A good argument could be made that Keala Kennelly, Bethany Hamilton and Carissa Moore are three of the most beloved and respected humans in surfing. Moore, dominating the WSL and always smiling at every stop along the way. Kennelly, cementing herself as one of big wave surfing’s greatest athletes and standing out just as much by being a positive voice for women that thrive in a “man’s game.” And of course Bethany Hamilton, the philanthropist and ultimate comeback story in sports who turned losing an arm as a teenager into a mission to remind the world to persevere. Beyond being tremendous talents their success represents a diversity of what’s happening in the women’s surfing, and that’s why it’s so refreshing to hear each lady has been nominated for awards on sports’ biggest night: The ESPYS.
Hamilton’s nomination for Best Female Athlete With A Disability comes on the heels of a standout performance in May’s Women’s Fiji Pro. She slayed it. Unlike a good portion of the men’s event, the women competed in solid surf at Cloudbreak where Bethany knocked out then World #1 Tyler Wright, outscored Steph Gilmore in a Round 3 heat, and beat Nikki Van Dijk in the Quarterfinals, all before bowing out to eventual contest winner Johanne Defay in the Semifinal. The 3rd place finish was inspiring to say the least, turning more than a few heads in professional surfing. Kelly Slater himself even chimed in on the B-Hams hype during her Fiji hot streak:
“Anyone who isn’t inspired by @bethanyhamilton and her physical attributes after losing her arm to a tiger shark in Kauai some years ago should check their pulse. The hardships she overcomes to perform at the level she does in the ocean is arguably unparalleled in men’s or women’s sport,” he wrote, before adding ” I think everyone should have a full surf with one arm strapped to their side and attempt not only to paddle out but put themselves in position at heavy spots like Pipe, Jaws, and Cloudbreak, and try to get up on a short board. I’m scared to try it myself and ridiculously impressed with her talents.”
As for the other two surfing nominees, Keala Kennelly and Carissa Moore make up two of the four total nominees for Best Female Action Sports Athlete. KK’s resume for earning the nomination could include several moments, but none as historic as a single wave that traveled across the South Pacific last July only to meet one of the sport’s biggest badasses in Tahiti. She didn’t make it out, but none of that mattered. No human could have. The jaw-dropping fact was that anybody in their right mind would even let go of the rope and pull into one of the biggest waves ever ridden at one of, if not the heaviest spots on the planet: Teahupo’o. All this at the same place that nearly took Kennelly’s face off in 2014.
The moment earned the Kauai born surfer the Pure Scott Barrel of the Year Award at the 2016 WSL Big Wave Awards; an acknowledgement given with no distinction of gender to a woman standing tall in one of the deepest testosterone pits in sports. And rather than flash a pretty smile, accept the award and simply walk off stage like it was business as usual she stood in front of the entire surf world and seized the moment to make an inspired statement about women in big wave surfing:
“When I was a little girl I kept getting told I could not do things because I was a girl. I was told that women can’t surf,” Kennelly said on stage. “And I was told this about getting barreled, surfing big waves, surfing Pipeline, paddling in a Jaws, the list goes on. So who I really want to thank is everyone who told me you can’t do that because you’re a woman. Because that drove me to dedicate my life to proving you wrong, and it’s been so damn fun.”
And last but certainly not least being recognized on the night of the sports world’s Oscars is Carissa Moore, another Hawaiian surfer who is as much a role model as she is a superhuman athlete. Moore will turn 24 later this summer and she’s already one of the most accomplished competitors in the game. She won her third world title in 2015 and has never finished lower than 3rd at the sport’s highest level, keeping her in the spotlight even when she isn’t winning championships. And just as impressive, like the two other surfers who will walk the Red Carpet with her at The Staples Center next month, is that she’s navigated all her competitive success and that attention with grace. She’s become the sport’s unofficial go-to source when people want to talk about the gap of opportunities between men and women in professional surfing, about the sexualization of women in an industry built on the beach, about body image, and the list goes on. There is a Carissa Moore Day in Hawaii, we’ve asked for Carissa Moore Barbie Dolls, and little girls cry tears of joy when they meet the 3-time champ…I think you get the picture: Carissa Moore has a gooey kind of effect on people.
And that last part sums up the positivity in seeing three awesome people, awesome women and awesome athletes earn honors from “The World Wide Leader…” They all give us the good feels in their own way. We can point to what they’ve done in the water strictly as competitors and freakish athletes and they’d already stand out. But I don’t think they’re being recognized solely for what they are capable of atop surfboards. Each is actively using their accomplishments as platforms for something greater than themselves and surfing – whether it be that inspiration to let nothing get in the way of doing what you love a la Bethany, never allowing anybody but yourself determine what you’re capable of like Keala, or committing to making a positive impact on every young athlete that follows your lead like Carissa.
Have I gushed long enough now?
Like I said, there may not be a group of humans more beloved than these three ladies. And with good reason.
Editor’s Note: You can vote for these three athletes in the 2016 ESPYS here, with the award show taking place in Los Angeles July 13th.