Surfers from Brazil and Australia win final Olympic qualifier in warm and windy Puerto Rico

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ARECIBO, Puerto Rico (AP) — Top surfers Gabriel Medina of Brazil and Sally Fitzgibbons of Australia won the final qualifier for the upcoming Olympics on Sunday following nine days in which scores of competitors faced volatile weather and painful sea urchin spines.

The World Surfing Games competition organized by the International Surfing Association began in late February in Puerto Rico with 266 surfers from 55 nations, nearly half of them women. The athletes ranged in age from teenagers still in school to those in their 40s with full-time jobs in fields including engineering and teaching.

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The win was especially sweet for Medina, a three-time world champion who announced in 2022 that he was taking a mental health break from the sport. Shortly after the buzzer sounded, Medina emerged from the water with a wide smile as he pounded his heart with an open palm.

Shortly afterward, Fitzgibbons got a ride from a jet ski following her win, standing tall on the back as she raised her fist. Less than an hour before, she had scored big in the final minute of a repechage to make it to the finals.

“All these women are gnarly, training hard,” she said of her competitors in a teary post-heat interview.

More than a dozen other surfers also qualified for the Olympics in recent days in Puerto Rico. Among them was 14-year-old Yang Siqi, who clinched the highest single wave score of the day when she became the first Chinese surfer to qualify for the Olympics. She also is the youngest surfer overall to qualify.

“I was super excited when being informed of that, and I felt my hands trembling,” she told reporters.

Siqi was so thrilled that she was still clutching the golden Olympic ticket officials awarded her on Friday as she watched the finals Sunday with her team.

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The start of the qualifier last month saw young novice surfers pitted against pros like Medina, known for his gravity-defying aerials, a matchup that prompted bemused smiles from some spectators.

Later in the competition, strong amateur surfers increasingly began knocking out top world surfers as they carved and slashed their way into the next round, forcing numerous professional athletes into a repechage.

The crowd cheered loudly for their teams, but the whoops grew even stronger on day 6 of the competition when a humpback whale appeared in the horizon.

The final qualifier held along a rural stretch on Puerto Rico’s north coast also drew surfers from Slovakia and the British Virgin Islands, which were represented at the ISA’s World Surfing Games for the first time. But some countries with talented surfers, such as Haiti and Senegal, were absent, unable to compete given the cost of travel and other expenses.

More than two dozen surfers had previously qualified ahead of the competition in Puerto Rico but still participated to help their country win, since the reigning nation gets an additional slot for the Olympics, which Brazil earned.

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Those traveling to Paris include some of the world’s top-ranked surfers like Brisa Hennessy of Costa Rica and those just starting their careers, like Sol Aguirre from Peru.

When ISA President Fernando Aguerre informed Aguirre on Friday that she had qualified, her face scrunched up on camera as she started to cry.

“Esperate,” she said, asking him to please wait until she steadied her emotions.

“This is the best moment of my life,” she said, offering a big smile. “I’ve been through so much to get here.”

The prize? The opportunity to compete for an Olympic medal in Tahiti’s Teahupo’o, considered one of the world’s heaviest waves because the South Pacific Ocean dumps abruptly over a razor-sharp, shallow coral reef.

Waves there can grow to more than 25 feet (seven meters), with barrels so big that surfers can stand upright and lift their arms in victory. Others have been hospitalized with serious injuries.

“One of the scariest, most dangerous waves in the world,” said ISA broadcaster, surfer and coach Barton Lynch of Australia.

The competition at Teahupo’o marks only the second Olympics to feature surfing, with 48 women and men competing for medals.

Fitzgibbons, the Australian surfer, told The Associated Press that “it takes a lifetime of practice” to face Teahupo’o.

Her advice to tamper the fear and anxiety ahead of a big competition?

“You got to remember to connect with the ocean,” she said. “If I keep my connection with nature and keep the joy and purity of what we do and why we ride waves, then, I think that really brings me back up to the present moment.”

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