Bringing Home Gold

Twelve youths claim victory at the ISA World Junior Surfing Championship as part of the Hawai‘i Surf Team.

Text by Rebecca Parsons
Images by John Hook and courtesy of the Hawaiʻi Surf Team

On a spring morning in 2022, a plane touches down in El Salvador, blues and greens streaking past the window as it flies down the runway. When it slows to a stop, 12 teens step down the airstair, talking animatedly. It was a long journey from their hometowns in Hawaiʻi—and, for many, it is their first trip abroad. The group’s excitement is palpable. This is the Hawaiʻi Surf Team, and their sights are set on the largest youth surfing competition in the world: the International Surfing Association (ISA) World Junior Surfing Championship.

The Hawaiʻi Surf Team (HST) was established to prepare junior surfers to compete in the Olympic-style event, which dates back to 1980. With more than 400 contestants and over 30 nations represented each year, it’s the most high-profile competition in junior surfing. Many of its young contenders will go on to compete on the World Surf League (WSL) Championship Tour—the top tier of professional surfing.

For young Hawaiʻi surfers, the HST is a golden opportunity to represent Hawaiʻi and test their skills against their global peers. For many former members, it also provided a pathway to successful careers in the surf industry. Notable HST alumni include greats such as five-time world champion and Olympic gold medalist Carissa Moore; Kalani Robb, whose style has influenced generations of surfers; and former men’s Championship Tour and big-wave surfer Shane Dorian, who now serves as team coach.

Competing as part of the HST is also a source of pride. The ISA, like the WSL, recognizes Hawaiʻi as its own sovereign surfing nation, and so the HST competes separately from the U.S. Surf Team. “As a Hawaiian, knowing that Hawaiʻi’s the birthplace of surfing, it means a lot to be able to go out there and represent our home,” says 2022 team captain Kai Martin.

With only 12 spots open each year—six boys and six girls, all ages 18 and under—team selection can be tough. According to team manager and HST 1998 alumnus Jason Shibata, the kids who usually make the team are the best talents coming out of their age group. But, Shibata says, personality matters too: Sportsmanship and being a team player are important qualities that coaches look for.

This year, assembling the team was even more challenging than usual. The games had been on hold for two years due to the pandemic, and the HST had fallen into disarray during the hiatus. When El Salvador was announced as the location for the 2022 games, Dorian and Chris Martin stepped up as coaches. With no time for tryouts, they instead relied on their inside knowledge of the islands’ youth surf scene to build a roster.

Once the team was built, the synchronicity was instantaneous. “Everyone was surfing well, and we were being strategic,” says North Shore local and first-time team member Luke Swanson. “We talked about what it would be like to travel, and it felt like everyone was listening and committed. It felt really cool to have everyone in sync.”

Upon arrival in El Salvador, the young surfers took time to familiarize themselves with the waves. No stranger to travel and competition, Dorian encouraged the team to hydrate, acclimate, and find their rhythm. With nine days of grueling competition ahead, he wanted everyone well rested. Their goal was to bring home the gold for Hawaiʻi, a feat the team hadn’t accomplished since 2014.

Members of the Hawai‘i Surf Team are chosen not only for their prowess on the water but for their sportsmanship and ability to enhance team morale.
Members of the Hawai‘i Surf Team are chosen not only for their prowess on the water but for their sportsmanship and ability to enhance team morale.

For 10 of the 12 team members, it was their first time competing as part of the HST. The games would be their first opportunity to showcase their surfing on the world stage. The pressure was on.

On competition day, the team was gifted with big waves and winds at El Sunzal and La Bocana, conditions similar to those at their home breaks in Hawaiʻi. Wahiawā’s Ēweleiʻula Wong, competing in the under-18 girls’ division, lost in round three but battled her way through seven repechage heats to earn a slot in the final, ultimately claiming gold. In the under-18 men’s division, Swanson and Shion Crawford also worked their way through repechage heats to the final, where they secured gold and silver, respectively. When Luke Tema locked in bronze for the under-16 boys, the HST had amassed the points needed to win the overall team gold.

For Wong, being there as a team added something special to her triumph. “I love how the ISAs are a team thing, because surfing’s typically a selfish sport,” she says, recalling how amazing it felt to stand among her teammates as they cheered her on. “The team dynamic was very beneficial, and we all gained a sense of family after.”