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Heeding history: South Africa’s Bianca Buitendag will surf her final wave at Tokyo Olympics

Heeding history: South Africa’s Bianca Buitendag will surf her final wave at Tokyo Olympics
Bianca Buitendag of South Africa competes in the women's round one heats during the World Surfing Games at Kisakihama Beach on 7 September 2019 in Miyazaki, Japan. (Photo: Matt Roberts / Getty Images)

As South Africa’s top-ranked professional surfer, for as long as she can remember, Bianca Buitendag is ready to apply an exclamation mark to her career at the Tokyo Olympics.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

After 14 years of surfing the world’s best waves, South Africa’s Bianca Buitendag will be competing one last time, at Tokyo 2020, before she moves into a new phase of life.

Buitendag has been travelling the world for more than half her life. At 13 she went on her first international trip and now, at the age of 27, she is making her fourth visit to Japan. This one, however, is a different experience to any she has had before.

As South Africa’s top-ranked professional surfer, for as long as she can remember, Buitendag is ready to apply an exclamation mark to her career at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics – and then get on with the next part of her life.

“How do you top making history and being part of the first surfing competition in Olympic history,” she asks, rhetorically. “I’m now 27 and surfing has been my life. It’s been a wonderful journey and has shaped me as a person. I’ve given everything I’ve got to the sport and no regrets. How many people get to travel the world doing what they love?”

Buitendag, like so many others, spent her longest time at home since turning professional during the Covid-19 lockdown. It focused her mind and made her think about what happens next.

The obvious answer was to put on the national colours of the country in which she was born and bred, and do it proud in Tokyo.

Even though the 2020 Games became the 2021 Games, her desire to become part of history when the sport debuts at the Olympics was overwhelming.

And given the nature of surfing, it’s impossible to predict what her medal prospects might be when the competition starts on Sunday, but with her talent, experience and familiarity with the conditions, it would be foolish to dismiss her chances.

Typhoon swell

Wave conditions are expected to produce small swells, but Japan being Japan you can expect the unexpected. “This time of year the conditions are mild, but we have to be ready for changes in the weather, however unlikely. A small typhoon is predicted for next week so that could increase wave size.”

Stop. Right. There. A “small typhoon”? She laughs. “We call it a frontal system that will be coming through; here the reference is just a little different. Nothing major to worry about!”

Not like the time in 2018 when she was competing in Japan in challenging weather while a friend shot from a beachfront flat.

“The video shows the beach, the waves and then pans to the bath. The bath water was ‘shaking’, in fact the entire building was shaking.”

After these Games it will be back home and then … well, on to the next life chapter.

“This will be my last event as a professional. I’ve had a great ride and it’s the perfect way to finish off my career. I’m 27 and right in the middle of the age spectrum. There are 13 girls on the world tour and only three of them are over the age of 30. I’ve had plenty of travelling through airports and living out of suitcases; it’s time to put the roots down.

“Covid’s lockdown also made me realise how important home is and I’m ready to do that,” she said.

Home is Victoria Bay, on South Africa’s Garden Route. “It’s a beautiful part of the world and one that you never get tired of. I am looking forward to my next career where I’m getting involved in property development. There are such beautiful spots and I just love the area between Wilderness and Mossel Bay.”

First though is the small matter of making more history and this time it’s etching her name as a pioneer for the sport in the Olympics. DM168

 Gary Lemke is in Tokyo as chief writer for Team SA.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores until 24 July 2021. From 31 July 2021, DM168 will be available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores.

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