HAINAN ISLAND, China (Reuters) - A ballerina "danced across the sea" to introduce professional surfing to China on Wednesday.
Darci Liu received a wildcard for the first event held in her homeland by the Association of Surfing Professionals, and she was swarmed by spectators as she emerged from the water after an opening round defeat by San Diego's Jennifer Smith.
"I feel very grateful and very proud to have had the chance to surf here and to compete against a champion like Jennifer," Liu told Reuters. "She is the best surfer in the world and this is the biggest day of my life.
"I want more people in China to know about surfing and this is the start. It is a graceful and beautiful sport, it is dancing across the sea.
"I have not been surfing very long so I feel like the baby of the event, but the baby is very excited. It's why I have a smile on my face that will last a long time."
Liu studied ballet at the Hubei Provincial Art School before dancing professionally in Guangdong in 2006. It was only the following year that Liu, from Hainan Island, was encouraged by her Californian husband to catch her first wave.
She created a slice of history here by becoming the first Chinese surfer to compete in an ASP event -- the Swatch Girls Pro China is doubling as the women's longboard world championship.
"These surfers will be remembered as pioneers," said Brodie Carr, the Association of Surfing Professionals chief executive. "We thought China was an impossible place for us to enter, but we've done it. We're here and this is just the beginning.
"China is a powerful athletic country, a vast country and marketplace with a potential billion-strong audience for us.
"We want to push boundaries, we want to expand. We've entered a new frontier. This is a landmark day that we'll be looking back on for years to come."
Most competitors, including two-times world champion Smith, were completely unaware China had surf until the venue was announced this year. The opening ceremony was a lavish affair with dancing, singing and fireworks.
Carr said more surfing events for Hainan Island, a lush, palm tree-lined area being promoted as the Hawaii of Asia, were in the pipeline.
The mayor of Wanning said Liu's debut had helped put Hainan Island on the map of world surfing.
"China has open arms to surfing from this day," he said. "We want new tourists to come to beautiful and dynamic Wanning.
"We have a healthy, passionate and dynamic coastal location and we want to popularize surfing in China."