Argentina’s surfers hoping to make waves at Olympics

LIMA, Peru (AP) — On a Peruvian beach, Argentina’s passionate sports fans have been waving the country’s sky-blue and white flag this week for a group of athletes looking to make a splash at next year’s Tokyo Olympics.

More known for its soccer players, Argentina is also home to a wave of top-class surfers who are hoping to challenge traditional powerhouses Australia and the United States when the sport makes its Olympic debut in 2020.

Those surfers include Latin American champion Ornella Pellizzari and two-time World Surfing Games winners Santiago Muniz and Leandro Usuna. They all competed Friday at the Pan American Games, where they can qualify for Tokyo.

And watching from the stands — in a Hawaiian shirt — has been another Argentine lifelong surfer who helped make that Olympic dream possible.

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Fernando Aguerre, the president of the International Surfing Association, was the driving force behind the sport’s inclusion at the 2020 Games.

He has also been instrumental in helping surfing go from being banned in Argentina in the late 1970s to becoming a popular pastime.

“We have waves, they’re not big, but there are good quality waves. Argentina’s population grew and people got excited about surfing,” Aguerre told The Associated Press. “It’s really incredible because surfing is now part of the culture of the sea.”

So much so that the beach resort city of Mar del Plata, where Aguerre, Pellizzari, Muniz and Usuna were born, was officially named Argentina’s surfing capital by Congress in 2014.

“It was very special for us because it’s one of those rare occasions in which the opposition and government parties voted unanimously to approve the law,” said Aguerre, who was also the co-founder of the Reef sandal and surfwear company. “So you could say that surfing unites Argentinians.”

Aguerre’s passion for the sea came from his mother, an ocean swimmer. At age 12, he learned how to ride waves with his brother Santiago in Mar del Plata, about 250 miles (400 kilometers) southeast of Buenos Aires on the Atlantic coastline.

“We discovered that people were standing on waves, which for us was a complete ‘Wow!'” he said. “We were able to eventually buy our first boards. And that was it. … It was a love affair that never ended.”

As in other places around the world, surfing has at times gone against the current. But in Argentina, the brutal military dictatorship even banned surfing in 1978. Aguerre challenged that ban when he founded the Argentine Surfing Association, and it was lifted in 1979, four years before Argentina’s return to democracy.

When he moved to California in the mid-1980s, he co-founded Reef with his brother and first surfing partner. He later sold the stake to focus on the ISA.

Surfing has turned into multibillion-dollar sport with millions of faithful worldwide. Argentines caught on to the wave-riding fever thanks to easier access to inexpensive boards and were inspired by the victories of its surfers. Muniz first won the ISA championships in 2011 and again last year. Usuna won gold twice, in 2014 and 2016.

“So here, we have two gentlemen within the last decade who won four world championships, representing Argentina,” Aguerre said. “That piqued a lot of interest, because let’s face it: everybody likes a world champion, especially if it comes from your country, and surfing wasn’t really a traditional sport in Argentina. Many probably expected an Australian or an American, the leading traditional surfing nations to win, and it’s an Argentinian.”

Argentine fans also waved the national flag when Muniz won the gold last year at Japan’s Pacific Long Beach, about 70 miles (120 kilometers) from where surfing will make its Olympic debut in Tokyo. On a recent break from catching waves, he said he was stoked about a sport that in Argentina is now synonymous with his hometown and that continues to swell.

“Surfing is growing more and more. And it’s amazing,” Muniz told the AP. “It’s good for our country. It’s good for our city of Mar del Plata that this is happening so it continues to grow. And I’m just happy to be a part of this.”

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