SANTIAGO, Chile — Sanoa Dempfle-Olin bobbed in the Pacific waves with her face in her hands when she realized what was ahead of her.
The 18-year-old surfer from Tofino, B.C., qualified for the 2024 Olympic Games by reaching Monday's Pan American Games women's final. No Canadians surfed when the sport made its Olympic debut in Tokyo just over two years ago.
With Brazilian finalist Tatiana Weston-Webb already bound for Paris — although the French Polynesian island of Tahiti will provide the Olympic surfing venue — the 18-year-old Canadian needed a semifinal win for Olympic qualification.
Dempfle-Olin posted two strong scores early in the semifinal session for a 10-4.20 win over Costa Rica's Leilani McGonagle.
"Getting towards the end of the heat, I was in the lead, and before the buzzer sounds, anything can happen," Dempfle-Olin told The Canadian Press.
"As soon as I heard the countdown and heard the buzzer sound, I definitely felt all the emotions, releasing the pressure, all of it from the last two weeks of training here.
"So after the heat, after it was official and the buzzer sounded, I had my head in my hands for a few minutes and just soaked it all in. Kind of let go and felt all the emotions."
Dempfle-Olin (pronounced DEM'-flee oh-lin) was mobbed by teammates on the shoreline after emerging from the sea at Punta de Lobos, roughly 220 kilometres southwest of Santiago, Chile.
"It still doesn't feel real but on the jet-ski ride back into the beaches, I didn't even believe it," she said. "Seeing them all on the beach made it extra-special. It confirmed it."
The Canadian ended the day with a silver medal. She was beaten 12.33-10.13 by the 27-year-old veteran Weston-Webb for gold.
"She's an amazing surfer and on tour for years. I've looked up to her pretty much my whole life," Dempfle-Olin said.
"In my semifinal, I was lucky to get the ball rolling pretty quick and get my two scoring waves pretty quickly. The final, it was a little bit harder to find them. It was a bit messier out there and the rip was also really strong, so it was super-hard to stay in position. It took me a little longer to find waves that had great potential."
Dempfle-Olin's Olympic qualification is provisional upon her competing in the 2024 ISA World Surfing Games in Puerto Rico.
Two Canadians would have to finish both ahead of her and among the top seven women in Puerto Rico to knock Dempfle-Olin off her Olympic berth.
That's a tall order with over 100 women competing for seven remaining Olympic spots, Surf Canada executive director Dom Domic said.
"I would bet the house that Sanoa has fully punched her ticket to Paris 24," he said. "It's literally almost assured."
Dempfle-Olin's older sister, Mathea, earned Pan Am Games bronze when the sport was introduced in Lima, Peru in 2019. The sisters grew up surfing Tofino's cold waters in wetsuits.
"My sister gave me lots of good advice," Dempfle-Olin said. "She's just kind of been my inspiration for my whole life. She's pushed me and she's my biggest supporter and my best friend.
"Before every heat and at night before bed we'd message each other and she just remind me that I've put in all the hard work and that if it was meant to happen for me that it would.
"I think she's feeling some of my joy."
Mathea, 20, didn't qualify for Santiago, but Sanoa did by finishing fourth in April's Pan American Surfing Games in Panama.
Olympic surfing will happen 15,000 kilometres away from Paris in Teahupo'o, Tahiti. The Dempfle-Olin sisters got a taste of the "Wall of Skulls" and its mammoth barrels at a September training camp.
"The wave is extremely challenging because often it's very big when it's good and it's very thick wave," Dempfle-Olin said.
"It's over very shallow reef and there's just kind of a lot that could go wrong there. It's also a very beautiful wave, in a very beautiful place and you can definitely get some of the best rides your life there."
Dempfle-Olin will surf in the world junior championship Nov. 24 to Dec. 3 in Rio de Janeiro.
Canada didn't qualify a surfer for Tokyo, although Cody Young received a late invitation due to a COVID-related vacancy in the men's field. The Hawaii-based surfer wasn't able to get to Tokyo in time, however, because of pandemic-related travel issues.
A young woman qualifying for the 2024 Olympic Games nine months out can help raise the sport's profile in Canada, Domic said.
"It's great for surfing in Canada," he said. "It just validates all the work that we've been putting and the culture that we've been building over the decades and of course you've got to give it to Sanoa and her family and everybody that's been supporting her."
Canada has 105 medals after 10 days of competition — 35 golds, 32 silvers and 38 bronze.
In judo, Shady El Nahas of Toronto won gold in the men’s 100kg judo class in his Pan Am Games debut at Santiago.
Fencer Dylan French of Richmond, B.C., was the first Canadian ever to be crowned Pan Am Games champion in the men’s individual épée. The last Canadian to win gold in any individual fencing event at the Pan Am Games was Philippe Beaudry at Guadalajara 2011 in the men’s sabre.
Two Canadians captured medals in the women’s individual foil: Eleanor Harvey of Hamilton, Ont., won the silver medal, while Jessica Guo of Toronto claimed bronze. Harvey and Guo were both members of the Tokyo 2020 team that finished fifth for Canada’s best-ever Olympic result in women’s team foil.
In table tennis, Eugene Wang of Aurora, Ont., and Mo Zhang of Vancouver took bronze in mixed doubles. Santiago 2023 marked Zhang’s fifth Pan Am Games appearance and Wang’s third.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 30, 2023.
Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press