The South African surfer Bianca Buitendag snagged a medal, despite seemingly endless snafus.

The South African surfer Bianca Buitendag snagged a medal, despite seemingly endless snafus.

July 28, 2021

By Talya Minsberg

Bianca Buitendag, a 27-year-old surfer from South Africa, barely made it to the Tokyo Olympics.

She was set to retire years ago. She had a false-positive coronavirus test just days before departing for Japan. On the final day of competition, she missed not one but two buses to Tsurigasaki Surfing Beach, the Olympic venue.

And yet.

“Every obstacle fuels the fire,” she said, shaking her head in disbelief 24 hours after clinching an Olympic medal.

Buitendag spent a few years on surfing’s championship tour and had her top performance in 2015, finishing ranked fourth. She thought she had given all she had to the sport, but then surfing was added to the Olympic roster in 2016.

“I figured OK, just two more years,” she said. “And then of course that became three.”

The pandemic’s disruption of travel and competitions tested her patience, but also enabled her to train without interruption.

Then there was the close call with the coronavirus. With South Africa gripped by a deadly third wave, Olympic athletes were making their way to Tokyo carrying file folders filled with documentation of their physical well-being.

Two days before her flight to Tokyo, Buitendag’s coronavirus test came back positive. She underwent a full medical examination, submitted blood samples and received two consecutive negative tests. She got on the plane.

Conditions at the Tsurigasaki beach, in Ichinomiya — a nearly two-hour drive from the Olympic Village, across Tokyo Bay and the Boso Peninsula — were not ideal. The first few days the surf was flat as a lake, hardly advantageous, especially for the 6-foot-1 Buitendag.

And unlike some competitors who had entourages of managers, coaches and videographers, Buitendag had one person waiting for her on the beach: her coach, Greg Emslie.

Her underdog spirit flared when she was matched against the Australian Stephanie Gilmore, a seven-time world champion. “I knew for me to have any chance against the most decorated and best female surfer in the world, I would have to be on a pretty quality wave,” Buitendag said. “By a miracle it came.”

She knocked Gilmore out, finishing with a score of 13.93 to Gilmore’s 10.

Buitendag would return to the beach for another day. If the quarterfinals went well, she would be onto the semifinals and the gold-medal heat.

But first she had to catch the bus.

On Monday, Buitendag set her alarm for 3:30 a.m., aiming to make a 4 a.m. bus and arrive at the beach with time to warm up. But she grabbed a cup of coffee and missed the bus. The next scheduled bus didn’t show. She realized she could miss her heat.

Eventually a bus arrived, delivering Buitendag to the quarterfinals in time to face Yolanda Hopkins of Portugal. She advanced.

In the semifinal on Tuesday, she faced Caroline Marks, an American favorite, but it was another win for Buitendag. Finally, she was in the gold-medal heat against the American Carissa Moore — and lost, taking silver.

On Wednesday, Buitendag was still in awe.

“I didn’t have much of an expectation coming into it,” she said, a rainbow at her back. “The occasion was almost too big for me.”

But as it turned out, she was exactly where she needed to be.

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