South African surfer Bianca Buitendag is loving the role of being underdog at the Tokyo Olympics, where she has cruised into the quarter-finals. Under the radar, she has come to town without a care in the world, armed with a ready smile, and an attitude that has had her punch a deep hole in the competition… writes GARY LEMKE in Tokyo.
The 27-year-old veteran – called as such because she’s been surfing internationally for more than half her life – had to take the long route on the way to eliminating seven-time world champion Stephanie Gilmore of Australia in the third round.
In the first round she finished third in her heat. While her performance was good, it wasn’t good enough on the day, but still it allowed her to progress to the second round, “around the back”.
There she finished second behind Japan’s Amuro Tsuzuki, scoring 10.40, and sending her through to Monday’s round of 16, which started the straight knockout process. Buitendag was only too happy to be considered the underdog against the dominant Australian, but put on a display that impressed the judges – and everyone else witness to it.
She was awarded a combined total of 13.93, enough to see off her opponent (10.00) and into the quarter-finals where she comes up against Yolanda Hopkins of Puerto Rico on Tuesday, weather permitting.
Australia’s Gilmore pays tribute to Buitendag
Gilmore paid tribute to Buitendag, accepting that she had herself been the favourite in this last 16 match-up. “I was so fired up, yesterday [Sunday] was such a good heat. I was feeling really confident, really strong. Bianca is a really tough opponent. Both of us are probably the tallest girls in the whole event, so it was a really level playing field.
“Her backhand is really strong. I let her get that wave on the priority, and she got the highest heat score. I looked at that wave and was like, it doesn’t look that good. I let her have it. She turned it into a seven [point score], that was the most frustrating for me. I should’ve taken that wave and just kinda held that control of the situation. It’s a tough one. I still had a good five minutes in the end to try and make it, but I just couldn’t do it today.”
Buitendag says she “had nothing to lose” – “I’m the underdog”
Meanwhile, Buitendag, who arrived in Tokyo as Team SA’s sole surfing representative as the sport makes its Olympic debut, couldn’t be happier.
“Being up against a seven-time world champ you can understand my sentiment going into it. I had nothing to lose … I felt absolutely no pressure. I’m the underdog coming in at 17th seed for this event. It’s a really comfortable spot to be in. It takes away all the nerves and pressure that could exist.
“Things just seem to be going my way … many times in the ocean it doesn’t. So, a lot of things had to align for this victory to happen. I knew I had to be on the best waves, otherwise I stood no chance. I just made sure that was at least covered, to give myself the best chance possible.”
She admitted to feeling the strain in the last few minutes as Gilmour searched for the wave that could turn things around.
“It was nerve-wracking. I know she can get a 10 [point score] at any given moment. That was probably the longest three minutes of my life. It was tough. In the ocean, especially, you’ve got to give yourself the best chance. If you are on the smaller waves, that’s not gonna happen. I just made sure my wave selection was really good because that was the only advantage that I could bring out.”
So, what happens next? Can we dare to dream that Buitendag will sign off her professional career, given she told us last week that these Tokyo Games would be her swansong (see below), with a medal for herself and her country?
“I’ve got no pressure, it’s like the best spot ever. I obviously want to do my best but, with no great expectations weighing on my shoulders, I’ve got the freedom to surf the best that I can. The further I go, the more I’m an underdog I think.”
Tokyo Olympics is Bianca Buitendag’s Last Hurrah
Bianca 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 been on before.
Buitendag, who has been South Africa’s No 1-ranked professional surfer for as long as she can remember, is ready to apply an exclamation mark to her career at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics – and then get on with the next part of her life story.
“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?”
Covid-19 lockdown brought focus to Bianca Buitendag
Buitendag, like so many others, spent her longest time at home since turning professional during the Covid-19 lockdown and spreading of the global pandemic in 2020. It focused her mind and made her think of what happens next.
The obvious answer was to pull on the national colours of the country in which she was born and bred, South Africa and do the country proud at Tokyo.
Even though the 2020 Games became the 2021 Games, her desire to become part of history where the sport debuts at the Olympics, was overwhelming.
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 then in 2018 when she was competing in Japan in challenging weather and rewatching video footage a while later that a friend shot from a beachfront apartment. “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 so that it’s time now to put the roots down.
“Covid’s lockdown also made me realise how important home is…”
“Covid’s lockdown also made me realise how important home is and I’m ready to do that.”
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 in her name as a pioneer for the sport in the Olympics.
By GARY LEMKE in Tokyo, TeamSA