Kanoa Igarashi had barely lost all of his baby teeth when he decided he wanted to be a world champion surfer. In 2004, a then 6-year-old Igarashi said just that on a Los Angeles newscast that featured him surfing in waves that looked twice his size.
"I think you're gonna be a world champion. What do you think? You think you're gonna be a world champion?" the reporter asked.
"Yeah!" Igarashi said with a wide grin that revealed his missing front teeth.
Twelve years later, Igarashi is one step closer to living that dream. Now 18, he is the youngest rookie surfer on this season of the World Surf League's (WSL) Men's Championship Tour (CT), where he will compete against 33 of the best surfers in the world at 11 different stops.
As the lone Asian-American on a roster largely dominated by Australian and Brazilian surfers, Igarashi is already making a splash as one of the most exciting up-and-comers in the sport. He is currently ranked in the top 10 after an impressive performance at the CT's first stop, the Quiksilver Pro on Australia's Gold Coast, where he competed against several veterans. Such showdowns are to be expected throughout the year, and Igarashi welcomes the challenge of facing down the same surfers he grew up watching, specifically 11-time world champion — and his personal idol — Kelly Slater. Slater won his fifth world title the year Igarashi was born.
"My idols became my rivals pretty much," Igarashi told NBC News. "It's a big transition, seeing them as my heroes to wanting to beat them and out-surf them. But I feel like I'm transitioning well, and I'm comfortable getting into paddle battles [when surfers race each other to waves] with them. I'm comfortable surfing my heart out to beat them."
Born in Santa Monica, California to Japanese immigrant parents — father Tsutomu "Tom", an athletic trainer who now works as Igarashi's manager, and mother Misa, a yoga instructor — Igarashi grew up an hour south in Huntington Beach. He started hitting the water at age 3 and entered his first contest at age 6, an experience he said catalyzed an intensely competitive spirit.
"My dad was in the water, pushing me into the waves. I just remember winning the contest, and I was like, 'Wow, beating people is the craziest feeling,'" he said.
His dynamic performances in amateur contests and later on in the WSL's Qualifying Series, a precursor to joining the world tour, has earned him sponsorships from brands including Quiksilver, Red Bull, and Oakley. After his first year of high school, the former honor student's grueling travel schedule meant he had to leave school and earn his GED at age 16.
He's no stranger to the spotlight. Since age 11, Igarashi has starred in multiple seasons of a reality TV show that airs in Japan, which has propelled him to celebrity status there complete with billboards featuring his face and fans stopping him on the streets of Tokyo for selfies and autographs.
That spotlight is shining even brighter as of late. A Japanese TV crew is trailing him this year, documenting his rookie season. As the first Japanese-American surfer to qualify for the pro tour, Igarashi said he's feeling the fan love from all over Asia, including China, Taiwan, and Korea.
"I didn't really think about it at first, but now it's sinking in that I am the first one. I didn't even know there were people watching surfing in Korea," he said. "It's really cool because now I feel like I have not just Japan but all of Asia supporting me. Hopefully, it inspires more surfers from [there]."
Igarashi holds dual American and Japanese citizenship, speaks Japanese fluently, and considered representing his parents' home country before deciding to surf for the U.S.
"It's extremely important that he is globally recognized and not just in Asia. But for that market specifically, I feel like he has set a very high benchmark being the first Japanese surfer to ever qualify," Quiksilver team manager Chad Wells, who scouted Igarashi and has watched him surf since his grom — slang for "young surfer" — days, told NBC News.
Competitive surfing can be a test in patience for any athlete: waiting for contests to start, for waves to roll in, for a career to mature. And that's not to mention the pressure of performing on a global stage. Igarashi credits growing up with Japanese culture for instilling in him qualities he thinks will serve him well as the season — and his career — progresses.
"I just learned to stay happy in whatever situation and be patient, know good things are coming." he said. "Especially during heats, you have to be patient and calm under pressure."
He will likely to draw on that throughout his rookie year, which requires him to travel nearly non-stop for nine months. To stay close to his family, Igarashi will be joined by his parents and 13-year-old younger brother Keanu, who is also a competitive surfer, at select contests. When he's not traveling, competing, or filming, he's also taking online college courses. He is especially interested in architecture, although any potential career in the field is on the backburner. For now, Igarashi is focused on proving himself among surfing's elite, chasing the title he's coveted ever since he was a precocious grom and enjoying life on the road — and in the waves.
"I just want to enjoy every second of it," he said. "And be able to look back on it at age 50 or 60 and be like, 'That was a good time.'"