‘Heaviest wave’ in the world beckons Durban surfer Jordy Smith on Olympic debut

‘Heaviest wave’ in the world beckons Durban surfer Jordy Smith on Olympic debut
Jordy Smith surfs at The Box in Margaret River, Western Australia, on 23 April 2023. (Photo: Trevor Moran / Red Bull Content Pool)

A knee injury meant Jordy Smith missed the last Olympic Games in Tokyo, but the 36-year-old Durban-born surfer is back on the board and aiming for gold this year.

About a month before the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games (held in 2021), South African surfer and medal contender Jordy Smith injured his knee quite seriously while surfing a massive wave.

It was a devastating blow for the then No 7 ranked surfer on the international Men’s Championship Tour.

Tokyo was the first time surfing had been introduced to the 125-year legacy of the Games and Smith was confident of bagging a medal for the country.

“Missing the last one, where I really was in for a good shot to medal, was a hard thing to swallow,” Smith told Daily Maverick. “But I really do believe that everything in life happens for a reason and you learn from every process that you go through.

“For me, it just wasn’t my time to be at that one and it motivated me even more.”

Instead, it was his compatriot Bianca Buitendag – who entered the Games ranked 17th – who was a surprise silver medallist at Tsurigasaki Beach in Chiba. Buitendag and swimmer Tatjana Smith (née Schoenmaker) were South Africa’s only medallists in Tokyo.

Though the world was stunned by Buitendag’s performance, it was something Smith had seen coming.

“I’ve always known deep down that Bianca had the ability to go all the way and she did basically,” Smith said. “She came about as close as you can get.

“All round, it puts a bit of confidence on the entire team, on the country within our sport, that we do have the ability to go and get a gold and do what it takes to win.

“Not just for myself but for future kids and generations to come, it’s really something to aspire towards and to be proud of.”

Jordy Smith

Jordy Smith surfs in their first heat of the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach in Australia on 26 March 2024. (Photo: Morgan Hancock / Getty Images)

Three years later, though, 36-year-old Smith is back on his board and more motivated than ever to bring home a medal at the 2024 Paris Olympic Games starting in July – having qualified at the ISA World Surfing Games in El Salvador in 2023.

“It’s motivated me beyond words really,” the Red Bull athlete said. “I remember the day it started, going ‘I will be at the next Olympics, come hell or high water I’ll be there’.

“Just having that mindset really allows you to be open and free, and chase down your goals and dreams.”

Smith will be joined at the Games by compatriots Matthew McGillivray, who is ranked 20th in the Men’s Championship Tour, and Sarah Baum in the women’s division, who is the highest-ranked female surfer in Africa.

‘Treacherous waves’

Even though the Olympic Games is to be held in Paris, the surfing element will be 15,760km from France in the French Polynesian island of Tahiti. The menacing reef break of Teahupo’o, considered the “heaviest wave” in the world, awaits.

Although the waves in Tokyo three years ago were small and gentle, the opposite is expected this year. Smith describes the conditions as “one of the world’s scariest surf spots”.

“It’s one of the most treacherous waves in the world,” he said of the venue that forms part of the World Surf League Championship tour. “I’ve been going there for close to 20 years now so I do have a lot of experience there.”

Despite the challenges expected and the nerves of a first Olympic Games, the experienced surfer has an assured perspective on the Games.

“It’s just up to Mother Nature on the day whether she delivers and provides you with that wave that you’re going to need to be able to win,” he said.

“I’ve taken control of all the things that I can; now it’s just up to fate.”

Smith, at 1.9m tall – the tallest on the Championship Tour this season – could well be at an advantage with tall and inclement waves expected.

Jordy Smith at the MEO Pro Portugal – World Surf League held at Supertubos in Peniche, Portugal, on 3 March 2022. (Photo: Gualter Fatia / Getty Images)

“For me, in that sense, it’s incredible because I know exactly what I’m in for, what to expect and, more than anything, what to train for,” he said of Teahupo’o.

The next leg of the Championship Tour, which starts on 22 May, will be in Tahiti.

“It’s a great opportunity to test the equipment, see the place we’re going to be staying again,” Smith said about using the next competition as preparation for the Games. “To just familiarise [ourselves] with everything that’s going to take place.

“We will be staying on a boat during the Olympics so it will be a little different, but just being there and making sure the equipment is dialled and ready to go is more important than anything.”

Smith is fifth on the overall standings after a slightly mixed season and five events.

Finishing strong

Smith has had an incredible unbroken 16-year career on the Championship Tour, which includes six event wins.

He is the oldest surfer on the tour after legendary American surfer Kelly Slater (52) missed the mid-season cut, failing to finish in the top 22.

And despite his longevity and accomplishments, an Olympic medal is something the Durban native dreams about.

“That would be incredible,” Smith said about the goal of standing on the podium in Tahiti.

Read more in Daily Maverick: The king crests — Kelly Slater, surfing’s GOAT, bails

“I’m just such a competitive person, whether it’s running across the street and trying to be first at that or playing a game of ping-pong.

“For me, everything is just about winning… That’s just the way I’ve been raised, it’s in my DNA that way.

“It would be great to win and it would be great to keep winning. That’s just a part of who I am and it’s really what I enjoy and find satisfying.”

Retirement is not on his mind, though. Having a young family and a country supporting him keeps the surfer hopping on to his board time and time again.

“There are a lot of different motivating factors,” he said. “My family, my son, he motivates me every day.

“He’s young at the moment but I really just want to make him proud, I want to make my family proud, my country proud.”

Smith’s career in the ocean has been more successful than many surfers could imagine. An appearance at the Olympics is just the cherry on top of a delicious cake, but to satisfy his competitive nature, Smith is competing for a cherry made of gold. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R35.


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