Is the acceleration of women’s performances in big wave surfing a new phenomenon? Are we really witnessing the beginning of the fairer sex becoming a force in waves traditionally dominated by men?
The conversation certainly picked up a bit more volume this winter, with the 2016 WSL XXL Big Wave Awards serving as a bit of a closing statement when Keala Kennelly bagged the Pure Scot Barrel Award. It signals more than a dramatic shift in surfing history. It’s a move to distance all women from the gender biases that exist everywhere, from unequal pay in the workplace to female athletes getting less media coverage than their male counterparts. It’s a signal that strength of mind and body, boldness and athleticism is in fact a way that women can excel in this world and dismiss the old media-fueled stereotypes that favor a woman’s looks over abilities. Keala touched on all these things when she accepted the award that wasn’t earned in a field of women, but of both men and women alike.
There is a very public discussion happening about sexism and gender bias being harmful to the advancement of women. This latest zeitgeist is being carried to the forefront of media by highly articulate agents, hailing from a wide spectrum of professional disciplines — not just surfing. The vox populi of all tribes has been enriched by leaders like Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer in technology, Elizabeth Warren, Hillary Clinton, and Sonya Sotomayor in politics and justice, Kathryn Bigelow, Oprah, and Amy Schumer in media and entertainment. And look at the United States Women’s Soccer team, demanding the same pay as the men’s team. How uppity and downright refreshing.
Turning that same gaze back to the mighty microcosm of surfing’s female athletes and digging into the past it’s fair to ask why, forty years after women began surfing on the professional tour, the code is being rewritten now?
After the Big Wave Awards, I spoke with Sandy Ordille, 2016 Surfing Hall of Fame Inductee and a veteran professional surfer from the first women’s International Professional Surfers tour, founded in 1977 by Randy Rarick and Fred Hemmings. Here are some highlights from that convo:
Beth O’Rourke: You were there when Keala Kennelly was awarded first prize in a field of men for the biggest barrel of the year. How did that make you feel?
Sandy Ordille: It just was a confirmation. It was the reason I was so hellbent on getting there. I knew. I have surfers intuition. [Laughs] I saw that Keala had broken that very high ceiling of glass and my spirits soared. I was incredibly uplifted. It’s a moment that will forever be in the surfing history books and a thrill that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. She had just rewritten the code by riding that wave. It’s such a huge accomplishment for Keala. And it’s not not just for us in surfing — everyone benefits.
Beth: When Keala won, did you flash on any moments in your life when you saw other breakthroughs for women’s professional surfing?
Sandy: Yes. In 1977 I was traveling on the pro tour in Durban, South Africa. One morning all us guys and girls woke up early right up the road from Jeffreys Bay. We piled into a Kombi van and bumped down the rough road through the grassy highland park and pulled into a dirt parking lot. It was throwing, perfect 8-12 feet Hawaiian, offshore wind, like a machine — just epic. I’m paddling back out from one of the best free surfing waves I’d ever had and I see Lynne Boyer. I’m thinking, wow, that’s amazing what she’s doing, cracking this radical off-the-lip and bottom turning into an insane barrel, just completely surfing in this new way that she’d brought from days at Makaha with Larry Bertlemann. I’d never seen a woman surf like that before.
Then, on the wave right behind her was Bobby Owens, and he was killing it too. We were all pushing each other, pulling off radical moves and throwing buckets of spray. Lynne and Bobby were so much like brother and sister, pushing each other, like a sibling rivalry.
That day when I saw Lynne and Bobby going head to head free surfing, I knew it was a moment in surfing history. Lynne had definitely pushed up the bar. Until then, women’s surfing had been dominated by the unbeatable Margo Oberg until Lynne started peaking in 1977.
Sandy: There was a dramatic rise in the level of performance when Lynne surfed that wave. Up until that point women’s surfing had been dominated by Margo. This moment in 1977 was a mirror of what happened in front of us last weekend [at the Big Wave Awards].
Surfing is known for it’s strong individuals. What brings us together is the journey and the camaraderie — to look for waves. These things will always bring us together as a tribe. Like any tribe we’re made of men, women, children, dogs, you name it. Our galvanizing spirit will always be spontaneous, courageous, and incredibly driven by the quest for the perfect wave.
We were surfing our best because we were driving ourselves as a microcosm of the bigger tribe, because riding waves and being one with nature creates a spirit within us. This all happened from the very beginning. We were a global market, before it was cool.
Beth: Did you experience condescension in spite of your obvious athletic prowess as a professional surfer?
Sandy: I only got push back a few times and I never took it personally because it was never directed towards me. I believe it’s all from an economical standpoint. There’s never been a lot of money in professional surfing. I knew it wasn’t out of any malice; we were trying to survive. The prize money was growing slowly and you needed money to get to these places all over the world.
Beth: What about the now infamous speech by Greg Noll at the Big Wave Awards?
Sandy: Let me answer this way: The thing I enjoyed the very most that night was seeing Andrea Moller walk up on that stage. She was the class act that night. She walked away with the trophy. I enjoyed her acceptance speech more than any other. I know how hard that was for her to walk up on that stage. (Note: On February 11, 2016, Andrea Moller suffered the most severe injury of her career as an ocean sports athlete when her hamstring was traumatically ripped from the bone during a surfing accident. The injury occurred while Moller was big wave surfing at Pe’ahi (Jaws) on Maui) I know how hard that was for her to walk up on that stage.
Greg, and even Keala, their speeches really didn’t inspire me as much as Andrea’s. Greg and Keala are pushing their limits in a different way. I don’t think anyone benefits by getting into negativity. A long time ago I just made a decision in my life to listen to my mother — to focus on what I think is good and positive. Andrea is getting by on her will — you don’t need words for that, just courage and action. She is the real deal, a class act.
Editor’s Note: Unwavering, is a new a documentary project by Beth O’Rourke and Sachi Cunningham covering the life and history of the best female big wave surfers in the world. They attended the Big Wave Awards with a camera crew and filmed Keala Kennelly and Andrea Moller’s historic wins, in addition to other memorable moments. You can follow Unwavering on Facebook and Instagram @unwaveringstory.