Get to know Olympic-qualified surfers Ramzi Boukhiam and Anat Lelior

The surfers from Morocco and Israel are ready to represent their countries at the Olympic debut of their sport, the Tokyo 2020 Games in 2021, after booking their spots through the ISA World Surfing Games.
By Aidan McKevitt

With most pro surfing stars coming from Australia, Brazil, and the U.S.A, it’s easy to overlook athletes making a name for themselves in the water in other, less popular surf destinations.

Two such surfers, Ramzi Boukhiam of Morocco, and Anat Lelior of Israel, are the subject of the latest episode of the International Surfing Association’s (ISA) series, The State of Olympic Surfing.

The pair are future Olympians, who earned their qualification during the ISA World Surfing Games in 2019, and are now gearing up for surfing’s debut at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in 2021.

Ramzi Boukhiam - Moroccan surfer heading to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in 2021

Ramzi Boukhiam is a name you may not know yet, but keep an eye out for him.

The 27-year-old hails from Agadir, Morocco and as of now is the only surfer from an Arabic country who is qualified to compete at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in 2021.

Boukhiam admits that outside of the surfing world, Morocco is not often thought of as a popular surfing destination, but is actively trying to change that perspective.

“We have 3,200km of coastline, so imagine how many waves we have. Famous waves and still unknown waves,” Boukhiam tells ISA.

Boukhiam’s journey in the sport began at just nine years old, surfing the local breaks by his house while his father was fishing from the shore.

He was a fast learner who dove headfirst into the sport with no hesitation, and in less than a year was already competing in local events.

“I went on to do my first competition in 2003 in Mohammedia and it was I think only six or eight months after I started surfing,” he shares.

That first contest in Mohammedia was just the beginning.

By 2012 Boukhiam became a standard name on the World Surf League (WSL) Qualifier Series as well as several ISA World Surfing events. However, his career hit a peak in 2019 when he was invited as the sole Moroccan surfer to compete in the ISA World Surf Games in Japan.

Heat after heat, his scores kept increasing - as documented in the Olympic Channel original series Road to Tokyo - Surfing - The Qualifier Stories – and by the final days of the event Boukhiam had made history.

He was officially confirmed as the first Arabic athlete to qualify for surfing’s Olympic debut, and on his return to Morocco was met with an even bigger surprise, literally.

“When I came home there was a picture of me on the wall in the village where I grew up, where I started surfing.” - Ramzi Boukhiam.

Seeing the mural, Boukhiam was filled with pride, but obviously it went both ways.

"I’ve got to make them proud you know. They push me all year long. Every time I have support from Morocco, from my family, and from all my fans, so it’s just my job to do everything to make them proud."

Anat Lelior - Israel's hope for Tokyo 2020 Olympic surfing success in 2021

A newcomer ready to make her mark is Israel’s Anat Lelior.

The Tel Aviv native is just 20 years old but earned her Tokyo 2020 Olympic qualification after finishing as the top women in Europe at the 2019 ISA World Surf Games in Japan.

The responsibility of representing her country is nothing new to Lelior. She is serving as a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces.

In Israel, military service is mandatory for all citizens once they turn 18.

Fortunately for her, she is allowed to travel for surfing competitions and spend time training for Tokyo 2020.

The same year as her Olympic qualification, Lelior also had her best season on the WSL World Qualifying series, culminating in a first place finish at the Deeply Pro Anglet in France.

Beyond the Olympics, her ultimate goal is to become the first Israeli surfer on the World Championship Tour, and with 15 years of surfing experience already under her belt, as well as the natural adaptability that comes with being a Mediterranean Sea surfer, she is well on her way.

Stating the obvious, most pro surfers grow up next to great surfing beaches with an abundance of good waves.

If you take a look at the previous world champion’s home towns, surfing-rich areas like Hawaii, the Gold Coast of Australia, and southern Brazil stand out.

However, growing up surfing the inconsistent and ever-changing waves at the beaches of Tel Aviv has given Lelior a different mentality and approach.

"I live in a sea compared to an ocean, and a sea is almost like a puddle next to a pool.

"The waves are not really consistent and it’s really hard to be an excellent surfer next to all the world champions and all the other contestants. So, I just try to keep pushing harder and harder even though I don’t have the conditions that they have."

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Lelior quarantined with her family in Tel Aviv, unable to surf for almost three months. But looking back, she views it positively, and as an opportunity to focus in and plan out her goals.

“I’m even grateful for the Olympics being postponed. I think it gave us all time to see what’s the most important in our lives”

“I know what I want to do with my life now and I’m ready to start it.”

Surfing for change

Both Boukhiam and Lelior competed, won, and earned their ticket to Tokyo 2020 at the 2019 ISA World Surf Games in Japan - featured in the Olympic Channel original series Road to Tokyo - Surfing - The Qualifier Stories.

However, both left Japan that year with a distinct experience that blended surfing and multiculturalism.

As Anat Lelior puts it:

“It’s an amazing event. I meet so many people there. It’s so nice seeing how surfing connects everybody, connecting people on one love that is surfing.

"I never have talks about politics or anything else, we really do just have fun and we talk. Everybody is a person, it doesn’t matter if he has the flag of Iran behind his back, or this guy has the flag of the US behind his back, or the Moroccan flag, or the Israeli flag.

"It doesn’t matter because we are all surfers and it breaks all boundaries. I’m grateful for all the friends that I’ve met through the ISA that I never thought I would meet. I have friends from Fiji, Costa Rica, and Iran”