In 2016, after years of lobbying, the International Olympic Committee announced that surfing had been added as an official event for the Paris Olympics in 2020. The decision sent many nations, including some unlikely ones, scrambling to build teams. In short order, hundreds of hopeful surfers from Japan, China, and South Korea descended on Huntington Beach, the surfers’ paradise that trademarked itself as “Surf City” in 2006.
Many of them ended up calling Peter “PT” Townend, an Australian surf legend who was inducted into the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame in 1998. Ruddy-faced and with a distinctive, rumbling laugh, Townend won the first pro surfing tour, held in 1976, and settled in Huntington Beach with his American bride a few years later. As a surfer, he knew how to entertain his fans, hitting the sand with a shocking pink surfboard and indulging a penchant for gold lamé jumpsuits a la David Bowie. At the zenith of his career, he could surf 30-foot waves in Hawaii as if they were mere wavelets, although one hit him so hard he suffered a double hernia. He survived, but one of his friends did not. “When you are young, you feel invincible,” he says. “Now I like to go surfing when it’s civilized—when the waves are a meter high.”
Lately Townend has accepted a new challenge—coaching China’s nascent national surf team. At the time of the Olympics’ surfing announcement, the coach was in Hangzhou in eastern China, directing the Silver Dragon—an international surf contest that takes place on the Qiantang River. A day later he found himself with an official from Beijing’s Bureau of Water Sports. “He looked at me and said, ‘How do we get good at this?’ And I said, ‘Well, first you’ve got to learn how to swim,’” Townend recalls, exploding into a throaty laugh. “There’s no point blowing smoke up their ass.”
In the last two years, Townend has trekked back and forth to Hainan, an island in the South China Sea with a climate and conditions similar to Hawaii’s, to train the national squad. Like Japan, which persuaded Huntington Beach local Kanoa Igarashi to adopt Japanese nationality to compete in 2020, China has tried to convince Chinese Americans to switch flags. “The government gave me a million dollars to go and find those people, but there’s one condition: You cannot have dual citizenship,” says Townend. He found one potential surfer who considered the offer—$250,000 on top of sponsorships—but the prospect backed out when he discovered how hard it would be to get his U.S. citizenship back.
China’s most promising Olympic hopeful, 15-year-old Alex Quizhou, was recently in Huntington Beach, where he made the semifinals of the National Scholastic Surfing Association, but Townend admits that the country has no chance of qualifying for Tokyo next year. “There’s never been a beach culture in China,” he says, adding that surfing is, at its core, about fun and isn’t one of those pursuits that benefits from the merciless intensity with which China trains its other athletes. He often quotes his fellow Australian surfer Tom Carroll, who says that the best surfing happens when you’re not thinking about it.
As a result of these stylistic differences, Townend has endured a rather tumultuous on-again-off-again relationship with the Chinese team. But he remains bullish about China’s prospects at the L.A. Olympics in 2028. In February, when surfing was added to the China Youth Games, 500 young surfers descended on a new Hainan center. Quizhou won and may have a real shot when the Olympics come to L.A., although the competition will likely be dominated by surf-loving nations like the U.S., Australia, and Brazil.
Meanwhile, the arrival of advanced artificial wave machines, like one developed by surfing champ Kelly Slater in Lemoore, will soon mean that no one need be near an ocean to surf. Instead, the waves can come to you. China has already installed such an apparatus in Hainan and has plans for more. Townend thinks it’s possible that the 2028 Summer Games may even opt to use a wave machine, given the need for consistency. That might be a blow to the Olympic-hosting hopes of Huntington Beach, but Kelly Miller, CEO of Visit Huntington Beach, remains optimistic. “We’ve engaged some people that are very connected in the Olympic movement to give us a raw and honest opinion, and our sense is that we will stand a good chance,” he says. “People from Paris have been here, people from Tokyo, and the International Surfing Association, so there’s a little buzz around us.”
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