Kolohe Andino surfing at the 2019 Corona Open J-Bay event on July 19, 2019 in Eastern Cape, South Africa.
Meet the world’s top-ranked men’s surfer. Kolohe Andino knows exactly what’s riding on the introduction of surfing to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
And it is, to use one of his favorite words, rad.
“I was just really excited that surfing was getting legitimized,” said Andino, who ascended to No. 1 in the World Surf League Men’s Championship Tour rankings earlier this month. “We’re some of the most unique and raddest athletes in the world and I always thought it was a legit sport, especially when you’re dealing with your bigger surf and aerials."
“It legitimizes it, so it’s rad.”
Surfing, climbing, karate and skateboarding will make their Olympic debuts next summer. Only 20 male and 20 female surfers, with a limit of two per country in each field, will compete at Shidashita Beach, about 40 miles outside Tokyo.
Andino, 25, has been killing it on the waves this season. To qualify for Tokyo, he must meet two criteria: Be ranked among the top 10 in the 2019 Men’s Championship Tour, and be among the top two Americans. If more than two athletes per country are in the top 10, a lower ranking will suffice.
Anyone making Team USA would go in as a medal contender.
The Men’s Championship Tour is an 11-competition grind from April to December. Through six events, Andino has two second places, two thirds and a fifth and has been the most consistent male athlete currently on tour. His worst finish is a 17th-place finish, though the bottom two results of the 11 are dropped at the end of the season.
John John Florence of Hawaii, the former No. 1, ruptured his ACL while competing in Brazil during the fifth stop of the tour in late June and is out for the rest of the season, although he could have amassed enough points to hold on and make Team USA.
Kelly Slater, the veteran at age 47 who has won 11 world surfing championships, is also in the mix. He’s currently the third-ranked American, with Florence between Andino and Slater.
While Andino has five second-place finishes on the championship tour going back to 2014, the San Clemente, California, surfer is still chasing his first title.
"Everyone has their own journey and I’ve made five finals and been really close a lot,” said Andino, who joined the pro tour full-time in 2012 at age 18 and is coming off a third place at J-Bay in South Africa.
“The way I look at it is I’m at the top of my game, but I still have a lot to prove, so I’m just really motivated and excited about that. I feel like I could win my next five finals.”
The next tour event is the Tahiti Pro Teahupo’o in late August.
Andino was born to be a surfer. He even has the perfect name for it. Although he’s a Californian through and through, his parents named him Kolohe, which means “Little Rascal” in Hawaiian, because they “just liked the name,” he said.
He concedes that it can be difficult to pronounce, so he’s also called “Brother” on the tour, a name that originated with his younger sisters.
Andino’s father, Dino, was a national champion and pro surfer who went on to work in the industry. He traveled to events around the world with young Kolohe tagging along and soaking in everything he could from the best surfers on the planet.
“When you’re a young boy, you want to be just like your dad,” Andino said, “and my dad was always hanging around tons of pros – obviously he was a pro himself – so I just wanted to hang with the boys.
“Once you just try it, you’re just hooked for good. It’s like nothing else. I got the bug early.”
Was it easy for him?
“I don’t think it’s easy for anyone,” Andino said. “Just lots of time in the water.”
Coached by his dad, Kolohe began grabbing headlines at age 10 while featuring in videos showcasing his talent. He won six USA Surfing championships, the most in history, and signed with major sponsors, making him one of the richest rookies in tour history.
“He was destined for greatness to be honest,” said Brett Simpson, a former pro and now a USA Surfing coach, “but you still have to perform. There was a lot of pressure on him from a young age to be at this level. I think he felt a lot of that pressure."
“He’s hitting his stride now. It’s pretty awesome to see his climb to the top.”
Andino won eight qualifying series events since his debut in 2008, but the wins dried up when he joined the higher-level championship tour.
“I feel like I put a lot of pressure on myself just because I’m addicted to winning,” he said, “so when things weren’t going my way, I felt the pressure just for myself, especially when I was younger and more immature.”
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Kolohe Andino looks on at the World Surf League Surf Ranch Pro on Sept. 8, 2018 in Lemoore, Calif.
Last year Andino’s best finish was third. He decided it was time to push himself even harder.
“I really wanted to put every second of every day into trying to be the best I could be,” Andino said.
He has doubled his training time from three hours a day to six.
On a non-competition day, he wakes up at 3:30 a.m. for some meditation before arriving at the gym at 5 a.m. He trains there for two hours, then surfs for four hours before doing more training at home in the afternoon. His curfew is 7 p.m.
