Why an Aussie legend has Chinese surfers catching California waves

Chinese surfers take to the waves (0:44)

Surfing will make its Olympics debut in 2020 and in a bid to be competitive China has sent a team to California to learn the sport (0:44)

SAN CLEMENTE, Calif. -- The coach of China's national surfing team is standing on the sand at T Street Beach, watching as his surfers paddle out to the lineup alongside members of the 2017 national champion San Clemente High School surf team. He blows a horn to signify the start of a 30-minute heat and then sits on a towel next to the SCHS coach and begins scoring each ride.

"You only need two scores," he reminds the remaining surfers, who will paddle out for the second session. "Take your time. Don't worry about scores. Learn from the other team."

Those don't sound like typical coaching directives, but Peter "PT" Townend isn't a typical coach and his is no typical team. Townend grew up in Coolangatta on Australia's Gold Coast and in 1976 became the first pro surfing world champion. For the past 40 years, he's called Southern California home, serving as the associate publisher and advertising director of Surfing Magazine, marketing director for the surf brand Rusty, a TV analyst for surf contests and president of the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association. When his sport was added to the 2020 Olympics, Townend was tapped by the Chinese government to teach swimmers how to surf.

"Having represented my own country with a bronze medal in the world games in 1972 in San Diego, coached the Americans in 1984 and coached four world champions, it matters to me how surfing enters the Olympics," Townend says. "I feel I owe it to the sport to make sure it's done right. My personal reputation is at stake."

As Townend speaks, a set rolls in and surfers on both teams begin dropping into 3-foot waves. "White up!" Townend says, announcing that one of his athletes, who is wearing the white jersey, has caught the first wave. "White down," he says a few seconds later. After a few more attempts, one of the youngest members of the China team, Alex Qiu (pronounced Choo) drops in, pops up successfully, makes a bottom turn and then dives off his board into the surf.

With his long hair, Hurley spring suit and Channel Islands surfboard, Qiu looks like any Southern California teenager out for a surf. But despite being only 14, he is one of the most experienced surfers in his country and represents the future of the sport in China. He's grown up watching the World Surf League contests on his phone and wants to eventually surf with the speed and style of his favorite WSL surfer, Kanoa Igarashi.

"We're going to see big improvement in these kids quickly," says San Clemente High head coach John Dowell. "In just under 30 minutes, some of them are already figuring it out."

This trip is the first of what Townend hopes will become an annual pilgrimage to Southern California to meet other surfers, pick up new boards, learn the culture and etiquette of the sport, experience different waves and gain contest experience by holding mock heats like the one with the San Clemente team. This year, seven members of China's national team -- four male and three female, ranging in age from 14 to 26 -- and a support staff traveled for a two-week camp taking place in Huntington Beach and San Clemente.

The 30-minute session over, Townend blows the horn to announce the end of the guys' heat. The gals zip their wet suits, do a few last-minute stretches and then grab their boards, taking care to carry them the way they see the California kids carrying theirs. "They've never surfed in wet suits before this trip," Townend says.

Townend began traveling to China in 2012 to judge the Silver Dragon Shootout, an independent surf contest held at a tidal bore in the Qiantang River in Hangzhou. "One of the TV channels did a story on me and my involvement in the contest, and in the piece they called me 'the Michael Jordan of surfing,'" he says. "That raised my profile in China."

Last August, Townend was in Hangzhou producing the Shootout when the IOC announced surfing would be included in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. The next day, a government official arrived from Beijing to speak with him about the possibility of creating an Olympic surfing program in China, a country with virtually no history with the sport despite the fact that 500 million people live along its 9,000 miles of coastline. He asked Townend to submit his résumé if he was interested in the job.

"There were several other equally qualified names in the hat," Townend says, "but the officials liked my so-called status of being the first world surfing champ."

