From Tofino to Teahupoo: Sanoa Dempfle-Olin Is Canada’s Chance at an Olympic Medal
In less than 8 months, 24 men and 24 women will don their 2024 Olympic jerseys and battle it out at one of the world’s heaviest lefthanders for a gold, silver, or bronze. Among this ensemble of 48 qualifiers is 18-year-old Canadian Sanoa Dempfle-Olin, hailing from the frigid, beachbreak-laden coastline of Tofino.
The goofy-foot will be Canada’s first surfer to qualify for the Olympic Games and she’ll be heading to Teahupoo this July–sans her usual booties, gloves and a hood–for a chance at putting the Great White North on the map at surfing’s biggest stage. We recently rang up the Tofino native to talk about her road to qualification, why she’s looking forward to bringing more national attention to the sport of surfing, and what it was like growing up in a coldwater surf haven.
I qualified for the Games in Santiago, Chile at the PanAm Games. There was one qualification spot up for a surfer from a Pan-American country but I didn’t really want to put too much pressure on myself because it was a hard spot to win–there were so many surfers there and only that one spot up for grabs. But as far as just being at the Pan Am Games in Santiago, it was so cool being with all of Team Canada, alongside surfers and athletes from all over the world. I was just trying to enjoy the opportunity I had to be there and trying to take it all in.
Going into your last heat, did you know what you had to do to qualify? Or were you surprised when you got out of the water?
I knew exactly what I needed to do qualify. I think most people there did. When I made my quarterfinal heat and I was in the bronze medal match with Leilani [McGonagle], the event went on hold for two days because there was a big storm. So, we were just sitting around for those two days sort of waiting for the storm. We were staying at the same place and we knew that whoever got that heat would get the spot because Tatiana was already in the final and she already had a spot qualified.
I definitely was nervous and it was hard sitting around waiting, but I just did what I could to prepare and just tried to stay grateful that I was even in a position where that was on the line. I surfed a lot of good heats and I got myself to the position where I was heat away from qualifying for the Olympics, and so I just reminded myself to put my all into it…but if it doesn’t happen, its not he end of the world. Basically I was just trying to make it seem like it wasn’t so big and daunting.
Well that seems like a good mentality to keep going into the Olympics too. Tell me a little about your background. What was it like growing up in a little coldwater surf hub?
Tofino is my home—it’s super special to me and I love it. I love the adventure that it provides you. My mom homeschooled my sister and I growing up, and a lot of our schooling involved being out in nature, moving our bodies, and learning things as we went. We got to spend a lot of time out in the world experiencing things, out on the boat and hiking, and surfing finally became a part of that. My mom moved to Tofino when she was in her 20s and that was her first time ever surfing. She was the one who got us into it.
I live close to the beach so it’s kind of my backyard. Everyday I would just go and surf and I fell in love with it really quickly. I obviously loved the surfing aspect, but I also loved how beautiful our coastlines are with their old-growth cedar forests. In Tofino, a lot of times when you’re surfing, you’re out in these crazy places or you’re on the boat seeing so much wildlife. It definitely was really special growing up here.
As a kid growing up in that environment, is the cold just something you’re accustomed to because you were born there or did it take you awhile as a kid to start surfing in the winter?
When I was really young, I probably didn’t go in the water as much when it was cold outside, but once I was 9 or 10, and surfing was something I really loved and did daily, I didn’t really care if it was cold or not–I just wanted to get in the water more than anything. But still, there are days you don’t surf. Like surfing in the snow, for example, although it’s very beautiful, it’s also like skiing or snowboarding without goggles on because the snow hurts your eyes so bad. But like anywhere in the world, whether you’re surfed out and sunburnt or freezing cold and your wetsuit’s frozen, if the waves are good, you can’t really be stopped getting out there.
Your sister Mathea is also a really good surfer. Did she have a big influence on you growing up?
Yeah, Mathea is a really good surfer. I’m definitely super lucky to have an older sibling who surfs. I’ve been inspired by a lot of surfers growing up in Tofino between Pete Devries and the Bruhwilers, but having my sister was like having a best friend to surf with everyday and go on adventures with. Because she’s a few years older than me she’s always been a couple levels ahead of me and gave me something to strive and work towards.
Anything specifically she’s given you advice on that’s helped you qualify or when it comes to competition?
Yeah, in Tofino we don’t have that many contests, so when we were younger we didn’t really compete at all. I did my first international contest when I was 11 and my sister had already done a couple before that, so she always did things first and almost tested things out first. She paved the way for me in a way. She had to go out first and figure out how to go to California for events and travel around the world.
I don’t think most people realize how out of the way Tofino can be.
[Laughs]. Yeah and that’s what makes home special. You get to escape the business of the cities, but it definitely is a pain to travel to and from Tofino—just the ferry ride and the drive adds like 10 hours to any trip.
You mentioned Pete Devries. Growing up, was it inspiring watching locals travel around the world and make a name for Canadian surfers like Pete has done?
Yeah, having the Bruhwilers, Noah [Cohen] and especially Pete Devries to look up to when I was growing up was very important. Pete’s my favorite surfer–I love how he surfs and have looked up to him my whole life. When I was younger and they were doing most of their traveling and filming, I would always think, ‘Woah, that would be so cool to do myself one day.’ But just being able to see Pete surfing the beachbreaks at home—those are the conditions he’s so good in, he’s so fast. When I was younger, I would pretty much try to surf with him every day. If I saw that he was out, I’d run home really quick and suit up. If you go to Hawaii or California, you’re constantly surrounded by insanely good surfers, but I feel like that’s the one thing there’s less of in Canada. Being in the water when Pete or Noah was in the water was really helpful just because it helped me stay inspired.
Is it always an adjustment going from Tofino to somewhere warm?
It definitely is an adjustment, but I’ve done it so much throughout my life that it doesn’t take me too long to adjust between wearing booties and gloves to not wearing them. But if I’ve been surfing in a 5/4 at home, when I do go to warm water temps, I really notice how much looser I am. And vice versa.
How are you feeling about the Games being held at Teahupoo?
I’ve been to Tahiti twice before—once with Billabong and once with team Canada. We got waves super clean and fun but it was super small. I loved it and am excited to go back there. But obviously Teahupoo can be a very scary wave, so there are some nerves that it’ll be really pumping during the event. I’m excited to get back and train and hopefully have some opportunities in some bigger waves.
What do you think a medal at the Olympics would mean to you and team Canada? Do you think it would help put competitive surfers from Canada more on the map?
Yeah, an Olympic medal is obviously huge. Going into any event you want to win, but definitely for the Olympics and especially for Canada since surfing isn’t very popular outside of Tofino. A lot of people in Canada don’t really know much about surfing so even qualifying for an Olympic spot has already brought a lot more attention to the sport across the country. Obviously having a good result at the Olympics would do that even more so.