“I give up a lot for sure,” said Andino.
He can’t watch baseball or other sports, which typically start past his bedtime.
“The good thing is I get to surf with my friends, which is great because they push me, but I don’t do much else,” he said.
Andino does take Sundays off, often having a barbecue and chilling out with his wife, Madison, or playing with his two Labradors.
Madison, whom he married about 18 months ago, makes sure he has the right fuel to stay in top shape.
“She’s a really insane cook, so she’s been killing it in the kitchen for me, which is epic,” said Andino, who has adopted a completely paleo diet and doesn’t have time to make healthy meals for himself.
Some of his favorites dishes that Madison makes are paleo enchiladas and paleo brownies.
While Kolohe said Madison is extremely coordinated and can throw a football with a perfect spiral, she is hesitant when it comes to surfing. “The waves are never small enough to surf,” he said. “She knows how to, but she’s scared.”
But that’s part of the sport.
“I get scared all the time,” Andino said.
Surfers are judged by the difficulty of their maneuvers on high-performance shortboards and the speed, power and flow of each maneuver.
Andino said “the element of surprise” is a hallmark of the sport. “Being unpredictable is exciting,” he said. “I think one of the coolest things about surfing is you never really know what the wave’s going to offer. And it’s the surfer against the wave, instead of surfer vs. surfer.”
Athletes score big points for aerials – which are airborne maneuvers – or tube rides, although Andino said he doesn’t know if the waves at Shidashita Beach will be good enough to offer tube rides.
“An aerial would be like a slam dunk,” said Andino, a huge basketball fan, “kind of like, ‘Whoa that was cool!’ You could be a layman and respect a slam dunk.”
He’s pleased that Tokyo officials opted to have the competition in the ocean instead of a wave pool. There is a 16-day waiting period to ensure quality conditions.
Asked to describe the feeling he gets on the water, Andino paused for a few seconds.
“It’s really rewarding, because to actually paddle out and get a wave is a lot of work and then you get to ride it,” he said. “Dealing with nature and obviously being out in the sun and the ocean is really cool.”
While his World Surf League bio calls him a “potent blend of acrobatics and aggression,” Simpson said Andino is well-rounded with an air game that makes him “one of the top 10 aerialists in the world.”
He can do a full rotation air reverse, as well as a stalefish air reverse, “a certain type of grab that is very difficult to do,” Simpson said. “It’s a pretty prestigious maneuver and there are probably only five to 10 guys that really do them.”
Andino has also worked on his barrel riding skills when he’s in the tube.
“He’s definitely evolved, and we see now he’s in title contention,” Simpson said.
Andino, who ranked No. 19 last year, made the final in his first event of the year, the Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast in Australia in April. Simpson felt it was a close call, with Andino losing right at the end of the 35-minute session to Italo Ferreira of Brazil.
“It was pretty heartbreaking,” Simpson said. “The kid puts in a lot of work. He has more of a belief in himself and believes that he belongs there now. It took him quite a few years to be comfortable with himself. Having these consistent results breeds that winning feeling. You have to have that belief to achieve it.”
And now he’s No. 1 in the world, “a rad position to be in,” said Andino.
Before Tokyo, surfing’s strongest connection to the Olympic Games was Duke Kahanamoku, the Hawaiian dubbed “The Father of Modern Surfing,” who popularized it around the world. Kahanamoku won the Olympic 100-meter freestyle in 1912 and 1920, competing in water polo as well in polo in Antwerp, and took the silver medal in the 100 free in 1924 behind Johnny Weissmuller. Kahanamoku also won gold and silver medals in the 4x200-meter freestyle, the only relay event contested in those days.
Now Andino, who is familiar with Kahanamoku’s Olympic and surfing history, can help bring his sport more exposure. While the World Surf League has 6.8 million Facebook followers, the International Olympic Committee estimates that 3.6 billion people around the world caught at least one minute of the Olympic Games Rio 2016.
Surfing has been provisionally included for the Olympic Games Paris 2024, and it would be hard to imagine a California Games in Los Angeles in 2028 without it.
Andino was an Olympic fan before he knew he could be a participant in the Games.
He was riveted to the coverage of Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall winning the first Team USA gold medal in cross-country skiing in the team sprint freestyle at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.
“They came from behind, and won; that was insane,” Andino said. “That was something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
He said it also would be unforgettable to march in the Olympic Opening Ceremony, having “the opportunity to walk with some of my favorite athletes like basketball dudes.”
And being considered one of the best athletes in the world, Andino said, would be, of course, “super rad.”