Government hasn’t given up on looking for ways to accelerate the learning process for their budding surf team. According to Brumage, there have been initial talks with the government about building wave pools at the sports universities of some major cities, which would allow surfers to train in uniform waves and avoid dealing with the unpredictability of the ocean.

After her session at Lowers, Yan sat down in the sand next to Townend. Recalling her last wave, Townend dissected each turn, explaining what she did well and what she needs to do to improve. She simply smiled and nodded.

Standing in front of me, 14-year-old Zhou “Alex” Qiu was getting ready for his second session of the day. Looking not unlike a typical California grom, he forced his head and sunbleached shoulder length hair through the top of his brightly colored Hurley wetsuit and grabbed his board. He told Townend that he was going to land an air reverse, and Townend responded with an offer: “I’ll give you 100 bucks if you land an air reverse.” Excited by the proposition, Zhou began sprinting down to the water, but he tripped in the sand on the way down, landing on all fours and sending the rest of the team into a fit of laughter.

Zhou is easily the most talented surfer among the bunch. His Dad was also a surfer and pushed Zhou into his first wave at the age of 4, making him one of the few second-generation surfers in China. Thanks to his early start, Zhou has developed a relaxed style and has a knack for generating speed. Townend thinks Zhou is improving at a quick pace and has the greatest potential to qualify for the Olympics. But in 2020, he will be only 17, and he still has a lot to learn in terms of heat strategy and competition.

Out in the lineup, Medina stroked into a set wave out the back. Seemingly effortlessly, he linked four wrapping frontside arcs and finished the wave with a flawless air reverse — a combination that’s likely become muscle memory after the countless times he’s done it. Even with the help of government-funded training centres and all the technique instruction in the world, bringing any of the Chinese surfers to a level where they could compete with someone like Medina in three years was difficult to imagine.

The IOC will release the full details on the qualification process in early 2018 (the qualification period will start a few months later), but they’ve made it clear that only 20 men and 20 women will have the chance to compete in Tokyo, and there will likely be a cap of two or three surfers per country. With nations like Brazil, Australia, France, Portugal, Tahiti, South Africa, Fiji, Spain and the USA with one or more surfers on the World Tour and the upper echelon of the Qualifying Series, getting even a single Chinese national in the games will be a very tall order, even with all the support the Chinese Government can offer.

But if a Chinese surfer did qualify in 2020, it wouldn’t be the first time China had successfully taken beginners in a certain sport and transformed them into first-rate athletes. A little over 10 years ago, when China decided to build an Olympic snowboard team, the government chose a handful of gymnasts and acrobats, handed them boards and bindings and moved some of them to Whistler, British Columbia, to train with foreign coaches. Jiayu Liu was selected for the program at age 11 based on her martial arts skills. Seven years later, she placed fourth in the halfpipe event at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

For the surfers, however, Townend isn’t getting too ahead of himself. He sees this as a long-term project and is trying to convince the government to do the same. “I know I can close the gap,” he said. “But I don’t think I can close the gap as fast as the Chinese Government thinks it can be closed. It’s going to take some time.”

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Ashtyn Douglas