PLAYA MORRILLO, Panama – Peruvian Anali Gomez, winner of world and Pan-American titles in surfing, and 12-time Panamanian national champion Samantha Alonso recently have been exploring remote beaches and seeking out perfect waves as part of their quest to compete in Tokyo 2020, where their sport will make its Olympic debut.
Their tireless search led them to a spot in the southern part of the central Panamanian province of Veraguas that is located 350 kilometers (217 miles) from Panama City and far removed from any potential distractions.
Known as Playa Morrillo, this surfing paradise is only reachable after a journey over one pothole-ridden asphalt road and another dirt road recently turned to mud by the recent passage of Hurricane Eta through Central America.
Golden sand fresh to the touch after overnight rain, a bright sun, an ocean breeze and a crab or two trying to avoid being trampled under human feet is the landscape that welcomes the two surfers.
The roar of the sea makes little impression on Gomez, who has been conquering waves for more than two decades. Clearly in her element, she studies the beach, applies wax to her surfboard and smiles and readies herself for another day in the water.
Her determination inspires Alonso, who follows her coach as they walk toward the foamy green waters that wash onto Morrillo beach.
All thoughts about life on shore disappear as the surfers take to the ocean, where over the next three hours they will need to draw on their reserves of both patience and courage.
Gomez told EFE that patience is a key ingredient because surfers need an awareness of which waves to ride and how to attack them, noting that developing that latter skill is an important part of their daily training.
The first wave arrived after 15 minutes, rising impressively at a distance from shore. Gomez took it on with the skill of a world champion before it crashed on the beach and left behind a trail of white foam.
After the joy of that initial ride, the Peruvian’s level steadily improved with each successive wave as she put together a combination of two or three maneuvers each time.
While waves occasionally broke quickly and tossed her from her surfboard, Gomez never showed any discouragement and instead returned to the same position in the water to await her next opportunity.
Time in Playa Morrillo moves by slowly. While Gomez and Alonso were training, two or three surfers looked on from the beach and then entered the water to join them after learning who they were.
Gomez grew up in a fishing village and it was there that she developed her love for the ocean and for surfing, devoting herself to that sport despite a traumatic – and nearly fatal incident – as a teenager.
“I almost drowned at age 14. I grew up in a fishing village. My father is a fisherman and my mother’s a housewife. While training, I got caught in a fishing net that I couldn’t get out of,” Gomez said with her voice cracking.
“There aren’t many people (in Peru) who surf and you go out to the ocean alone. So I didn’t have anyone with me at that moment. Thank God, He sent me an angel who rescued me,” she said.
One of Peru’s top surfers of the 21st century, Gomez said securing the right to compete at next summer’s Tokyo Olympics (postponed due to the pandemic) would be the “icing on the cake” of her distinguished career.
“Tokyo … God willing … would be perfect. Everyone wants to be there and be the first ones to enjoy a historic moment. And what greater incentive than to be able to wear the Olympic gold medal?” she said.
Alonso, for her part, told EFE that she grew up with a surfboard under one arm and a soccer ball under the other in El Chorrillo, a violence-racked, seaside Panama City district where soccer courses through people’s veins.
Coincidentally, she also suffered an accident at age 14 that nearly ended her athletic career.
“I was struck by a bullet and that separated me from the ocean. I didn’t know if I would surf again. The bullet went in through my abdomen and went out through my back. I was in bad shape, but the mind is always stronger than the body. And here I am giving my all and pursuing a dream I’ve had since I was little,” the Panamanian said.
Alonso said the goal of competing in the Olympics is a difficult, but not impossible, challenge.
“Tokyo … here we come!” she said with a smile while gazing out at the sea.