Meet the Chinese surfer dreaming of making a splash at Tokyo Olympics
Monica Guo was 22 before she even stepped onto a surfboard, but now she’s set her sights on the biggest wave of all
Just five months after being selected as one of the 16 founder members of China’s national surfing team, Monica Guo Shujuan has got her heart set on becoming the first woman from China’s mainland ever to compete in the sport at the Summer Olympics.
“I was so grateful when the national team was finally established,” the 31-year-old told the South China Morning Post.
“It’s been a long journey for surfers like me who [at one time] couldn’t even find a board to surf on or a coach to teach me.”
Guo hadn’t even stood on a surfboard until the age of 22, so her progress has been impressive to say the least.
Her selection for the national team came after she won the longboard event at the prestigious Hainan Open in December. Earlier last year, she finished second at the Asian Surfing Championships, the best ever performance by a mainland Chinese woman.
Despite her recent successes, with the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo just three years away, Guo knows she will have her work cut out to make the grade.
“Time is short, but I believe with everything now being run on a national basis we can improve quickly in the coming years,” she said.
“I think we’re expecting about three men and two women in the team to qualify for the Olympics.”
With the national team still very much in its infancy, Guo said that many of the details of the qualifying process have yet to be finalised. So in the meantime, she is concentrating simply on training and competing.
Earlier this year, Guo received her first ever professional training, when the national team recruited two coaches from the United States and Australia. She said she has also travelled to four foreign countries to take part in international competitions in recent months.
“I want to show the world that there are people in China who can surf, and show Chinese girls that we have a lot of options in life,” she said.
Born and raised in Guilin, a picturesque city on the banks of the Li river in southern China’s Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, Guo’s first sporting love was basketball. After many years of training, she even had ambitions of turning professional, she said.
But those hoop dreams slowly faded, and it wasn’t until 2008, at the age of 22, that a new sporting love was born.
“I watched the surfing movie Blue Crush and decided I wanted to give it a try,” she said.
Guo’s feet first made contact with a surfboard on Hong Kong’s Lantau island, the nearest place she could think of to give the sport a go. She was instantly hooked.
“The first time I surfed was only the second time I’d ever seen the sea,” she said. “The sea was a stranger to me, but I managed to stand up on the board at the first attempt. I’d never before had such a strong feeling of freedom.”
After that inspirational start, Guo said she picked up a few basic tips from an Australian friend and the rest, as they say, is history.
In 2010, Guo relocated to Hainan, southern China’s island province, with the plan to make surfing her career.
One of the jewels in China’s tourism crown, Hainan is a popular holiday resort and over the past decade or so has attracted growing numbers of Chinese surfers keen to pit their skills against the big waves that crash up on Riyuewan beach.
Guo borrowed a board from a local club at Riyuewan and began taking lessons from Chinese surfers who were also trying to make their first waves in the sport. She said she also learned by watching videos of foreign surfers on the internet and by competing in as many competitions as she could.
As her skills improved, so did the calibre of the events she contested. But surfers weren’t the only challengers she had to overcome.
Her parents also tested her resolve, by questioning not only her choice of career but also her hopes of finding true love.
“‘How are you going to find someone to marry you?’ my mum would ask when I went home to visit,” Guo said, referring to the amount of time she spent practising.
It wasn’t until 2015, when her parents actually went to see her practise, and then compete in a major event that they realised how passionate she was about her chosen profession.
“I even taught my dad how to surf,” she said.
Now a full-time surfer, Guo said that when the conditions are good she gets up about 5.30am to catch the big morning waves. After surfing for about three hours she stops for breakfast and then repeats the routine.
When the conditions prevent from getting out on the water, she said she spends her days either modelling – a part-time job that brings in useful funds – coaching beginners, or conducting interviews to promote the sport.
As one of only seven full-time women surfers in mainland China, Guo is keen to put their new team on the map, if for no other reason than to stop her fellow competitors mistaking her identity.
“‘Mainland China has surfers? You mean you’re not from Taiwan?’ That’s usually the first thing surfers from other countries say to me when I’m competing overseas,” she said.
While she appreciates the distance she and her teammates have yet to travel, Guo said that she’s confident China will one day have an Olympic surfing champion.
“Surfing is the kind of sport that needs more than hard work and training to achieve good results internationally. We also need a culture that encourages cleaner beaches and seas, so that we have the right conditions in which to nurture young surfers,” Guo said.
“But for now, it would really be a milestone in China’s short surfing history if we could get a representative at the next Olympics,” she said.
“And I want it to be me.”