Riding a wave with world-champion bodyboarder Ayaka Suzuki Crilley
World-champion bodyboarder Ayaka Suzuki Crilley rode Hurricane Larry’s sizable waves to historic victories, taking first place in the men’s and women’s divisions at the 2021 Belmar Pro.
“We have really good luck to have this swell,” says Suzuki Crilley, competing out of Hawaii by way of Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan in her first East Coast contest.
In 2018, Suzuki Crilley became the first Asian bodyboarder to win a world title in the sport. In September, she became the first woman to compete in the men’s bodyboarding division at the Belmar Pro, which is back in its 19th year after a pandemic hiatus.
Waves reached up to 7-feet on the second day of the four-day competition at the Borough of Belmar Surfing Beach, located between rock jetties at 16th and 18th avenues in Belmar, New Jersey.
Larry’s impact waned by the contest’s final day, Sunday, Sept. 12, but enough surf remained for competitors to put on a free show for the throngs of beachgoers crowding in to enjoy one of the summer’s final weekends.
The champ said she hadn’t thought about the crowd or its size until after her winning performance.
“When I’m in competition, I don’t care about anything. I just focus on what I’m going to do,” she says. “Now … I realize there are so many people on the beach, which is great.”
Judges scored competitors on a scale of 1-10 for each wave ridden, with the riders’ top two scores totaled to determine their score for the heat. The bodyboard divisions had four judges, with three active per heat. Anthony Leone, North American President for the Association of Professional Bodyboarding, was head judge.
In the finals, Suzuki Crilley jumped out to an early 11.87 total, which would hold over Renzo Fassiola of New York’s 11.46 for the win.
A 6.03 on his seventh wave put Fassiola ahead of Juan Rivas of the Dominican Republic. Rivas hit his 10-wave max with nine minutes remaining for a 5.23, his second best score, which was penalized by 50% for an interference with Dan Worley of Florida on the riders’ sixth wave.
On her second wave, Suzuki Crilley secured the highest single-wave score of the heat with a 6.40 and clinched her victory with a 5.47 on her fourth wave. Both she and Fassiola displayed judicious wave selection, riding only seven each in the 30-minute heat. Worley reached his max along with Rivas, who finished third with an 8.32 final score.
“I usually take only two or three waves because that’s all I need to win,” Suzuki Crilley says. “Just be patient and trust what you’re waiting for, and the wave comes to you.”
The men’s division featured 24 competitors. The women’s schedule listed six competitors, but only four competed.
The men’s division had three rounds, plus a playoff for the second-place riders from Round 2 to compete for a spot in the finals. Fassiola eliminated local rider Robbie Mack in the playoff, with an 11.16 over his 9.90. Mack’s 14.40 in Round 1 was the highest heat total of the contest.
Round 1 of the women’s division was intended to feature two heats, three riders in each, with the top two scores advancing. Since only four women made it to the waves, the present competitors defaulted to a four-woman final, riding the first round with no threat of elimination.
Good friends Suzuki Crilley and Hawaiian pro Lindsey Yasui went head-to-head in the first women’s heat, agreeing to ride the free round in drop-knee only. Drop-knee is a style of bodyboarding in which riders pop up onto the board to ride waves in a kneeling lunge, as opposed to the traditional prone style that most riders opted for throughout the competition.
In the women’s finals, Suzuki Crilley scored 4.10 or higher on four out of seven waves, finishing with an 8.60 to top Yasui, who took second place with a 7.93, more-than doubling the score of the third and fourth places riders Megumi Johnson from New York and Salina Palmisano from California.
Suzuki Crilley says it’s exciting for her to compete with the “super aggressive” male riders. Their level of physicality presents her with a challenge, she says, but not one that she finds intimidating.
“Maybe they feel more pressure than me because they’re the guy and I’m a woman,” she says.
Testing her skills is not the only benefit of competing with the men.
“The men’s [division] is always bigger prize money, which is not fair for us,” Suzuki Crilley says, speaking generally about bodyboarding competitions. “That’s been a problem for a long time.”
