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USA's extreme sports athletes brace for tough battles in Summer Olympic Games

By Alex Butler
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American Carissa Moore is the No. 1 surfer in World Surf League rankings and has clinched a spot to compete in the 2020 Summer Olympics. Photo <a href="https://www.worldsurfleague.com/">courtesy of World Surf League</a>/Miers
American Carissa Moore is the No. 1 surfer in World Surf League rankings and has clinched a spot to compete in the 2020 Summer Olympics. Photo courtesy of World Surf League/Miers

Dec. 11 (UPI) -- Brazil's surfers and Japan's sport climbers are expected to be the toughest competition for the United States during the 2020 Summer Olympic Games, as the sports make their debuts along with skateboarding and karate.

Winning a medal could be tough for Team USA's stars, but the unprecedented stage will undoubtedly vault their extreme sports to new levels.

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Surfers welcome waves from July 26 to Aug. 2 at Tsurigasaki Surfing Beach in Chiba, Japan. Brazil boasts three of the top four men in the World Surf League rankings -- defending world champion Gabriel Medina, Italo Ferreira and Filipe Toledo.

"As soon as everyone heard of the [location] where the games will be held, everyone's immediate thought was that the Brazilians will be the ones to beat over there," South African surfer Michael February said.

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"I guess [the waves are] known to be pretty small and weak most of the time, and Brazilians are famous for being the best in small surf, so that could be a great advantage for them," February said.

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Kolohe Andino was first American surfer to qualify for the Olympics. Americans Carissa Moore -- the world's No. 1 women's surfer -- and Caroline Marks also qualified. John John Florence is battling surfing icon Kelly Slater to gain the final men's slot for Team USA.

"I am so happy and could not be more excited to compete in Tokyo," Andino said. "Surfing is definitely unique and it is almost a lifestyle and an art, but it should be really exciting to compete there."

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Overall qualifying for Tokyo ends after the 2020 ISA World Surfing Games in May. Olympic competition features two heats before head-to-head battles.

"[Winning a medal] would mean many great things for the athletes and USA Surfing in general," coach Chris Stone said. A former Championship Tour surfer, Stone serve as the American team's elite technical coach and focus on analyzing surf athletes' technique and heat strategy.

"I get excited about the potential funding and resources to create high performance centers, outreach programs to bring the sport to underserved youth and other ways to get kids in the ocean to feel the stoke and healthy lifestyle that surfing promotes," Stone said.

Caroline Marks (L) and Carissa Moore (R) will represent Team USA at the 2020 Summer Games. Photo courtesy of World Surf League/Miers
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A maximum of two men and two women per National Olympic Committee/country can compete in surfing at the Summer Games.

Sport Climbing

Brooke Raboutou, 18, made waves in another extreme sport, becoming the first American ever to qualify for the Olympics in sport climbing. Raboutou -- a Boulder, Colo., native -- will compete in bouldering, speed climbing and lead climbing.

"We've known that climbing was going to be an Olympic sport since 2016," Raboutou said. "I have always had a little hope and dream in the back of my head. It's so tough, but everything ended up working out. [Qualifying] wasn't a given, that's for sure.

"My whole body kinda sunk down when I qualified. It was an amazing feeling of having success, and I am excited for the future."

Countries can qualify up to two athletes per gender in sport climbing. Americans Nathaniel Coleman and Kyra Condie followed Raboutou in qualifying for the Summer Games.

Speed climbing is a head-to-head battle between two climbers who navigate a 15-meter wall at a 95-degree angle. Winners usually complete the task in five to eight seconds.

Bouldering involves climbers scaling different routes on a 4-meter wall in a specific length of time without safety ropes.

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Lead climbing tests athletes' ability to go as high as possible on a wall more than 15 meters tall, within a fixed time, while using safety ropes.

Japan is one of the strongest competitors in the sport. Four women from the host country finished in the top seven at the world championships.

Skateboarding

While Raboutou grapples to new heights, skateboarding Olympic hopeful Lizzie Armanto, of California, will grind it out for Finland --- instead of Team USA. The move by the dual citizen opens slots for more top skaters to compete, since no country can send more than three athletes per event per gender. It also spreads talent among countries.

"The challenge will be to ensure as many of the top 20 skaters, male and female, street and park are there in Tokyo competing," Armanto said.

The International Olympic Committee used the Vans Park Series World Championships -- the top park terrain skateboarding event -- as a blueprint for Tokyo 2020.

The Summer Games street skateboarding event will be July 26 and 27 at the Ariake Urban Sports Park in Tokyo. The park event will be Aug. 6 and 7 at the same venue.

Street competitions are held on a street-like course, with skaters using stairs, handrails, curbs, benches, walls and slopes to perform tricks. Park competitions take place on a hollowed-out course with complicated curves creating features like dome-shaped bowls and ramps.

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Olympic qualifying for skateboarding ends May 31. Skateboarders will qualify based on the World Skateboarding Rankings. They earn rankings points through World Skate-sanctioned events.

Karate: kata and kumite

While skateboarding surged on American soil, karate was born in Okinawa, Japan. Sakura Kokumai is on track to represent Team USA in karate in Tokyo.

"It's hard to describe in words how I feel," Kokumai said. "I hope me being successful in the Tokyo Olympics will inspire kids. Hopefully, we can stick around until the next Olympics because the games are the pinnacle of the sport. This experience should be passed down to the next generation."

Kokumai, 27, attended college in Tokyo, where she competed in some of the same arenas in which she likely will compete again during the Olympics. Thomas Scott is the only other athlete close to representing Team USA in the Summer Games, but still needs to successfully qualify.

Karate athletes will compete in kata and kumite events at the Summer Games. Olympic qualifiers for karate will be announced in June, but countries aren't guaranteed representation.

Kata includes demonstrations of form as athletes perform a series of offensive and defensive movements while targeting a virtual opponent. Competitors will chose the kata they wish to demonstrate from 102 forms recognized by the World Karate Federation.

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Kumite involves opponents facing off in a matted area. They are allowed three offensive techniques: striking, kicking and punching. The athletes must land a series of blows on a specific area of their opponent's body. They earn points by showing good form, power and control between attacks. Competitors win by gaining eight points more than their opponent within the duration of the bout or by gaining more points in three minutes.

Olympic qualifying for karate ends June 2. Eighty athletes will compete in Tokyo with a maximum of four men and four women coming from each country. Countries aren't guaranteed representation.

Baseball and softball will be Olympic sports for the first time since 2008. The Team USA softball squad has qualified, while the baseball team will attempt to punch its ticket to Japan at a tournament in March.

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