By GARY LEMKE in Tokyo
Bianca Buitendag has been travelling the world for more than half her life. At 13 she went on her first international trip and now, at the age of 27, she is making her fourth visit to Japan. This one, however, is a different experience to any she has been on before.
Buitendag, who has been South Africa’s No 1-ranked professional surfer for as long as she can remember, is ready to apply an exclamation mark to her career at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics – and then get on with the next part of her life story.
“How do you top making history and being part of the first surfing competition in Olympic history?” she asks, rhetorically. “I’m now 27 and surfing has been my life. It’s been a wonderful journey and has shaped me as a person. I’ve given everything I’ve got to the sport and no regrets. How many people get to travel the world doing what they love?”
Buitendag, like so many others, spent her longest time at home since turning professional during the Covid-19 lockdown and spreading of the global pandemic in 2020. It focused her mind and made her think of what happens next.
The obvious answer was to pull on the national colours of the country in which she was born and bred, South Africa and do the country proud at Tokyo.
Even though the 2020 Games became the 2021 Games, her desire to become part of history where the sport debuts at the Olympics, was overwhelming.
And given the nature of surfing, it’s impossible to predict what her medal prospects might be when the competition starts on Sunday, but with her talent, experience and familiarity of the conditions it would be foolish to dismiss her chances.
Wave conditions are expected to produce small swells, but Japan being Japan you can expect the unexpected. “This time of year the conditions are mild, but we have to be ready for changes in the weather, however unlikely. A small typhoon is predicted for next week, so that could increase wave size.”
Stop. Right. There. A “small typhoon”? She laughs. “We call it a frontal system that will be coming through, here the reference is just a little different. Nothing major to worry about!”
Not like the time then in 2018 when she was competing in Japan in challenging weather and rewatching video footage a while later that a friend shot from a beachfront apartment. “The video shows the beach, the waves and then pans to the bath. The bath water was ‘shaking’, in fact the entire building was shaking.”
After these Games it will be back home and then … well, on to the next life chapter.
“This will be my last event as a professional. I’ve had a great ride and it’s the perfect way to finish off my career. I’m 27 and right in the middle of the age spectrum. There are 13 girls on the world tour and only three of them are over the age of 30. I’ve had plenty of travelling through airports and living out of suitcases so that it’s time now to put the roots down.
“Covid’s lockdown also made me realise how important home is and I’m ready to do that.”
Home is Victoria Bay, on South Africa’s Garden Route. “It’s a beautiful part of the world and one that you never get tired of. I am looking forward to my next career where I’m getting involved in property development. There are such beautiful spots and I just love the area between Wilderness and Mossel Bay.”
First, though, is the small matter of making more history and this time it’s etching in her name as a pioneer for the sport in the Olympics.