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Rio Waida’s Championship Tour Qualification Was A Long Time Coming

The globally adored 22-year-old will be Indonesia’s first full-time CT surfer.

news // Oct 7, 2022
Words by Christian Bowcutt
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Rio Waida is the first Indonesian to ever qualify for the Championship Tour.

Days ago, after winning his heat and advancing into the Round of 24 at the EDP Vissla Pro Ericeira in Portugal, Rio secured the required points to join the Top 32 surfers on the “Dream Tour”.

“I’ve made history,” he said in his post-heat interview. Rio’s story is as much an individual triumph — over bullies, naysayers, and health issues — as it is a national victory.

While we chatted briefly over text, Rio made it clear that he’s “still trying to focus for my next round,” so we’ll have to wait for a proper interview with him. But given the historic weight of this achievement for Indonesia, I spoke with national icon Rizal Tandjung on the matter.

Rio, getting pretty used to that victory chair. Photo: Pierre Tostee/WSL

For years, people have mused why a country so wave-blessed as Indonesia has yet to produce a Championship Tour surfer. Rizal explained that it boils down to timing. Though surfing was technically introduced to Indonesia in the 1930s, surfing really never took hold in the country until Gerry Lopez and David Wyllie explored the region in the early ’70s, from the now tourist-ridden Kuta Beach to the tiger-infested jungles of Java. Thus, Indonesia and its surfing infrastructure was basic for a long time. Other parts of the world had already waded through the pubescent growing pains of the Gidget era — their Beach Boys had long since sung. And thus the Gerry Lopez we see in movies like Morning of the Earth is dancing on Uluwatu’s walls with a relatively short board under his feet, Jimi Hendrix in the background, and is likely conducting a more literal electric acid test than the ones we do today.

Gerry Lopez, Uluwatu early days. Photo: Dana Edmunds

What does this have to do with Rio? Well, Rizal explained that the first surf competition in Indonesia was held at Kuta Beach in 1978 and was organized by Gerry Lopez himself. It was the first chance for Balinese locals to see surfing as a competitive outlet, something they could be a part of, and even win. But, the building of the Indonesian surfing community took time in the developing nation.

The now 22-year-old Rio grew up in this more mature surfing community. He was born in Japan to an Indonesian father and a Japanese mother but moved to Bali with his family when he was 5 years old and began surfing soon thereafter. 

Rizal has known Rio since he was a kid, living in the same town. He saw firsthand, with joy he added, the difference between his upbringing and Rio’s. Rizal explained that when he was an up-and-coming surfer, all of his boards had to be imported from overseas. If you broke one, you waited. If one didn’t work quite right, you waited. Nowadays, nearly every major surfboard company has a factory in Indonesia. Rio can have a hot-off-the-press, chalk-white surfboard under his arm in as little as four days from Sharp Eye. 

The aforementioned four-day surfboard in action. Photo: Alan van Gysen/WSL

And with boards came clothes, from brands like Quiksilver, Rio’s longtime sponsor. More and more companies flocked to Indonesia to cater to the growing number of surfers. This support was crucial to Rio’s success, Rizal explained, as travel to competitions is extremely expensive, especially for a poor kid like Rio. Indonesian citizens also need visas just to travel to many countries with competitions, Rizal said.

Some major career stepping stones on Rio’s slipstream to stardom include winning the 2016 Quiksilver Young Guns event at 16 years old (the first Indonesian to win this event) and three major victories on this year’s Challenger Series and Qualifying Series — one at the 2022 Sydney Surf Pro, another at the 2022 Ballito Pro, and yet another at the inaugural 2022 Vans Bali Pro. Rio also got a taste of the big leagues this year by receiving a wildcard spot in the 2022 Quiksilver Pro G-Land, where he placed equal 9th.

Rio’s sponsors also helped him through a difficult health crisis early in his career. In an April interview with Stab, Rio said, “I just had a problem with growing. It never really affected my surfing, but when I was younger, around 12, I had to start doing some injections for maybe three years to help me get taller. It was expensive, but my parents and sponsors helped me out, and it was worth it. I was the shortest guy in my class and I would get bullied by some of the bigger guys.” Imagine those same bullies opening up their Instagram today and seeing Rio, Indonesian flag in hand, qualifying for surfing’s biggest show. 

