Kobayashi has spent 20 of his 22 years on a surfboard.
Photo by Joe Foster (@joefosterphoto).
Rakuten has been a major player in professional sport for much of its history, beginning with professional baseball and soccer in Japan before expanding internationally by partnering with legendary soccer club FC Barcelona, the NBA’s Golden State Warriors — and more recently, the historic Davis Cup tennis tournament.
Now the global internet services leader is making a splash in a vibrant new arena: surfing. 22-year-old Kei Kobayashi from San Clemente, California is Rakuten’s representative on the waves.
The ocean is forever changing; you never know what it’s going to be doing. But that’s really what I like and that’s what pushes me to be a better athlete.Kei Kobayashi, professional surfer
A dream tour in his sights
A surf-loving family got Kobayashi into the sport at just two years old, and he entered the professional world at age 12. He confesses that as a career choice, getting started in pro surfing is particularly challenging.
“In surfing in particular, there are so many ups and downs,” he says.
Kobayashi won his first major title in early 2020 — the Ron Jon Quiksilver Pro in Florida, which was the last major pro event before the world went into lockdown. The subsequent lull hasn’t dampened Kobayashi’s spirits: When he isn’t out taming the waves, he’s either in the gym or working on his mental game.
“Working out in the gym has definitely helped me prepare mentally and physically. It’s helped my confidence — and I feel as an athlete, confidence plays a huge role,” he says.
It’s all about just learning about myself and trying to be a better athlete every day. If I’m not working out, I’m doing something to better my surfing — watching videos, stretching or doing certain movements.
It’s all part of a push towards Kobayashi’s lifelong goal.
“The world tour — the World Surf League, or the dream tour as we call it. That has been a goal of mine since I was a little kid,” he reveals. “Over the last few years, I’ve gained more confidence with my training and surfing. I feel like I’ve changed a lot as a person and am mentally much more prepared.”
The world stage awaits
The recent inclusion of surfing as an Olympic sport has electrified the surfing community, and Kobayashi may have yet another lofty goal to work towards. The 2024 surfing events will take place in Teahupo’o, Tahiti.
“Teahupo’o is a place I’ve been dreaming of going to,” he reveals. “It’s a goal of mine that’s in the back of my mind, but I’m really just taking it day by day, enjoying the process and loving every minute of it.”
The official nod from the Olympics community has the whole surfing world excited. “It’s a crazy topic for everyone as a surfer. It’s something we all talk about every day,” he says.
The Olympics definitely helped make surfing into a “real” sport. Skating, basketball, football — all those sports are just so big, and although surfing isn’t as big just yet, we’re working hard to get to that level.”
In the beginning stages of a promising career, Kobayashi could be just in time for the golden age of pro surfing. “It’s definitely something that we’ve all looked forward to having,” he reveals. “I’m stoked to be a part of the journey.”
Part of the Rakuten family
Rakuten is associated with a wide variety of sports and businesses, but until now, surfing hasn’t been one of them. Kobayashi knows this, but says he decided to partner with Rakuten in part because of how they work with athletes.
“It’s about the bond and the friendship, how we’re going to become a family at the end of the day,” he explains. “It’s great to have a sponsor, but ideally I’d rather become a member of the family, be able to talk as a family. For me as an athlete that’s huge.”
So what has Kobayashi learned from two decades of surfing?
“For me, personally I’d say just try to spread love and positivity. Stay humble and true to yourself. At the end of the day, I want to show what I’m capable of doing but not be too hard on myself.”
It’s hard to listen to Kobayashi’s positive attitude and not feel inspired to wax up a board and test your balance. That may be easier said than done, but Kobayashi advises anyone considering taking up the sport to just go ahead and find someone to show you the ropes.
“Everyone should try surfing once in their life,” he urges. “It might not be the best experience the first time, but that’s all part of the process. Keep trying and you’re gonna have fun. Don’t be too hard on yourself — it’s definitely a hard sport to learn right away, but just have fun, enjoy the process and have a big smile at the end of the day.”