Riding a wave of history



Raised in the mountains of Sichuan, teenage surfer Yang Siqi ready to make a splash for China at Paris 2024

Far from the ocean waves, Yang Siqi grew up in the mountains of Southwest China. Yet, this 15-year-old athlete is set to make history as the nation's first female surfer to compete at the Olympic Games this summer.

At the recent World Surfing Games (WSG) in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, Yang secured her Olympic spot, topping repechage round 6 with 11.83 points to book her place among the 24 female surfers who will compete in the Paris Games.

"I remember how my hands trembled when I knew I had secured the Olympic berth," recalled Yang. "I still remember what the wave was like that day. It was really difficult, and I was very tired after that round. I was about to leave, and the staff asked me to stay. I didn't realize that I had made the Olympics. I thought I still needed one more round," she said at a training base in Lingshui Li autonomous county in South China's Hainan province.

Indeed, Yang was so convinced she had not qualified, she had already turned her thoughts to her future plans in the sport. "I thought to myself I won't give up surfing. I will prepare for the National Games in 2025, and I will try my best to qualify for the 2028 Olympics," she said.

Surfing was included in the Olympics for the first time at the 2016 Rio Games, sparking the formation of the Chinese surfing team in 2018. Yang, who was introduced to surfing at the age of 9, considered other sports but was drawn to surfing's excitement and complexity.

Born in the Yi autonomous prefecture of Liangshan in Sichuan province, Yang initially wanted to try taekwondo as her first sport, but her uncle sent her to learn sailing. "I lived in a mountainous area and I was afraid of water before I could swim. I learned to sail in a lake called Qionghai. It was the largest lake I had ever seen," Yang said.

After a few months of sailing, Yang decided to give surfing a try off the coast of Hainan. "When I first encountered the sea, I was shocked," she said.

It didn't take long, however, for her to fall in love with surfing. "It's an exciting sport and I like adventures," she said. "Surfing is also complicated. I need to learn so many things to be a surfer."

Her transition from sailing to surfing marked the beginning of a promising career. In 2019, she made her international debut at the World Junior Surfing Championships, and then showed significant progress at the 2022 WSG.

At the 2023 WSG, she ranked 31st out of a field of over 130 surfers, failing to seal an Olympic ticket but earning praise from the International Surfing Association (ISA).

"One of the standout performances of the day came from China's Yang Siqi. Having competed in her first WSG in Huntington Beach in September 2022, the improvement of Yang's surfing in just eight months is impressive," read a piece published on the ISA website.

But for Yang, the only recognition that counted was qualification for Paris. "I never gave up," she said. "I knew it was very difficult, but I had confidence in myself."

Her hard work paid off. By earning the Olympic berth, she made history for China. And her coach believes there is plenty more to come.

"She is only 15 and competed against mostly adult surfers at the World Surfing Games," said Luo Yang, Yang's coach. "Her golden time as a surfer will be 2028 or 2032.Now she is about 1.6 meters tall. I think she will become more of a force as she gets taller and stronger."

After the WSG, Yang returned to China to train with Team Sichuan for three weeks before preparing for the Paris Games abroad.

"We will train in Los Angeles because of the wave conditions there," said Luo. "We will also take part in the World Junior Championships (WJC) in May at El Salvador. I hope Yang can finish in top nine at the WJC."

The young surfer often imagines what the waves will be like at the Olympic Games. The Paris 2024 surfing competition will be held at Teahupoo on the South Pacific island of Tahiti, known for its potential for barreling, which involves a surfer riding inside the tube of a breaking wave.

"I saw some videos, and the waves there are very big, and sometimes there are barrels," said Yang, who has undergone special training to hold her breath longer for barreling. "If you roll into the barrels, it can be hard to get out, and you can't breathe."

"Paris 2024 will be my first Olympic Games, and I am very excited about it," she added. "I want to participate in more major competitions and meet stronger surfers. There's a lot to improve on."