Rio Waida has been on a heater over the past 12 months. The young Indonesian has been a standout at home in Bali for years, but took his act global this year, logging noteworthy sessions throughout Indonesia and Mexico, serving as the face of Quiksilver’s new Iconic for a Reason campaign, serving as his country’s flag bearer at the Tokyo Olympics, and placing ninth at the world tour event in Mexico (where he was an injury replacement for Jack Freestone).
While moments in the water are often easy to identify in retrospect, Rio is in the process of becoming an icon of Indonesian surfing in real-time, building his legacy one wave at a time, despite being only 21 years of age.
We sat down with Rio this week to get his perspective on life, surfing, the Olympics, the world tour, and growing up in the world’s most surf-rich country. This is what he had to say.
The past year has seen a lot of changes around the world, but that’s nothing new for Indonesians, who have observed huge amounts of development at home over the past three decades, as well as a number of situations that have interrupted normal life, from acute crises like the Bali bombings to less-defined threats like a huge influx of tourists and related increases in pollution. Tell us a bit about growing up in Indonesia, and how the Bali of today is both similar and different to the Bali you saw as a child.
When I was younger, I grew up in Kuta Beach, and there were more locals in the water than tourists. There were a few foreigners, but mostly locals surfing and working on the beach.
Then as my surfing improved I started to go to Canggu, Uluwatu, and Keramas, where there were a lot more tourists. But these days, there are tons of tourists everywhere that want to surf. Before there were no longboarders, but these days there are so many people who come to longboard in Kuta and Canggu—lots of beginners and surf schools. It feels like the tourists are sort of taking over the surf spots.
But lately things have changed again, because of the pandemic. Before, all the locals had to work, so they only got to surf early or late, before or after work. But now there is no work because tourism is so limited, so the locals are able to surf all day. And it’s sort of nice to see the local boys reclaiming their spots. Everyone is still welcome, but it’s just good to see the Indonesian surfers back in the water, surfing all the time.
Indonesia is its own thriving surf scene —it’s arguably the world’s most wave-rich country. And I know that when you live in a place where the waves are epic all the time, it can be difficult to focus on grinding out wins on the QS and qualifying for the world tour. Is qualifying something that is important to you and to Indonesian surfers as a community? Or are you guys just content to stay at home and score perfect waves all the time?
For me, it has always been my dream to qualify for the world tour. But that being said, my life has always been a happy life. Even during the pandemic, I was fortunate and able to surf amazing waves.
Before the pandemic, I was doing a lot of QS events and didn’t have time to travel around Indonesia, and I was sort of stressing because I wasn’t doing as well as I’d hoped in QS events. And the pandemic has actually been good for me because I have been able to take a rest and surf amazing waves in the Mentawais and Desert Point and G-Land.
And there are definitely a lot of young kids who are looking at my generation and hoping to find success as professional surfers
But all of my friends from Indonesia really want me to qualify for the world tour. And there are definitely a lot of young kids who are looking at my generation and hoping to find success as professional surfers. Kids come to me for advice, and we have a good team with Surfing Indonesia, which supported us for the Olympics, so yeah, competitive surfing is definitely important.
At the same time, Indonesians love to be at home and surf good waves all the time. Some of my friends get homesick when they travel outside of Indonesia. They love competing, but they miss home and miss surfing good waves. So there is sort of a balance.
That being said, I think that the Indonesian people are hoping that one of us will qualify for the world tour. And a lot of people from around the world are also really supportive of us and want to see us qualify. So I hope to make it happen!
The path to qualification can be quite difficult and expensive, especially if you have to travel to events. Do you feel like there are enough events in Indonesia to qualify, or do you have to travel a lot to chase points?
The Indonesian government has been doing its best to host QS events in Indonesia, so we just hope that an Indonesian surfer can do well at those events and get good results, and then get enough money and support to travel outside of Indo to do other events.
But yeah, it’s really hard for Indonesians to travel around the world because we have to get a lot of visas to go to other countries, and that usually involves flying to Jakarta to apply for visas. So it takes a lot of money and support.
You had the chance to travel to Japan to compete in the Olympics this year—the only Indonesian surfer in the event, and one of only 40 surfers in total who qualified for the Olympics. How important was that experience for you, and for Indonesia as a whole?
I think that my getting into the Olympics was a good thing for Indonesia, because it showed Indonesia that surfing is a legitimate sport. Here in Indo, we are the best at badminton. We won gold in that sport, and everyone knows about it.
And most people know that we have good waves and a lot of surf tourism. But maybe not as many people know about the local surfing talent here. So it was nice to be able to show Indonesia that surfing can be part of the Olympics too, and I hope that more Indonesian people will start surfing.
The Olympics earned me a lot of new fans in Indonesia, and gave me a great platform to show the kids here what is possible. I hope that the kids here will work hard and pursue this dream of surfing in the Olympics too.
What was it like being there in the Olympic Village in Tokyo? Surfers have never really been seen as mainstream athletes, but you were there with all sorts of athletes from lots of different sports.
Yeah, it was amazing. It was definitely different from WSL events. I stayed in the Olympic Village and saw a lot of athletes there who are the best in the world at what they do, and I was just grateful to be a part of it.
And Indonesia did great—we got a gold in badminton, and a silver in weightlifting, and also three bronze medals in weightlifting and badminton. So I was just really grateful to be part of the Indonesian team. Our badminton girls really motivated me and made me even more hungry to get gold, so my dream is to do so in 2024 in Paris.
I also had the opportunity to be our team’s flag-bearer in the Opening Ceremony, which was really big for me. I almost cried when I got to the stage, because it was really big and there was a lot of emotion, even though there was no audience this year. And after the surfing finals, when they were presenting the medals to Italo and Carissa, it was really amazing to see. I think when we look back at it, the surfing community is going to remember this first Olympics as an historic moment, and to get to be a part of that was just really special for me.
I think it’s been special for all of us, and we are just stoked to get to watch as your career unfolds and the new generation of Indonesia’s best surfers steps up to the global stage. We are looking forward to seeing what comes next!