For 33 years the Bassmaster Classic had been the crown jewel of the sport of bass fishing. No other stage, no other trophy and no other experience could touch it. The Classic helped to grow the sport, draw attention to the resource and create stars.
But those stars all had one thing in common.
They were all Americans.
Despite the fact that the bass is the most widely distributed freshwater fish on the planet, the Classic hadn't done a lot to showcase the international aspect of the sport. Sure, there was the occasional foreign angler in the competition field, but the winners were all from the U.S. and almost exclusively from the Southeast.
All that changed with the 34th Classic. It was contested in Charlotte, N.C., on Lake Wylie, and there was exactly one foreign-born angler in the field: Takahiro Omori.
Omori's story was a great one even before he won the 34th Classic. He had come to the United States from Japan speaking essentially no English and without knowing anyone in the States. He hadn't established a reputation as an angler in Japan, like several had done before him, but decided to build his career from scratch in America.
It was a tough path. Living out of his vehicle or in small travel trailers, Omori washed dishes or took on odd jobs to make ends meet, pay entry fees and keep gas in an old bass boat that he used.
But he was driven by a desire that may be unmatched in the history of professional fishing. He knew he could make it and he wasn't going to let anything stand in his way.
So while other young anglers were doing some fishing but also balancing their lives with dating, socializing and other activities, Omori was fishing, working on fishing gear and thinking about fishing.
He was also winning a few tournaments and gaining a reputation as a very strong stick in the fishing industry. He qualified for his first Classic in 2001, finishing 26th. In 2003 he was back, but finished a disappointing 56th.
So when he qualified again in 2004, no one expected much. After all, he had never even made the cut to fish on the final day.
Omori led the 2004 Classic after the first day, but slipped to second after Day 2, just 10 ounces behind the leader. It seemed that he'd fall even further after a poor start to the final day. He caught a few bass, but they weren't the kind he needed to move up.
Then something magical happened. Omori abandoned the pattern that had kept him in the top two for the first two days and began tossing a Bagley crankbait around shoreline cover with just minutes to go in the tournament.
And it worked! On his last few casts Omori caught his best fish of the day and took the lead again. This time for keeps.
When the last bass of the tournament hit the scales on the weigh-in stand, Omori fell to his knees in tears. He had realized a dream that originated more than 20 years before and half a world away.
In the process, he reinforced just how international the sport of bass fishing is today.
How old was Omori in 2004? You guessed it — 34.
Find out tomorrow why the number 33 is the perfect choice for introducing a Classic legend.