IT’S 11 A.M. IN PORTUGAL. THE BOYS ARE JUST WAKING UP.

The boys, in this case, are Kanoa Igarashi, Leonardo Fioravanti and Matt Passaquindici. They went out last night and didn’t come home until late. Or early, depending on how you look at it. It was 6 a.m. when they finally laid their heads to rest. And now, bedroom doors are locked, windows are closed, waves are going without suitors and the whole world is being ignored.

You can’t really blame them.

They’re young. And pro surfers. They have a decent amount of money, a relative amount of fame. Everybody wants to be their friend. Plus, there’s a casino nearby, right in the middle of some ancient street that’s now lined with modern clubs. Music’s loud. Drinks are cheap. 6 a.m. always comes too soon.

After some prodding, the boys awaken from their linen tombs. And

suddenly, I’m caught off guard.

Their eyes aren’t glassed over. None of them complain of a headache. They aren’t even limping? I’m confused. Where I come from, a night that stretches until that hour leaves a man looking and feeling like he’d just left war. But Kanoa and his friends are shockingly...fine.

We load up the car — to the beach, finally — and I wonder how they’re not hungover. Turns out they didn’t drink very much. The girls were standoffish so they only danced a little. Maybe they played a few hands of blackjack, but it was all pretty mellow.

This is a normal night out, they explain. Partying, for them, rarely involves excessive indulgence. I can’t tell if they’re innocent or responsible, but it doesn’t feel like both.

We arrive at a little beachbreak. It looks fun, so wetsuits are thrown on in a zipper-free frenzy — the Portuguese winter has a way of reminding you to change as efficiently as possible. They surf long and they surf well.

I’m beginning to realize that Kanoa isn’t the type of 18-year-old I’m familiar with.

HIS PARENTS WERE YOUNG WHEN THEY MOVED.

His mother, Misa, was a popular yoga teacher back in Tokyo and was offered a job in California. Pops, Tsutomu, is the owner of a very fine cutback and came along for the ride. They decided to give the USA a shot and never looked back. Some years later, out came Kanoa. Turns out America is a great place to raise a surfer.

“My first memories of surfing all revolve around my dad,” Kanoa says. “I actually remember him brushing me when I was super young. [laughs] Surfing was something that he liked to do with his friends for fun and I don’t think he wanted the responsibility of taking a little kid out there. That fired me up so much. He finally taught me once I was old enough to learn, and I remember wanting to get really good at it and prove to him that I could hang.”

He could. Kanoa quickly became one of the best amateur surfers in America. What he lacked in stature he made up for in style, and he had perfect technique by the time most kids are still figuring out how to not pull each other’s hair

or have arguments with inanimate objects. This led to trophies and stickers and trophies and stickers and trophies and stickers and eventually income.

Matty, who grew up with Kanoa, recalls the perks of paychecks. “We had this little rat pack of kids who were having fun with it, and I felt like our whole friend group was pretty much surfing at the same level. But then he started getting better than all of us. And once he started traveling, he’d come back from trips and completely blow us out of the water. That’s when I knew he was different.”

Different indeed.

Kanoa’s surfing is, in a word, precise. He’s the type that looks like he’s never going to fall, like his surfboard is just a flesh and fiberglass extension of his body. His timing is perfect, his form even better. He’s more likely to do three turns and a finisher than he is to fifth-gear his way down the line and try a full rotation. His approach may not be the flashiest, but a wise palate would appreciate it for its perfect expression of fundamentals — the surprises are almost masked by his smoothness.

In a way, his surfing is built for the tour. But maybe just not yet.
We’re in the car again, passing farms, cattle, castles, homes, hills. All ancient and lonely and blurring into vague memories almost instantly.
I’m not riding with Kanoa this time. I’m riding with Steven “Belly” Bell. Belly’s the team manager for Quiksilver and has worked with Kanoa since he signed with the brand seven years ago. He’s a hard-nosed kind of guy, this Belly. He loves surfing Sunset Beach. He owns more Dick Brewers than I own T-Shirts. He’s truly passionate about surfing, so he dedicated his life to it and now he’s got the stories and sun marks to prove it.

Belly was a little bit surprised by Kanoa’s sudden rise to the CT.

“He could get 12th or he could get 25th” Belly belts. And he’s right. The tour is weird like that — a slight change in rhythm can not only change the song, but the entire album. “It’s not like the old days when the top five guys were really powerful and everyone else was just happy to occasionally make the quarters. Anybody can win now.”

He pauses.

“But I think Kanoa will get smoked in 6- to- 8- foot waves,” he says.
Flaws. We all have them. Mine is limping for a week after I come home at 6 a.m.

I talk to Kanoa about this later that day. “I know that my weak point is in bigger, heavier waves. As soon as it gets over 4 feet, I’ll feel like I’m surfing really well and then I’ll watch the footage and realize that I look like a little kid. Even when it’s 3 feet at a place like Margaret River, I’m going to be going against guys like Jordy and looking really weak.”

He pauses.

“But then you look at a guy like Adriano de Souza. He weighs less than me and he figured it out.”

He did. His trophy says so.

Figuring it out means attacking your weaknesses. Figuring it out means treating it like a real job. Figuring it out, apparently, means spending a few weeks in Portugal.

At first, it seemed like a strange destination. Sure, the waves are fun, and yeah, the people are friendly — but there are thousands of islands with white sand and blue water and palm trees that check those boxes, too.

