Surfer/Writer/TEDx Speaker
Keala Kennelly navigates a Puerto monster. Photo:Ryan Struck

Keala Kennelly holds nothing back on this Puerto monster. Photo:Ryan Struck

The Inertia

There’s an obvious gender disparity in big-wave surfing. For example, the Quicksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau had no women competitors. The Pe’ahi Challenge at Jaws had no women competitors. The Titans of Mavericks had no women competitors, but they did invite a woman to be one of the 10 alternates. Was this a move of progression or pressure?

There’s a pervasive sentiment among some surfers who argue women don’t or can’t surf big waves. That argument, of course, is completely worthless. Women are surfing big waves. Women like Paige Alms, Keala Kennelly (who recently wrote a wonderful piece about the gender inequality in big-wave surfing), and Sarah Gerhardt are doing mind-blowing things in waves of consequence. Additionally, some WCT competitors, like Laura Enever, often enjoy the rush of bigger waves.

So the question remains: Why aren’t women invited to compete with the men? Or, why aren’t there big-wave competitions for women?

Several arguments have surfaced in recent years. One is that the difference in physiology. Of course, men and women are built differently. Running is a great place to see the difference. Usain Bolt runs about a second faster than the fastest women in the world, the late Florence Griffith-Joyner. The time difference is even more pronounced in the marathon with the fastest woman, Paula Radcliff, running a 2:15:25, a snails pace compared to Dennis Kipruto’s 2:02:57. I concede, there are anatomical differences. But are these differences really enough to leave women on the shore when it comes to big-wave competition?

The ocean tends to be a great equalizer, where grit and preparation is key, something both men and women are capable of demonstrating—especially before entering the arena with big waves. Unlike other sports, surfing is about understanding the ocean. Great surfers know where to sit in the lineup and notice subtle changes most cannot see. Men don’t corner the market on intuitive knowledge of the ocean. Sorry, fellas.

Money is the other issue. Will people watch women surfing big waves? This was the same question FIFA had to address in 1988 when they held an invitational women’s tournament. In 1991 the Women’s World Cup began, running every four years since. Keep in mind it took 58 years for FIFA to open the doors to women.

20 years ago, the WNBA didn’t exist. And although there were several failed attempts along the way, this league has become a staple.

Neither the Women’s World Cup nor the WNBA makes the profit of the male equivalent, but both have staying power. My hope is that the surf community is willing to offer women the same opportunities as these other sports did. My only wish is that surfing takes a more progressive stance and not wait decades before women are given what is rightfully theirs.


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