The Tofino Hopefuls Making Waves Ahead of Tokyo 2020
Canada’s surf capital is known for its year-round cold-water waves and its inclusive, women-strong surf scene – it’s also raised two of Canada’s top surfers, who are on the road to Tokyo 2020.
Mathea Olin is easy to spot as she emerges on the crest of a wave in her red rash guard, charging and carving down the line. “Boom! That was some beautiful surfing,” shouts the announcer, his voice resounding over Cox Bay. He waits for the results to come in. “Looks like we have our first excellent score of the day – an 8.00,” he tells the crowd on the beach. “Mathea is looking spicy.”Cox Bay, a sandy beach break near Tofino, British Columbia, is dotted with surfers 365 days a year, but this weekend in particular it looks like a scene out of Blue Crush – just swap bikinis for fleeces and tuques, and palm trees for pines and ancient cedars. It’s been taken over by Queen of the Peak, an annual all-women surf contest, where contestants compete in shortboard and longboard heats, as well as a Masters contest for women 40 and up, and Princess of the Peak for those 16 and under. Surfboards in every colour pepper the beach, and women of all ages stand together in wetsuits, dogs darting around them. Barefoot groms (short for grommets, a surf term for young ’uns) tromp through the sand in packs, swigging bottles of Tofino Kombucha.
This is 16-year-old Olin’s home beach. She lives just a two-minute walk from the waves, on the north end of Cox Bay. She started boogie boarding at age three, was shortboarding by 10, and now she’s dominating at Queen of the Peak (even though she’s 16, as a competitive surfer Olin competes in the shortboard and longboard divisions rather than Princess of the Peak). Olin is one of the country’s top surfers. In 2017, she won Canada’s first-ever international surf medals at the Pan American Surfing Games, and last summer she brought home bronze in longboard at the Pan American Games in Peru. Along with a team of five others, including fellow Tofitian and local legend Peter Devries, she’s gearing up for the next qualification event for Tokyo 2020, the first Olympic Games to include surfing – and the team is currently ranked 10th in the world.
From the judges’ tower at Queen of the Peak, Devries has a clear view of Olin. “I see a lot of potential in her, so I want to keep pushing her,” says Devries, who, at 36, is the most experienced of the Surf Canada team athletes. “I feel like that’s my job on the team, to push these younger surfers.” Devries is a second-generation Tofino surfer: He grew up on North Chesterman Beach, where he would watch his dad catch waves in front of their house. When he was seven he joined him on a shortboard in the water, and at 13 he was surfing year-round, layering two wetsuits to stay warm (today, most Tofitian surfers wear hooded five-millimetre wetsuits in the winter months, along with booties and gloves). In 2009, Devries won the O’Neill Coldwater Classic on his home beach – it was the first international surf competition ever hosted in Canada. Locals say it was the moment that Tofino truly became a surf town. “This is definitely one of my favourite surf communities in the world,” Olin says. “It doesn’t matter what level you’re at, there’s a lot of respect here and everybody is out there having fun.”
As surf destinations go, Tofino is relatively new. This west Vancouver Island town on the south side of Clayoquot Sound is surrounded by frigid, often stormy waters, where temperatures range from 7 to 15 degrees Celsius year-round. When surf culture was taking off in Southern California in the 1950s, Tofino was a remote fishing village, accessible only by boat. It wasn’t until 1959 that the first logging road was built (and not until 1972 that it was paved), connecting this paradise peninsula to the rest of the island and giving hippies and draft dodgers with surfboards strapped to their car roofs a direct route to the waves.
“I still remember the first time I pulled my brothers over to the window and said, ‘Oh my god, look, there’s someone surfing!’” says Catherine Bruhwiler. She and her brothers are widely considered Tofino’s first family of surfing – they taught themselves in the 1980s, in ill-fitting wetsuits atop whatever boards they could find. “When I started, surfing in Canada just didn’t exist,” says Bruhwiler. “There were a few expats and other kids in the neighbourhood doing it, but no one ever dreamed you could make a career out of it – or go to the Olympics.”