But then again, the Atlantic Ocean has a lot of energy to dispose of, and it aims a whole lot of it here. There are points that mimic a moody J-Bay. Beachbreaks that can/will harm you. The waves here are hard to surf and they expose your flaws. In other words, it’s perfect.

“I came here because I wanted to surf difficult waves. It’s different over here. It’s different from what I grew up with in Huntington Beach and different from the waves on the QS. It’s great for training.”

Great for figuring it out. Especially when you feel like you have something to prove.

“I hate when people say I’ll only get results when it’s 2-foot, but it’s true. I have a better chance at 2-foot Snapper than I do at 15-foot Teahupo’o. I hope it’s bombing at that event. I don’t want to go there and have it be small. I’d rather have it be 10-foot and lose in Round 2 with a 9 than make the quarters when it’s small. I want to prove to people that I can get results when it’s like that. I want to prove it to myself, too.”

Igarashi, in Japanese, translates to “the 50-year storm”, so Kanoa’s WSL jersey next year will feature the number 50 directly below his name. However, it’s still unclear which flag he’ll represent.

At dinner one night, Kanoa mentioned that he could make more money if he chose to surf for Japan. The decision really means nothing more than that. It has no influence on his passport or citizenship — it’s just as easy as an email to the WSL. He explained his feelings over a steak.

“I grew up as an American, so why would I change that now? I mean, that’s where I’m from. I’ve had people from the USA supporting me my whole career, so I don’t want to switch to Japan just because I qualified.”

“But on the other hand, I’m 100 percent Japanese. I’ve always been able to speak Japanese and I have a lot of family and really close friends who still live there. Plus I’d be the first Japanese to ever qualify for the tour. It’s a hard one for me right now.”

Harder too because Kanoa didn’t necessarily grow up as the darling of American media. You show me any other American’s path to the CT and I’ll show you covers, spreads, profiles, projects, Instagram posts, etc. But while the American media is well aware of how talented Kanoa is, his rise to the elite has been strangely silent.

“Sometimes I wonder if it’s because I’m not 100 percent American. Or maybe people just think I’m too focused on competition to care about all of that. But then again, I’ve had my fair share of opportunities — maybe I just didn’t do too well with them?” he laughs.

Japan has been a different story.

“I’ve had four TV shows in Japan. The earliest was when I was 9, and the most recent was just this past year. It’s a cool fan base over there, definitely bigger than my US fan base.”

But will it affect his decision of which flag to fly?

“I don’t want to go into Snapper surfing for a country feeling like I shouldn’t be. Because at the end of the day, you want to do good for your country. So I’m just going to go with whatever I feel more comfortable representing.”

It’s easy to sense that he’s torn. It’s even easier to sense tugging from different directions. His eyes see the perks of both sides and his ears are a battleground of suggestive whispers. It’s a decision that can be made in a split second, but there will be a colorful emblem to remind him, and the world, of which side he chose for the next 20 years.

Kanoa’s goal one day is to win a world title. As of press time, one month before the beginning of the WSL’s 2016 CT

season, Kanoa still can’t envision which flag he’ll be wrapped in should he achieve it.

IT’S LATE IN THE AFTERNOON.

The waves are small. The wind is up. We already surfed and now we’re huddled around a computer screen, binge- watching videos on YouTube. Soon enough, we stumble upon one of Kanoa.

The video description reads: “There is no more promising young surfer alive today than 14-year-old Kanoa Igarashi.” It’s a seven minute look into his adolescent life, in which we explore his surfing, his personality and his ambitions. It’s cheesy. And amazing.

But it also serves as an overdose of reality.

“I still can’t believe it. It’s been three months and it still hasn’t sunk in. I think it’s only going to feel real when I get to Snapper.”

Snapper will be the first CT Kanoa ever surfs in — unlike a lot of kids in his position, he’s never had a wildcard.

“I’m used to going to CT events as a spectator and being so excited to surf with those guys. I would always trip on how good they surf and how focused they are. It’s going to be such a weird transition to actually be one of them. I’m worried that I’ll forget what I’m doing and find myself asking for Mick’s autograph before our heat. [laughs] It all happened so fast.”

Kanoa’s goal for the 2015 QS season was to finish in the top 100. Halfway through the year, he needed a decent result at the Mr. Price Pro in Ballito, South Africa, to keep that dream alive.

“I had lost first or second round at every event before that and I went into that one with the goal of making two heats.”

He made the quarters and it gave him a boost of confidence that changed his life. A few big results followed and before long, he found himself on the podium at the Mahalo Surf Eco Festival in Itacare, Brazil, with a trophy in his hand. And just like that, it was official.

“I didn’t feel the same happiness as a normal win. I went into shock.”

“Since then, I’ve had days when I can’t stop thinking about it. I’ll find myself spending hours watching heats from last year and imagining myself there and I can really feel it. Then I’ll have moments when it doesn’t even feel real.”

In Portugal, I witnessed both.

What I saw was a kid — just a kid — in the midst of a profound transition. He realized his dream, even though he sometimes doesn’t even realize that, and now his life is about to change. Whether 2016 is a banner year for him or not, he’s talented enough to stick around on tour for quite a while. Starting at Snapper and lasting indefinitely, he’s going to have new travel partners, new peers, new pressures, new challenges and new temptations. He’s going to experience things that reshape his idea of both depression and elation. But there, in Portugal, he was in a strange and fragile time warp between then and now, between childhood dream and adult reality.

So. How does he feel about all that?

“I could end up homeless at the end of all this and still be happy. I just want to enjoy every moment.”

Video by: Jimmy Graham (1&3) & Ricardo Capristano (second video)