Japanese pro surfer Shino Matsuda is pictured during a training session in Kamogawa on May 15, 2019. Photographer: Charly Triballeau/AFP.
She was a curious little toddler when she first caught the surfing bug. Now, just 16 and riding the crest of a wave, Japan's teenage surfing sensation Shino Matsuda has a secret weapon as she targets gold at next year's Tokyo Olympics — mum's rice balls.
Hot-shot Matsuda emerged as a medal contender for the 2020 Olympic hosts after winning the Japan Open earlier this month. "That has given me so much confidence," Japan's new surf queen told AFP in an interview.
"It also helped me figure out what I need to do to win tough competitions, so it was a good learning process. I love the rush of competing, but winning is awesome!"
Winning the Japan Open at the Tokyo 2020 surfing venue of Tsurigasaki — the second time she has won there — could give Matsuda a psychological edge when the sun-swept sport makes its Olympic debut.
Matsuda, who earned a spot at the world championships in Miyazaki later this year and a chance to secure a place in Japan's Olympic team, will also benefit from some good, old-fashioned home cuisine.
"Mum usually makes me 'onigiri' (rice balls) which I munch on for energy before I get in the water," said Matsuda, who has climbed to 39th in World Surf League's qualifying series.
"When I compete overseas and mum's not with me it can be a bit of a struggle," added the Japanese poster girl, born and raised in Chigasaki, an hour south of Tokyo on the Pacific coast.
"But the Olympics will be in Japan, where I feel most comfortable — I was so happy to win the Japan Open at next year's Olympic venue; that was big. I don't want to have any regrets so I'll work hard to get selected and will be going for gold for sure."
Matsuda faces competition from countrywomen Mahina Maeda, Sara Wakita and Minori Kawai for what is likely to be a maximum two Olympic spots. Kawai confided to AFP that she is still scared of the water — and sharks in particular — but Matsuda tweaks the nose of fear.
Asked about the possibility of becoming shark bait, the teenager shook her head with a giggle. "I have been stung by jellyfish," she smiled after showing off a series of gnarly moves during a two-hour practice watched by her mother Yuki and faithful mutt Haina.
"That can be really painful, but I usually just try to carry on surfing."
Matsuda, whose parents were both recreational surfers, admits to being something of an adrenalin junkie. "I started surfing when I was six and the big waves spooked me a bit at first," said the pony-tailed schoolgirl, who has won seven of her nine titles since turning pro in 2017.
"But I quickly became hooked by the thrill of it. I had never experienced anything like the feeling of riding a wave."
Matsuda's style combined outrageous raw talent and a graceful elegance, but she admits touring the world can take its toll physically. "The jet-lag and the long flights are pretty tough," said Matsuda, who has competed in Australia, South Africa and the Caribbean island of Martinique over the past year.
"But it's great to compete against the world's top surfers."
While she is, to use surf-speak, amped about next year's Olympics, Matsuda just loves being in the water. "No two waves are the same," she said, attempting to describe what she loves most about surfing.
"You're competing against nature. Every moment is a pure test. When you catch a wave, you're constantly thinking and adjusting your technique — and when you nail it, there's no feeling like it."
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