In 2019, Suzuki Crilley became the first woman bodyboarder to defeat male riders in an official APB heat during a competition at Hawaii’s Banzai Pipeline. Although she’s on board for crossing over, she doesn’t think that contest organizers should do away with separate divisions for men and women.
Belmar Pro organizer Don Tarrant says a complete unification of the divisions is unlikely, but that the decision would be up to the APB in any event sanctioned by the organization.
“I think it’s fantastic that Ayaka competed with the men,” says Tarrant, who took charge of the contest after its first year, when it was organized as a one-off event. “I think this year’s entire event was one of the two or three best ever.”
While the Hurricane Larry swell wasn’t the biggest the contest has ever seen, this year’s waves were appreciable for the Jersey Shore, Tarrant says, noting that four straight days of surfable waves is also good fortune for the region.
During the semifinals on Friday, and the peak of Larry’s offering, Suzuki Crilley cut across waves to her right, starting so close to the southern jetty that from a northern vantage it appeared as if she was riding over the rocks.
“The best spot to take off is right in front of the rock,” she says. “It gets shallow close to the rock and [the waves] start breaking. You want to catch from there.”
In the finals, she and the other competitors opted for the northern jetty, ripping across waves to their left.
“Every day is different,” Suzuki Crilley said after the finals. “The swell direction, the sand condition, the wind … Today is way smaller, but actually the wave shape is really nice.”
During the finals, the waves rolled in with a triangular form, which can allow for more consecutive tricks than a bigger wave that crashes fast, she explained. These waves reminded her of her home surf break, the Chigasaki break in Japan’s Sagami Bay, where her mother taught her how to bodyboard when she was 8.
“One of the main things about competitive bodyboarding, obviously you have to be able to compete in big stuff, but you need to be able to have a good small-wave game as well,” says Steve “Action” Jackson, professional bodyboarder and Belmar Pro announcer. “It just shows how well-rounded our riders are.”
With smaller waves, bodyboarders might focus on “traditional spin-roll combinations,” but aerial spins and backflips are not out of the question, Jackson says, referring to some of the tricks finalists performed. Suzuki Crilley won by “performing maneuvers smoothly” and “being consistent,” he says.
Suzuki Crilley won a $1,000 cash prize in the men’s division and $500 in the women’s division. A portion of each division’s prize was put up by sponsors, Custom X Bodyboards for the men’s and Snot Nose Organic Boogie Wax for the women’s division; the rest comes out of the competitors’ $150 entry fee.
“Most bodyboarders – they’re riding out of pure love of the sport and they don’t mind throwing down the money for an airplane ticket and accommodations to come ride a contest,” Jackson says. Only “a select few … an upper echelon of the sport” have their travel and contest fees paid for by sponsors, he says.
After winning the world title in the 2018 APB World Tour, which featured events in Australia, Chile, Portugal and Spain’s Canary Islands, Suzuki Crilley gained sponsorships with Science Bodyboards, Viper Fins and O’Neill wetsuits.
In April, Science Bodyboards introduced Suzuki Crilley’s signature model, which she had been conceptualizing for ten years. Each board is stamped with her Japanese signature, Kanji, which translates to “add color to another,” inspiring the variety of vibrant color combinations in which her model is offered.
She designed her board with women riders in mind, but it will perform well for anyone, she says. “Any kind of wave, you’re gonna launch it so hard.”
“I made it with a little more volume and wider,” she explains, “which gives you more speed and pop on the lip. So, if you want to do airs, use my board.”
Suzuki Crilley says she has noticed an uptick in bodyboarding participants since the pandemic began. Her hope is that the influx will create a wave of benefit for the sport, with increased public interest leading to more career opportunities for professional bodyboarders.
“That’s what I want to be, so I’m trying to make it happen,” she says.
Following a triumphant showing at the 2021 Belmar Pro, Suzuki Crilley was free to enjoy the rest of her visit to the North East.
“Tomorrow, I’m going to go to New York City and just go look around,” she says.
Ayaka Suzuki Crilley is riding waves, winning contests, breaking barriers and exploring the world.