Competitive surfing consumed Bianca Buitendag’s every thought until her father’s sudden death in 2015 sapped her motivation. But then her mother’s two bouts with cancer inspired her to a silver medal performance at the Olympics in Tokyo.
Her mother’s struggle with colon cancer, which was removed, and then lymphoma, which she still has, reignited the fire inside Buitendag, which helped her in the final against gold medalist Clarissa Moore.
The South African surfer, one of only two people to medal for the country at the Games, was seeded 17th out of 20 when surfing made its Olympic debut, and her shocking place in the final was all she needed to confirm her decision to retire immediately afterward.
Buitendag, who often considered quitting the sport after her father’s death, says she only went to Tokyo at the urging of her mother, and didn’t ever contemplate reversing her decision to leave the sport behind her once the Games ended.
“I’m going to get emotional now,” Buitendag told ESPN. “During [the] COVID [pandemic], we did quite a few hospital runs. She went through chemo and stuff. … We were in the ICU and she was like, ‘I didn’t survive two cancers for you not to go to the Olympics.’
“I felt like I was bringing some positivity to her life and South Africa was also going through a wild time when I left. There were protests, looting and burning in Durban [following the imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma].
“A lot of factors kind of contributed to my motivation. It really fuelled me [to] bring good news home, because there hadn’t been much in a long time.”
Those were not the only adverse conditions that spurred Buitendag on in the water. When news broke that a typhoon was heading toward Japan, Buitendag must have been one of very few Olympians, if not the only one, to see it as good news.
“My goal was to qualify [for Tokyo]. Once I did that, I was happy [and thought] it couldn’t get better than that. I definitely did not go to the Olympics to get a gold, silver, bronze or anything like that,” Buitendag admitted.
“The first few rounds were in very small conditions, which is not my forté, because I’m so much taller than any other girls. I was really struggling at the start, but I was trying to make opportunities that weren’t there — trying to catch all the waves I could find. I really worked hard in the first two rounds.
“On the last day, there was a typhoon that hit Japan, so the swell was huge. When I saw that, I thought, ‘Here’s a chance for an underdog like me. With the changing ocean conditions, it’s anyone’s game.’
“Everything just fell together. When someone needed a heat score in the last 10 minutes, they didn’t get it. I call it divine intervention, because I honestly believe it really was a miracle, but there were these moments when it could have gone either way and it just went my way over, and over, and over again — all in one day.”
Buitendag stunned seven-time world champion Stephanie Gilmore in the last 16 en route to the silver medal. Rather than a reason to reconsider her retirement, Buitendag saw this as the ideal moment to go out on a high.
“I made up my mind a long time ago [to retire]. I always promised myself that I would stop my career on a highlight. I don’t want to be one of those struggling athletes — I wanted to go out on a bang,” she said.
She did, however, lament fellow South African Jordy Smith’s absence in Tokyo due to injury, claiming that the conditions would have been ideal for him.
“It’s such a pity that he wasn’t there. He would have done so well in those conditions as well, but he’s got a good decade of professional surfing ahead of him and I’m looking forward to seeing him take down everyone at the next Olympic Games,” Buitendag said.
Asked if she foresees much development in South African surfing as a whole, particularly for women surfers, she said, “I hope now that the sport has been included in the largest scale of professional sports worldwide, that more resources would be available for prospective talents coming through the ranks.
“If that will happen? I can’t say, but I sincerely hope so.”
She said of the financial rewards for being an Olympian: “I actually haven’t heard much — not a lot of information, but in sport, you don’t really do it for financial gain.
“Whatever we get is a bonus. I’m obviously very grateful for all the support we’ve had from South Africa, but I’m not too bothered about it.
“I just had a fantastic time with the SASCOC team at the Olympics. They really made our trip wonderful and really looked after us there, so if it comes, I’m very, very grateful.”
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