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Surf's Up! Teenager Mathea Olin wins Canada's first-ever Pan Am surfing medal


PUNTA ROCAS, Peru — Surfer Mathea Olin floated on her longboard Sunday off the Punta Rocas beach, watching the ocean and waiting for the right moment to make her move.

The 10-foot waves that were consistent through the morning and early in her 30-minute heat at the Pan Am Games had gone quiet.

The timing couldn't have been worse. With the clock ticking, Olin eventually found some late waves but couldn't score enough points to catch Peruvian opponent Maria Fernanda Reyes.

The result left Olin with a bronze medal, an historic first for Canada's surfing team but short of her title aspirations.

"At the moment I'm definitely a little bit bummed," Olin said, fighting back tears. "But I think when I go home and look at the big picture, I'll be pretty happy."

Timing is everything in a sport that depends on Mother Nature's co-operation.

Like a golfer playing a home course and knowing how the ball might bounce and roll, Reyes used the home beach to her advantage.

She was more in tune with the waves and the water's swell periods, putting up two decent scores early in the heat. 

Olin, meanwhile, had a mediocre first wave and fell on her next attempt. The 16-year-old from Tofino, B.C., scored better on her third and fourth waves but it wasn't enough.

"Unfortunately for everybody the ocean went to sleep for literally 20 out of the 30 minutes," said Surf Canada executive director Dom Domic.

In longboard, surfers must impress judges by performing manoeuvres with style, control and speed. Bottom turns, cutbacks, walking up and down the nine-foot surfboard, and dipping toes in the water while nose riding are all encouraged.

Conditions were considered smooth Sunday with the waves — many as high as a basketball hoop off a floor — crashing hard before eventually ending up by the moss-covered rocks on the shore.

"It's such a big playing field out there," said Canadian coach Shannon Brown. "It's easy to get caught just a little bit out of position. When the wave that she was looking for came through, she was just in the wrong spot.

"She was so close to getting it. So close but so far."

Olin, who usually competes in shortboard, surfed on the longboard since teammate Bethany Zelasko edged her for the qualification spot in the other discipline.

Olin started surfing competitively at age 10 and joined the World Surf League as a junior in 2017 before being promoted to the women's qualifying series last year.

She won Canada's first-ever international surfing medals here with a gold (longboard) and bronze (shortboard) at the 2017 Pan Am Surf Games.

On a chilly, overcast Sunday morning with light drizzle, Olin was sporting a tuque and red warmup suit as she listened to music by the bluff a half-hour before her heat.

"They sit up there and they're paying attention," Brown said. "They're trying to tap into the rhythm of the ocean."

Feeling confident after solid performances over the qualification rounds, Olin fell behind as the Peruvian spectators packed onto the grandstand and roared for Reyes.

Forced into catch-up mode, Olin had to wait when the waves wouldn't co-operate.

"You're sitting there, it's quiet and you're stuck listening to your own thoughts," Brown said. "The clock, the pressure, the scores you need, everything kind of builds up and it adds so much pressure.

"You just need a wave to come through and relieve that pressure and get back to surfing and it just didn't happen that way for her."

Olin tried to manufacture a decent score on mid-level waves and couldn't get it done.

The five judges gave the Peruvian a total of 13.50 points for her two best waves (7.50, 6.00) while Olin had 8.70 points (3.70, 5.00).

"You make your best guess at what the wave is going to do, how that swell is going to behave by the time it hits the reef," Domic said. "It's tricky."

Brazil's Chloe Calmon beat Reyes later in the day for gold.

The venue, about 50 kilometres south of Lima, is considered one of the best areas in the world for waves and conditions. The sport is quite popular in Peru and dozens of onlookers could be seen trying to catch a glimpse of the action at the side of the fencing.

The shortboard winners booked their tickets for the Tokyo Olympics. Additional qualification opportunities are still available over the next year.

Olin's third-place longboard finish came on the final day of surfing competition.

"It's Canadian surfing history so once she's had time to reflect on her heat and pick it apart, learn what she can from it, it'll sink in," Brown said.

"I'm sure she'll be ecstatic about the final result."


Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.


Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press

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