After being selected as coach of the program, Townend flew to China in March for the announcement of the team and then moved into a hotel on the north shore of Hainan, a tropical island at the southernmost tip of China that draws thousands of Chinese and Russian tourists to its beaches every year, to begin his first three-month stint with the team. "The water's like Hawaii where we surf in China," Townend says. "And the island looks like Bali. But these kids might train all day without seeing anyone except a couple fishermen."

The first surfers invited into his program were what assistant coach and interpreter Pablo Huang calls "the first generation of Chinese surfers," a handful of 20-something men and women who learned to surf in the past decade from expats visiting Hainan. "I learned to surf on the 8th of October, 2008," Huang says. "I remember the day because that day changed my life."

Since that day, and after graduating from the University of Hainan, Huang has continued to surf alongside tourists and a handful of young Chinese kids like Qiu, who grew up on Hainan. Qiu began surfing at age 4 and has since taken surf trips to Bali and Hawaii with his dad. Proficient surfers who speak English, Qiu and Huang were easy selections for the team. Huang, who is 29, acts as an interpreter during international trips as well as Townend's assistant coach.

"I feel like I am living in a dream," Huang says. "When I started surfing, I just wanted to do radical maneuvers and look good, look cool. I feel like everything that is happening in China is historic and it's very special. I'm honored to be a part of it."

What is happening is a gradual but growing understanding of the ocean, something Huang says many Chinese people fear because of a lack of water safety knowledge. "They don't understand the ocean, and girls don't want to get tan because they want to keep their white skin," Huang says. "But that is all recently changing because surfing has become a fashion sport in China. We have an Olympic program, and all the international media exposure highlights the lifestyle and brings a lot more people to the beach to enjoy the fun of surfing."

To fill out the remainder of the program, Townend visited a government-run swimming academy -- the one that produced Olympic champion Sun Yang -- in hopes of finding athletes with an interest in learning to surf. "Some of the kids had never seen the ocean," Townend says. "I did some exercises, put them on a skateboard, had them jump to their feet on a surfboard, and whittled them down from 20 to six kids. Then they were told, 'You're not swimmers anymore. Now you're surfers.'"

There's just one problem with that plan. Anyone who's stepped on a surfboard knows the process is a bit more complicated than that.

"The government administration is having a hard time understanding you can't teach the ocean," Townend says. "You have to go out and get smashed and bashed until you learn. There isn't an accelerated process to learning to catch a wave. They think they can apply the mentality of basketball or gymnastics to surfing. They think there is a pixie dust we can sprinkle to get there quicker."

The Chinese snowboarding program, which began in 2005 and pulled athletes from martial arts and gymnastics, has yet to produce an Olympic medalist -- and those athletes do not have to learn how to catch the halfpipe.

The seemingly impossible challenge is what Eric Crane, owner of Electric sunglasses, says drew him to sponsoring the Chinese team. "PT told me the story and immediately visions of the Jamaican bobsled team and the movie 'Eddie the Eagle' came into my head," Crane says. "If these guys can go from nothing to qualify to compete at the Olympic level, that's a story I want to help come to life. It could be so exciting if told well."

For this Olympic cycle, however, it might be more of a fairy tale. Although the Olympic qualifying process is yet to be determined, only 20 men and 20 women will compete in Tokyo. That means two men and two women from each of the top 10 countries likely will qualify. "To be honest, the only way China will qualify [in 2020] is if we put together an international heritage program," Townend says of his directive from the Chinese government to find world-class surfers from around the world who can secure Chinese passports by December.

But in the future, that all could change. In October, the program moves into a state-of-the-art high-performance surfing center that is being constructed on the north shore of Hainan, and that will allow the athletes to train when the ocean's flat. So in 2024 or 2028, Townend believes the first Chinese-born surfer could qualify for the Olympics.

"I'm on the ground floor of developing a culture in a country," he says. "And I'm coaching one of the top three Olympic nations. It's a challenge, but it's a great challenge. I turn 65 next year. This is probably the last thing I'm really challenged to do."