While California may conjure up a 1960s Beach Boys scene, and Hawaii’s notorious for big waves, Tofino has become known for its inclusive surf community and its high proportion of female surfers. “The number of women we have surfing here – it’s probably 50-50 – is rare,” says Devries. “I think it helps with the positive vibes in the water.” Ten years ago, Krissy Montgomery, owner of local female-run school Surf Sister, co-founded Queen of the Peak, largely in response to the exclusivity of surf contests, which often had women surfing at the end of the day with far less prize money than male competitors. “Women didn’t care that much about surf contesting because contesting didn’t care about us,” says Montgomery. In the first year, she had to beg her friends to sign up, eventually wrangling around 40 contestants. At this year’s 10th-anniversary event, three of the four divisions filled up in 15 minutes.
Queen of the Peak is one of Olin’s favourite competitions. She’s been participating in it since she was 10, and at 11, she won her first Princess of the Peak. “She was the one little Princess who paddled out the back,” says Montgomery. “We watched her drop into what was a well overhead wave for her, and not just surf down the line, but actually carve and do beautiful turns. It’s been wild watching her sweep the Princess and then move into the adults and go straight to the finals.”
It was also around 10 when Olin first remembers watching Devries in the water, studying his bottom turn in particular. While Devries had to look to videos and magazine spreads for inspiration, Olin’s generation has looked to him. “Growing up, I literally watched Pete’s every movement,” says Olin. “Getting to learn so much from him is my favourite thing about travelling to competitions together.”
When they travel as a team (most recently it was to Japan for the ISA World Surfing Games last September, where Devries beat out two of the world’s top surfers), they spend all day, every day, together. Whether they’re in competition or training at home, Olin and Devries, both early risers, are often in bed before 9 p.m., partly because they prefer sunrise surfs to sunset. And they both find a way into the water whenever they can. “When you get a really good wave or go and find pumping surf, that feeling never gets old – it’s something that every surfer lives for,” says Olin. Devries agrees. “I’ve been doing it for so long, but I truly love it and I need to get in the water pretty much every day.”
The Olympic Games opportunity presents a new challenge for both surfers. “When a contest comes, I get fired up about it,” Devries says. “I still have more to give in surfing.” The next qualification event for Tokyo 2020 is in May, which will decide who, if anyone, will represent Canada on shortboards in Japan. The surfing community is mixed on the sport being added to the Olympic lineup – Devries points out that the complicated qualification process means the world’s top surfers will be up against amateurs. But in Tofino, everyone is rooting hard for him and Olin. “Every team needs a veteran, and in Pete’s instance, he’s the superstar as well. There are so many people who look up to him and get inspired by him,” says Shannon Brown, the national team coach, who lives in Tofino. “And Mathea: With such a huge female surf community here, everyone’s so happy to have a girl kicking butt.”
Back at Cox Bay, the last horn of the contest blares, signalling the beginning of the shortboard final. “It is pumping!” the announcer yells over the loudspeaker. Mathea has made it to the shortboard final, along with her 14-year-old sister Sanoa. The four finalists have 20 minutes to catch up to 10 waves, with their top two making up their final score. A small crowd of spectators chants, “Let’s go Olins, let’s go!” Others hold up signs – one reads “Mathea for QOP 2019,” complete with a drawing of a crown.
The announcer routinely reads out scores, updating the surfers in the water, so they know where they stand and how much time is left. With just over 13 minutes to go, Mathea earns a 6.43 with a wrapping cutback on a right wave, locking in the highest score for the remainder of the heat. When a beaming Mathea reaches the beach, a crowd rushes to congratulate her. They hoist her on their shoulders and parade her up the sand for the awards ceremony, where her flower crown awaits. Come July, this hometown crowd – and all of Canada – may be cheering for an Olympia