Rio continued, “It definitely feels good to be doing what I’m doing now. It’s funny, sometimes I’ll see the people I knew in school and they want to hang out, even though they weren’t always nice to me before.” Funny things happen when you work your way to the World Tour and the Olympics, which Rio competed in in Tokyo. 

Mr. Worldwide himself at the Olympics. Photo: Antara

The advent of the Olympics has also provided a springboard for Indonesian surfing, Rizal added. The government is starting to consider surfing as a legitimate sport and path to national glory. And with the influx of tourists and expats alike, dollar signs are flashing in Indonesian authorities’ eyes. Some of this support is going to the many Boardriders Clubs that are popping up all around Indonesia á la the traditional Australian Boardriders Club model. 

I asked Rizal why, with all this newfound support, we didn’t see a Women’s team for Indonesia at the recent 2022 ISA World Surfing Games. He said that while the government is starting to help, there just isn’t enough money to send everyone overseas yet. Rio and his teammates Ketus Agus and Dhany Widianto had to fund their travel and visas by themselves with the help of personal sponsors. Rizal is confident that we will see a Women’s team soon as there are many up-and-coming women in the lineup nowadays. 

Rio hitting the HB mini-ramp at the recent ISA World Surfing Games. Photo: Ben Reed

I also asked Rizal what, individually, made Rio stand out. Why him? Rizal said, “He’s always been so determined, so hungry. He trains so hard.” He said that Rio took advantage of every opportunity Quiksilver gave him to train at a professional level since nowadays, “surfing is not enough.” Rio said yesterday after his heat, “I always dreamed about this, I think about this every day, I think about this before I sleep. I have to get ready for Championship Tour waves now.” Rizal also mentioned that it’s hard for Indonesian surfers to do well, initially, in Challenger Series competition because they simply cannot surf bad waves as well as the other competitors. Rizal said that within an hour’s drive you can be getting barreled somewhere in Bali — the waves are simply too good. 

But during the pandemic, while traveling surfers did not have access to Indo’s perfection. Rio had the opportunity to hone his skills in rarely uncrowded lineups like Lakey Peak, where Stab High was just held. Rizal mentioned that Rio would often forsake this perfection, however, to practice generating speed and negotiating sloppy sections in poorer waves like Kuta Beach for the sole purpose of preparing for Challenger Series events. 

Rio on his way to a win at the Ballito Pro in just the type of waves he prepared for. Photo: Pierre Tostee/WSL

These small and simple decisions, made consistently, to intentionally forego Bali’s more perfect locales in exchange for more down-to-earth surf has culminated in one of surfing’s ultimate achievements. “Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement” James Clear writes in Atomic Habits. Rio’s habits have already yielded big gains.

The CT was in his crosshairs since he was a young boy. Rio said of himself on Instagram, “He was just a little grom that wanted to be like his heroes. He’s a fanboy. He loves surfing more than anything else. He was watching his heroes on the DVD player or internet every day.” He continued, “My dream was always to become a Championship Tour surfer. I love all the CT surfers, I watch them every day. I would wake up at 2am to watch the WSL live webcast… and I recognize how hard it is to be up there. It’s not easy to qualify. I almost gave up but there were a lot of people around me that supported me and gave me advice… and everyone believed me that I could do it.”

At the end of my conversation with Rizal, he talked about the example that Rio is setting with the younger generation of Indonesian surfers. This example is being followed by Rizal’s own sons, Bronson, Varun, and Sinar who are already blazing their way through the WSL Asia Region competition circuit. Because of a booming Indonesian surf economy, growing governmental support, and personal passion and perseverance from surfers like Rio, Rizal predicts that, “much like the ‘Brazilian Storm’ there is an ‘Indonesian Tsunami’ on its way to the surfing world.”

While we await this seismic shift, we look forward to seeing Rio put on a CT jersey with his own name and number on it and paddling out to Pipeline in January. In the meantime, we can re-watch Rio’s stellar SEOTY edit.


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