It’s a long way from the jungles of Costa Rica to the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo, but it is a journey that Brisa Hennessey and Leilani McGonagle will be completing this summer. The Costa Rican surfers will compete in the Tokyo Summer Olympic Games.
From Matapalo in Osa, Puntarenas, Hennessey earned her spot in Tokyo during a WTC Championship Tour stop in Maui, Hawaii in December of 2019. Overtaking Paige Hareb of New Zealand, Hennessey managed one of the last two spots up for grabs that were offered by the World Surfing League. “When they told me I was qualified, it was a moment that I’ll never forget,” Hennessey told Olympics.com. “I was with my family. I just felt very emotional and proud.”
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Surfing was welcomed into the Olympic movement for the Tokyo Olympiad. The competition will be held in the Pacfiic Ocean at Shidashita Beach. McGonagle and Hennessey will be among 20 women competing as surfing makes its Olympic debut.
Hennessey was the first Central American woman to qualify for Tokyo. McGonagle earned her Olympic ticket at the 2021 ISA World Surfing Games in El Salvador, the final Olympic qualifying event.
Born In The Ocean
Hennessey believes that it was her destiny to spend her life near water and to earn her livelihood on the water. Her parents are Americans who met in Hawaii. After getting married, they moved to Costa Rica and found a place to live in the jungle.
“We lived completely off the grid, completely in the jungle,” Hennessey said. “There were monkeys in our backyard and every type of animal you can think of.
“We lived right on the beach and it really shaped who I am. I was kind of born in the ocean. My parents run a surf school and surfing just runs in my blood.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic that pushed the 2020 Summer Games back a year, Hennessey joined her parents in Fiji, where they run an island hotel.
“My family and I call each other the homeless nomads,” Hennessey said. “We pretty much don’t really have a home. We live out of our suitcase.”
This island paradise proved to be the perfect training ground for an Olympic surfer.
“It is very small,” Hennessey said. “It takes five minutes to walk around the whole place, but it has the best waves in the world. I was very blessed to be able to spend isolation here.
“I was able to surf every day, which is my job and my passion.”
McGonagle Also Makes The Grade
McGonagle endured a sleepless night prior to her last chance to gain an Olympic berth.
“When I qualified, I wasn’t a hundred percent sure if I had or not,” McGonagle told Surfline.com. “And then my brother [Noe Mar] was like, ‘You’re going to the Olympics!’ And I just burst into tears – I had a complete meltdown, because I had obsessed over that goal. I prepared physically, mentally; I did everything possible.
“Before the event, I knew that I had done everything I could. I just needed to go out and surf. It was definitely a relief and rewarding once it became official. And it’s still so surreal. Like I cannot believe it, but I did it.”
Taking Surfing Seriously
McGonagle thinks that being designated an Olympic sport has changed the mindset of Costa Ricans regarding surfing and surfers.
“The Olympics really brought this whole new perspective to the sport,” McGonagle said. “It was like, ‘Hey, you’re an athlete now.’ For so many years it was like, ‘You’re an athlete, but you’re a surfer. It’s not a real sport.’
“When the Olympics happened, Costa Rica took it seriously. Aside from soccer, they wanted to really step up our game with surfing. It was totally legitimized. Whereas before, you could be a great surfer but end up just being a bum on the beach giving surf lessons for the rest of your life or something.”