PAN AMERICAN GAMES: ‘SOMETHING REALLY SPECIAL
Cole Robbins can still remember the electricity in the tunnels below the Estadio Nacional del Perú as the opening ceremonies got underway ahead of the 2019 Pan American Games.
“We’re surrounded and everybody had the same exact uniform on and everybody was screaming, chanting and yelling ‘USA,'” Mr. Robbins recalled. “Then we walk out and there’s just lights, smoke and fireworks — everything.”
The venue was packed with as many as 50,000 people.
“It was just massive,” Mr. Robbins said. “Everybody has a smile up to their ears and the excitement and energy — it was a surreal feeling. That’s when it really started to sink in that we were part of something really special.”
Mr. Robbins was among six other U.S. athletes that would compete in surfing in the 2019 Pan American Games — the first time the sport was part of the event. He traveled to Lima, Peru, for the first time earlier this month — only to return with a bronze medal in longboarding.
The 28-year-old Santa Barbara and Montecito native was still glowing just a few weeks removed from his Pan Am debut.
Earlier this year, Mr. Robbins was invited to compete in the U.S. Surfing Team trials where he earned a spot as the USA Longboard representative. He recently competed in the International Surfing Association World Surfing Championships, where he reached the final and received the copper medal.
The copper medal earned him a spot in the Pan Am Games, but his entry into the multi-sport event wasn’t that simple.
Mr. Robbins said he was initially informed by the U.S. Olympic Committee that he did not qualify. About a week and a half before the contest opened, he got a call asking if he could go through the programs in order to participate.
“I said of course,” he said with a smile. “I wouldn’t pass on that opportunity for the world.”
From there, Mr. Robbins arrived in Dallas and flew in with the U.S. team. They immediately went to the Athlete’s Village where they were dressed head to toe in Nike Gear and given a pair of Oakley sunglasses, among other attire. All of the clothing was adorned in red, white and blue.
The 2019 Pan Am Games featured standup paddle racing, standup paddle surfing, shortboarding and longboarding. All of the categories had men and women competitors.
“It was just such a privilege to be apart of it and to see how excited everyone would get for each other,” Mr. Robbins said.
So the cutaways they show on TV of the teammates cheering on their teammates are authentic?
“It’s 100 percent real,” Mr. Robbins said. “That was real, true passion. I remember a couple of times I would be on a wave and I would get underscored or something, and my team was there looking up the judge and screaming… It was really special to be part of all that.”
Mr. Robbins credits his parents, Mike and Neilla, for helping him improve on his surfing over the years. He said his dad has the quickest foot work he’s ever seen, and his mom’s support is nothing short of incredible.
Mr. Robbins is also a twin, with his brother Brett also serving as good motivation.
“Brothers are always pushing each other and you never want to be outdone by the other one,” said Cole, who quickly pointed out that he is 14 minutes older than Brett.
Cole also serves as a real estate agent for Village Properties. He joked that he had to cancel a few appointments to make the trip to South America.
Mr. Robbins is a highly-decorated surer, having won just about every amateur event he took part in. That success continued when he turned pro and he ranked as the No. 3 longboarder in the world last year.
Mr. Robbins said his parents follow all of his events closely, and he always knows that he can call his dad for advice.
“He’s always so supportive whether I win or lose,” he said. “It’s always very calming when I hear his voice. And usually my mother is right there by the phone.”
If his parents don’t pick up, Cole knows he can trust Brett to answer.
“He’s been around and he’s been through it and I think he knows me better than anybody else,” he said of his brother.
“They’re the most supportive and loving people I know… my family is everything.”
Mr. Robbins said the surf was totally different in South America, and it took him a day or so to get used to the elements.
“Once you get used to the feel of the water and the power of the wave, then everything starts clicking,” he said.
While the Opening Ceremony is a memory he still holds dear, Mr. Robbins also recalled looking down on his board and seeing the USA sticker.
“When you have that sticker on the board, it puts pressure on,” he said. “But it also… I guess it’s motivating to strive for the best. When you see that sticker you want to be the best. You want that gold and you want to win. Knowing that no matter what happens, there’s going to be a team that supports you — whether we win or lose — it’s a pretty surreal feeling.”
Mr. Robbins was still trying to wrap his head around being the first longboard surfer to represent the country.
“It’s historical. And because I was handed my medal before the other two longboarders,” he said with a laugh.
The other winners, Julian Schweizer, of Uruguay, and Peru’s Benoit Clemente won silver and gold, respectively. All three were handed their medals by the President of Peru, Martin Vizcarra.
On Friday, Mr. Robbins left for Spain for the World Longboard Tour with the World Surfing League. He will then head to New York for another contest.
While the past few weeks have been a blur, Mr. Robbins said he was blown away by the support he’s received — both locally and from around the globe.
“It’s really touching,” he said. “I had no idea that I had this much support and love from everybody. It’s a really special thing. It motivates me to really want to be a true champion and be the best I can be.”
Mr. Robbins represented himself well in South America, doing so behind what he said are “phenomenal” sponsors. He was recently named as the Global Brand Ambassador for Montecito Brands.
Surfing will debut in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but the only category will be shortboarding so Mr. Robbins will not be taking part. The same U.S. Olympic Committee representative who told him that he didn’t qualify for the Pan Am Games said that longboarding would not be part of the 2024 Olympics in Paris, but Mr. Robbins is still holding out hope.
“I’m hoping that everything she says is just the opposite,” he said with a laugh.
There is a chance that longboarding could be added for the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles.
“If surfing goes well in Japan, which I’m really hoping it does, I think it’s going to open the door for every surfing category to be in there,” Mr. Robbins said. “Coming back to L.A. in 2028, we have Malibu — that’s a world class wave known for longboarding. It would be very easy for them to do a contest there and that would be an honor to represent.
“My ultimate goal is to do that,” Mr. Robbins said. “To represent the United States of America in the USA — that’s the real dream right there.”