The Kānaka ‘Ōiwi athlete didn’t just witness Duke Kahanamoku’s wish of seeing surfing become an Olympic sport — she won gold. Now, as surfing’s first female Olympian to win gold, Carissa Moore reflects on what’s next.
In July 2021, Carissa Moore found herself far from the world-class, crystalline waves she’d come to love and master in her hometown of Honolulu. More than 4,000 miles away in Chiba, Japan, the 28-year-old professional surfer represented the United States in the 2021 Olympics and its debut surfing competition.
An impending typhoon, gloomy skies, and angry currents at Tsurigasaki Beach served as constant reminders that Moore was out of her comfort zone on finals day, as she went up against Bianca Buitendag from South Africa.
To add to the pressure, Moore, who is Native Hawaiian, was following in the footsteps of another homegrown icon Duke Kahanamoku, a three-time Olympic gold medalist in swimming and the father of modern-day surfing. With all of Hawai‘i cheering her on, Moore won her heat, becoming the first woman to win Olympic gold in surfing.
Now back home on O‘ahu, and on the heels of a newly unveiled 150-foot Honolulu mural by artist Kamea Hadar that depicts Moore alongside Kahanamoku, she recounts that historic day, everything that has transpired since, and the meaning of aloha.
Kylie Yamauchi First off, I want to say congratulations on your Olympic gold medal.
Carissa Moore Thank you so much!
KY I was rewatching your finals heat and saw that you had the biggest smile on your face, even before you got into the water. What was that day like for you?
CM The whole Olympic experience was new and uncharted territory. For me, it was finding that balance between wanting to do well in the contest and giving everything I had, and letting go and enjoying the experience.
On final’s day, there were crazy conditions because of the typhoon—a lot of water moving, a lot out of my control. So I surrendered to the universe: Whatever’s going to be is going to be. I’ll give my very best and surf from my heart and we’ll see what happens. I’m very grateful, because I felt very present in that moment and enjoyed every second of it.
KY Did it feel any different from when you competed on the World Surf League Championship Tour?
CM All I’ve ever known is competing on the Championship Tour (CT), so I didn’t know what this [Olympic event] would be. It did feel different in the fact that the contest setup was massive and without fans. Also, there’s different luxuries that come with the CT. Sometimes when there’s a lot of water moving, we get jet-ski assistance.
KY I feel like the first twenty minutes of the final’s heat was just you and Bianca paddling out.
CM (Laughs) I just get exhausted thinking about it. I was so tired! Before paddling out, I remember having a conversation with my dad and he said, “It may not feel like things are going your way, but just keep going, because something will work out.”
KY Having competed with Caroline Marks, John Florence, and Kolohe Andino on tour, what was it like to represent Team USA together?
CM I really enjoyed being a part of the team spirit, because surfing, for the most part, is an individual sport. Caroline is one of my biggest competitors, normally. I honestly thought she was the one to beat in the Olympics, especially when the conditions were smaller because that’s what she grew up surfing in Florida. I was literally staying and living in the house with the surfer I wanted to beat the most. (Laughs.)
KY Having surfed on tour since 2010 and with five women’s world titles under your belt, you’re no stranger to competing and competing well. Going into this prestigious, international sports event, did your mindset and goals shift in any way?
CM I definitely drew inspiration from my normal formula. One of the things that was unique to this event was the wave. [Surfing in Chiba] took calmness and simplicity. For the most part, you’re not worrying about your opponent; you’re playing your own game.
I feel so fortunate to have grown up in Hawai‘i surrounded by the aloha spirit.
KY As a Kānaka ‘Ōiwi Olympian, you’ve been compared to the legendary Duke Kahanamoku. Going into the Olympics, how did his legacy influence you?
CM It’s a lot to be mentioned in the same sentence as Duke, because he’s a legend and he’s been one of my role models. I grew up surfing Waikīkī and passing by his statue every day. His legacy is beautiful. It’s about treating people with kindness and sharing what you have without wanting anything in return. He had the biggest heart. I think he was an incredible athlete, Olympian, and waterman as well.
It’s neat because before the Olympics, I had the chance to watch a documentary on him. Watching his backstory helped me to realize what it means to be a Native Hawaiian and to represent our people the best I can. This was his dream for surfing to be in the Olympics. I wanted to make Hawai‘i proud. I wasn’t going into any normal surfing event. It was about something bigger than me.
KY I saw on Instagram that you were able to view Kamea Hadar’s mural of you and Duke up close and personal. Despite your fear of heights, what was your reaction to seeing the mural?
CM Honestly, just blown away. They told me this was happening, but I didn’t realize it until I was standing in front of it. It’s such an honor to have someone paint my face on a giant wall and next to one of my heroes. I definitely want to do the best that I can with my platform to send my love and hopefully continue Duke’s legacy of the aloha spirit.
Kamea did an absolutely stunning job. I can’t even grasp how he’s able to translate a small picture on a paper to a wall that size. I’m afraid of heights, he’s afraid of heights! (Laughs.) How does he stand up there all day and paint?
It was really cool getting to know Kamea too. He puts so much effort into his work. He did a lot of research into Duke’s medal. He even looked up the ribbon that the medal hung on, which is different from mine. There are so many different meaningful things in what he did. So much research, love, and time he put in. I’m blown away all around by the love from my community. It’s been heartwarming and special.
KY Being from Hawai‘i, my dad and I love watching you surf especially because you always show the aloha spirit both on and off camera. What does aloha mean and look like to you?
CM It’s a big question. I think aloha to me is love. I feel so fortunate to have grown up in Hawai‘i surrounded by the aloha spirit. My family goes beyond my blood, it’s the people I see every day in the water, the people who say hello or ask how I’m doing. Those little interactions I have found really make a difference. My biggest heroes have definitely done incredible things in their sport or achieved great things in their life, but it’s who they are as people—that they’re real, tangible, and caring. That’s the stuff that lasts. You can win an event, but tomorrow it’s on to the next thing. I’ll always remember how people made me feel. So, that’s love, that’s aloha.
KY Can you speak more on Moore Aloha and where this idea came from?
CM I started my charitable foundation Moore Aloha three years ago. I was inspired by Hurley Surf Club, which organized events at local beaches and invited the community of kids to come down. They’d have one of their pro surfers do a session and mentor. I did one at Kewalos. There were 30 girls with big wide eyes, ready to absorb any sort of information. As much as it was about giving to them, I felt that I got so much more in return from their smiles and joy and excitement. It was so refreshing and beautiful. I always wanted to find a way to give back, so this felt like my aha moment.
I know how hard it is as a young woman in this day and age. There is so much that can take away from us being our most authentic self. So how could I make a day where girls feel inspired to be themselves, share, create, and encourage? I’ve been at the top before where I haven’t had any friends and it’s really lonely. The goal is to help these girls do what they love and give love along the way.
KY Now that you’re an Olympic gold medalist, what goals do you have yet to accomplish?
CM I’m actually in the midst of my brainstorming and goal setting right now. There’s a lot of performance goals I have with surfing, and I’d like to continue with my non-profit. At some point — I don’t know when it will happen — I’d love to be a mom one day! That’s definitely a goal for the future.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.