Rolling with it: surfing lingo explained 

Hang loose dude! You got this!
Poetry in motion: Mick Fanning

As the Tokyo 2020 draws closer, the best surfers around the world are preparing to celebrate their sport appearing for the first time on the Olympic stage. Twenty women and 20 men will compete in the shortboard competitions.

This is a chance for the surfers involved to write themselves into a chapter of Olympic history. It’s one of five new sports on the 2020 programme and has been included in the events list in an effort to bring an even more youthful and vibrant theme to the Games.

What is competitive surfing?

Surfing is the sport of riding a wave to the shore while standing or lying on a surfboard. During competitions, surfers catch waves which are judged and ranked out of 10 by a panel of judges. The surfers aim to perform difficult manoeuvres to gain more points, and their best two waves are added together for the final score.

While competing in the Olympics, the surfers will ride a shortboard. The shortboard is around six feet – or 1.85 metres – long, with a pointed tip for fast and easy handling through the water.

Speed, agility and drama are all essential elements of this adrenaline-packed event. It’s more than a sport – it’s a way of life, according to South Africa’s Bianca Buitendagss. To help you prepare for some truly thrilling viewing, we’ve created a helpful glossary with all the surfing meanings you need, so you know exactly what’s happening.


Air: This is a moment when the surfer rides the wave to the top and briefly leaves the water to perform a jump or an aerial manoeuvre. The surfer will then land back on the wave and continue to ride.

Bail: The moment when the surfer steps off their board to avoid being knocked off by the wave or wiping out.

Barrel: When a large wave rolls over and creates a tunnel or barrel shape with the surfer still inside.

Big wave: The most impressive and nail-biting spectacle surfing has to offer, big-wave surfing involves waves at least 20 feet – or 6.2 metres – tall. Watch one of the masters, Garrett McNamara, at work.

Carve: The surfer will turn or change direction on the wave.

Duck dive: As they’re paddling out to catch a wave, the surfer will dip the nose of their board underwater to dive underneath a wave rather than choosing to ride it.

Goofy foot: Surfing with the right foot forward and the left at the back. This is less common than the regular footing of left foot forward and right back.

Pop-up: When starting a ride, the surfer will go from a lying position to standing on the board, popping-up to surf the wave.

Pump: The surfer pushes the board up and down with their legs to create more momentum and increase the speed.

Snap: A very quick turn on the top of the wave.

Swell: A series of waves usually created further out at sea in a storm. When the swell arrives at shore they begin to break and can be surfed.

White water: When a wave breaks, the water continues in a frothy foam called white water. This is generally too turbulent to surf.

Wipeout: When the surfer is knocked off the board by the wave or falls into the water.

Learn these key terms before the competition starts and get ready for some incredible performances at the upcoming Olympics. With this terminology in your back pocket, you’ll be a pro spectator for this exciting new addition to the Games.