Leilani McGonagle is Costa Rica’s Olympic surf savior
Imagine this: you are a kid, 21 years old. You have the best day of your life tomorrow; all of your family, friends and country are counting on you. The whole world is watching. One wrong move, and you explode it. How would you sleep that night? Like a baby, right?
Uh, yeah, why not not.
“I was so nervous,” Leilani McGonagle said after the dust settled at the 2021 ISA World Surfing Games in El Salvador, the final Olympic qualifying event. âFor three nights, I couldn’t sleep. Like I’m going to go to bed and wake up at midnight and not fall asleep after that. I would try, but I would turn around. Then I would wake up – or whatever you want to call it, I would just get out of bed – and do my best to put my gaming face on. Like, okay, I’m missing three hours of sleep, but nothing’s going well. It’s the biggest contest of my life. No big deal, right? I can do it, right? Right?!”
Well, the Costa Rican did itâ¦ the lack of sleep be damned.
âWhen I qualified I wasn’t one hundred percent sure if I had or not,â she said. “And then my brother [Noe Mar McGonagle; also a shredder who, unfortunately, just barely missed qualification] was like, ‘You’re going to the Olympics!’ And I just burst into tears – I had a complete breakdown – because I was obsessed with this goal. I prepared myself physically, mentally; I did all I could. Before the event, I knew I had done all I could. I just needed to go out and surf. It was definitely a relief and a reward once it got official. And it’s still so surreal. Like I couldn’t believe it, but I did.
The road to qualifying was grueling for McGonagle, as it was for all surfers in Tokyo 2021. It involved training, physical and mental, in addition to devoting everything to this specific goal. Fortunately, like many other athletes, she had a lot of support – because for once international sports committees started to take surfing seriously.
âThe Olympics really brought this whole new perspective to the sport,â said McGonagle. âIt was like, ‘Hey, you’re an athlete now.’ For so many years it was like, ‘You’re an athlete, but you’re a surfer. It’s not a real sport. When the Olympics were held, Costa Rica took it seriously. Aside from soccer, they really wanted to improve our game with surfing. It was totally legitimized. Whereas before you could be a great surfer but end up being a bum on the beach giving surf lessons for the rest of your life or something like that.
It also helped that McGonagle grew up riding one of the best waves in Costa Rica, if not one of the best left-hand pointbreaks in the world: Pavones. (And yes, it’s a crazy thing that two surfers who were raised on the same wave go to the Olympics; see our chat with Leon Glatzer here.)
âIt was like, ‘Hey, you’re an athlete now.’ For so many years it was like, ‘You’re an athlete, but you’re a surfer. It’s not a real sport. When the Olympics were held, Costa Rica took it seriously.
âWe grew up, like, before the age of technology, and also practically at the end of the world,â she said. âPavones is 15 minutes from the end of the road in Costa Rica. So it’s just dirt roads, tropical jungle, straight on. Everything is very small. And when I say small, I mean that two of the biggest supermarkets in Pavones put together form, say, an aisle in the United Statesâ¦ and that’s may be. “
However, what they lack in the resources of the first world, they make up for in other areas. McGonagle wouldn’t have changed her childhood for the world:
“I had so much fun. I played, I surfed, I did karateâ¦ One moment I was playing with Barbies, and the next moment I felt like I was hitting a hill with a plastic PVC gun that I had built myself. I really had an amazing childhood and I think it has a lot to do with where we grew up. It allowed us to be very free and expressive.
Another thing about Costa Ricans is that although it is a very sweet place and pura vida country, they still have a strong national pride. And for McGonagle, that mentality will translate into her time in Tokyo – besides having the whole country to her own.
âOur culture in Costa Rica is really strong and really passionate and loud,â she said. âFrom a young age I became like a firecracker – very opinionated and unafraid to say it like it is. National pride is a huge business. We carry this flag high and we know that we have a whole country behind us. Because it is such a small country, everyone knows what is going on and will support you. Even if they haven’t surfed, or if they don’t know. They’re like, ‘Yeah. Let’s go! ‘ We are a small country, but big at heart.
Representing her country, becoming one of the first Olympic surfers in history and having the chance to bring a country home are all very important to McGonagle. But she has another element that inspires her to compete in Tokyo, another aspect that is much more sentimental. And it’s Katy Diaz, the Salvadoran surfer who tragically passed away earlier this year.
âWe’ve been friends since we were about 10 years old,â McGonagle said of Katy. âI had so much love and appreciation for her. And I had planned to come stay with her for two months and train with her. And like two weeks before I arrived, she passed away. day when I was with her, and I was about to get on a plane, she looked at me and said, “You have to do this for us. And I looked at her and I says, ‘What? We’re gonna do this together!’ And she said to me ‘No. You’re gonna do this to we. ‘â
âIt was bigger than me, bigger than for my country, for my pride, for my ego. No, it was for her.
McGonagle used this love, this memory, this tragedy, this loss of his good friend as motivation to qualify for the Olympics. And she will take it with her once the Games begin.
âEver since I found out that she had passed I realized it was for her,â McGonagle said. âIt was bigger than me, bigger than for my country, for my pride, for my ego. No, it was for her. She really gave me a purpose and the strength to get through. And she. will be with me in Tokyo, and for the rest of my life. She was an amazing human and, because of her, I have to believe that there is something bigger out there that needs her light for its light for a greater purpose.
And now, a few weeks before the start of the Olympics, how is McGonagle feeling? What would it mean for her to bring back a medal to the small town of Pavones?
âIt would be amazing,â she said. âI just need to start manifesting it. Everything will happen very quickly and we will face the best in the world. So, I’m just going to try to prepare myself the best that I can. And hey, I’ve done that here before. That’s crazy. I can’t believe I’m going to be one of the first 40 surfers to compete in the Olympics. It’s historic in itself, and to be honest I’m so honored. I’ve already won, in my mind. But don’t get me wrong, doing well in Tokyo would be pretty cool too. [Laughs.]”
Editor’s Note: We are in El Salvador to cover the ISA 2021 World Surfing Games, but not just the event itself. We will also be pursuing all the interesting side stories, Olympic developments and events on the ground. Follow here.