Surfing-French Olympic medal hopes boosted by Tahitian qualifier

FILE PHOTO: Tahitian surfer Vahine Fierro is seen surfing her heat at the Sydney Surf Pro at Narrabeen Beach, Narrabeen, Sydney, Australia May 19, 2023. REUTERS/Lincoln Feast/File Photo

(Reuters) - Host nation France's chances of a first Olympic medal in surfing got a massive boost on Tuesday with the qualification of Vahine Fierro, a Tahitian local among the best at riding the challenging tubes of Teahupo'o, the venue for the 2024 Games.

Fierro, 23, won her spot by becoming the last unqualified European woman still in contention at the World Surfing Games at Surf City in El Salvador.

Fierro is competing in the second-tier of the professional World Surf League (WSL) tour but will be a real medal threat at her home break in Tahiti next year.

Almost 16,000 km (10,000 miles) from the main Games venues, the wave at Teahupo'o is one of the world's heaviest and most picturesque, with big Southern Ocean swells slamming onto a shallow coral reef and creating intimidating barrels.

"It's a place where nobody can understand how special it is until they go there and feel the vibe and they will feel it through the TV as well," an elated Fierro said in a televised interview after qualifying.

"We're going to the best place in the world."

Competing as a wildcard in the WSL competition at Teahupo'o last year, Fierro eliminated five-time world champion and Tokyo 2020 Olympics gold medallist Carissa Moore en route to finishing third.

Another dangerous Teahupo'o local, Kauli Vaast, remains in contention for the single men's European qualification spot when competition in El Salvador wraps up on Wednesday.

Vaast finished second in the WSL Teahupo'o contest last year, schooling 11-time world champion Kelly Slater along the way.

Under surfing's qualification process, the top 10 men and top eight women at the end of this year's WSL tour will take the first 18 of 48 spots available for Olympics. The remaining spots are decided through various International Surfing Association competitions.

South Africans Jordy Smith and Sarah Baum, New Zealanders Saffi Vette and Billy Stairmand, and Japan's Shino Matsuda have also provisionally qualified from the El Salvador event.

Portugal's Teresa Bonvalot, Brazil's Tatiana Weston-Webb, Brisa Hennessy from Costa Rica and France's Johanne Defay have qualified through the WSL world tour.

(Reporting by Lincoln Feast in Sydney; Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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