Vahine Fierro on her way to victory at Teahupo’o. Photo: Ed Sloane//WSL

The Inertia

No surf fan was surprised when Vahine Fierro won last month’s historic Tahiti Pro. Fierro was raised on the detonating Teahupo’o barrels that can send chills through the spines of many surfers. Vahine has the crucial X-factor in surfing that we call “local knowledge,” similarly known across sports as “home field advantage.”

If Fierro wasn’t already the favorite to win the gold medal at next month’s Olympic Games, she certainly is now. However, an Olympic viewer who isn’t well-acquainted with surfing (99 percent of them) might look at this equation and be perplexed: A surfer who has never qualified for the Championship Tour is the favorite to mow down the world’s best surfers and win gold? 

Home field advantage is something that is virtually ubiquitous across sport in general. The home team consistently wins more than half of its matches, which is particularly pronounced in MLS soccer (69.1 percent) and NBA basketball (62.7 percent). And interestingly, according to Chicago Booth Review, it’s not necessarily because of cheering home fans or longer travel for the away team, but perhaps partly due to an unconscious tendency of referees to favor the home squad.

Regardless of what you chalk it up to, home field advantage in surfing is extreme and unique. The idea of a specialist being heavily favored in a certain type of condition is unlike any other sport you’ll see in the Olympics. While some tennis players excel on clay versus grass, or a brisk wind could favor a side in a beach volleyball match, it’s only in surfing where crunching learned algorithmic formulas about nature will lead to victory.

It takes surfers milliseconds to calculate how a moving mass of energy will react in a medium as unpredictable as the ocean and then toss themselves over a ledge above razor-sharp coral reef to verify if the calculations pan out – a skill that takes years, or even a lifetime, to acquire. We surfers are surrounded by this every day, as it’s normal to see the locals’ performance standing out among a packed lineup. That’s why we weren’t shocked by Fierro’s recent success. 

Locals punching above their weight is an age-old concept in surfing. It’s because of local knowledge that no one is shocked that two of South African native Jordy Smith’s six career CT wins have come at…you guessed it…J-Bay. It’s why Australian Steph Gilmore has six career CT wins on the Gold Coast. It’s why North Shore-local Moana Jones Wong, who has had little professional success outside of Hawaii, won the most prestigious event in the sport, the Pipe Pro. Where was it that Kanoa Igarashi burst onto the global stage? In his backyard, of course, at Huntington Beach Pier with back-to-back US Open victories in 2017 and 2018. It’s why no one in their right mind would want to face a healthy John John Florence in a heat at Pipeline…at least if they want to win.

This concept will be difficult to grasp for the new surf fans from around the world who will tune into the Olympics. They’ll have watched the world’s strongest athletes win gold in weightlifting. They’ll have watched the fastest runners win the 100-meter dash and have watched Lebron James and Steph Curry dominate the competition on the basketball court.

But on the other side of the world in Tahiti, this concept will be turned on its head. The local Tahitians Vahine Fierro and Kauli Vaast – both of whom, with all due respect, are amazing surfers, but not close to the best surfers in the world – could stand on an Olympic podium. If this comes to fruition, it will highlight the different niches of surfing different waves, and introduce the world to the part of our culture that we call “local knowledge,” or “specialization,” as in “Pipe Specialist.” But this time, it will be Teahupo’o specialists in the spotlight.

And I’m not complaining. It’s simply the result when all the eggs go into one basket and one wave alone crowns a champion. It’s a very unique opportunity for the Tahitians to show a global audience the beauty and art of surfing one of the world’s most notoriously dangerous waves.

Editor’s Note: The Inertia’s Evan Quarnstrom also covers the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. 


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