T here’s this intangible connection all surfers have with the ocean.
I was sitting on my board during the final heat on the last day of the Target Maui Pro at Honolua Bay, just waiting. I knew what I was looking for. It’s going to come in. It’s going to bowl up and have this nice shape with not too much wall. I just have to have faith and sit and believe it’s going to come to me.
Finally, I saw it coming. The most perfect wave I’d seen all day.
Paddling in, I thought, I’m going to trust myself. Believe in myself. Do what I’ve trained for, and let the wave do the rest. It sucked up nice, with just the right curve. I drew a bottom turn, and for a moment I just got to stand inside this beautiful barrel. In there, with the water rushing around you, it’s like being in control of Mother Nature, even if only for a few seconds. Time stands still, I swear. It doesn’t happen often, and when it does, you just want more. The moment it’s over, you’re like, “Let’s do it again!”
Coming out of the barrel, there was so much adrenaline pumping through my veins. I was just so stoked, and I had all this speed. I didn’t want to fall, but still wanted to push as hard as I could. I saw the wall of water build in front of me. I stayed high on the wave, then at the top I grabbed the rail of my board and turned into the wave, putting all my weight into the left side of my body and bringing the board down to the bottom.
Feeling that speed and my board cutting through ocean like that, so smooth, it’s hard to describe.
I paddled back with the biggest smile on my face. I was chee-hooing (it’s a thing we yell in Hawaii when we’re really excited), so stoked. Then they posted the score: a perfect 10. I hadn’t gotten a 10 in years! Not even during this season, which I felt was one of my best yet. It was so special to get a 10 on the last day of the event — while wearing 10 on my back, the number I chose because that’s the goal of every heat.
That wave won me the Maui Pro, and it was the last wave in the contest that clinched my World Surf League title.
The funny thing is, I had already won the championship before I even paddled out. The WSL title is determined on a points system based on results over the whole season. So after Coco Ho knocked out Courtney Conlogue in the fourth round of the contest, nobody could catch me. I knew the result before I hit the water for the last heat against Sally Fitzgibbons. You’ve heard that quote, “Imagine what you could do if you knew you couldn’t fail?” It totally came into my mind.
That’s how I surfed all day, and it taught me something valuable.
My first heat after clinching the title was my quarterfinal with Tyler Wright, and for the first 15 minutes, I had a total of maybe five points because I was going for barrels and wasn’t making it out. I fell a lot, but that’s what the guys do. They don’t hold back and worry about mistakes. They just go and go and go, and ultimately at some point they’re going to make something incredible. I always want to be the best, and I really beat myself up when I don’t achieve it. But this was the first time that I had no pressure in a competition, and the result was as close to a complete definition of myself on a surfboard — free, fluid, spontaneous — as I’ve ever shown in a contest. I let go completely, and just surfed from my heart.
Now that I know that feeling, I can try to recreate it, even when the pressure is there.
But it wasn’t just winning the contest and the title that made the day so amazing. Having grown up in the Hawaiian Islands, this was the most special place it could happen. Honolua Bay is the most breathtaking place in the world. You have the islands on the outside. The bay is green and lush, and then we had those perfect waves coming in. A lot of my family doesn’t get to travel very often to see me compete, but they were all there for this event. My parents divorced when I was young, and it was hard for my mom to support my dream, because she always associated surfing with my dad. I went through a period right out of high school where we didn’t talk for a couple of years. But it finally came full circle, and she was there, crying, so proud.
That was so cool for me.
I’m so extremely proud to be a female in surfing right now, because I feel like every year the girls are stepping up, working even harder. We’re pushing each other in heats. Our strategy is getting better. You can’t just show up and win heats anymore. You have to be on your A-Game. Girls like Tyler Wright and Stephanie Gilmore, Sally and Courtney, they know how to win. They’re physically and mentally ready all the time and really hard to beat. But so many others are figuring it out and putting it together. Even the girls on the second level of the tour are causing upsets and winning events.
Women in surfing have had to overcome a lot. In the past, when we’ve had joint events with the men, we were never given the chance to surf the good waves because we supposedly “wasted” them. It’s why Maui was such a highlight for women’s surfing. We showed again that if you give us good waves, we will perform well and actually put on an exciting show, with big carves and exciting maneuvers. More people are watching, and getting more excited.
There hasn’t just been a change in contests, but all across surfing.
Surfing is territorial. You don’t just show up at the beach one day and do whatever you want. When I was 10 years old, I paddled out to Kewalo Basin, on the south shore of Oahu, for the first time, with my dad. And one of the “uncles” — the older men who run a surf spot — came up to us and said, “Take her back to Waikiki! She doesn’t belong here!” And it’s so funny now, because now Kewalo is filled with little girls — maybe 15 of them out there almost every day surfing — and the uncles have embraced it. It’s like a little family down on the beach.
More and more, girls are getting respect in lineups, especially at their home breaks. You have to be respectful, put in your time and work your way up. But now girls are being given a chance to get waves and earn a spot.
The men on tour are the leaders of our sport, for the moment. They’re constantly progressing, constantly innovating. The closer we can get to what they’re doing, the better. I definitely want to be as good as the guys, but at the same time, there’s a part of me that knows I’m never going to be John John Florence. I’m just not. The guys have more leg and core strength from their body build. The amount of water they can push, and the length they can hold a turn, it’s just different.
But being equals in surfing doesn’t have to mean being exactly the same. Female surfers have always been appreciated for their beauty, which is great as long as it’s not all we’re appreciated for. Strong is beautiful, and I think more and more we’re being respected for our skill and athleticism. There has definitely been a shift in focus to how we surf instead of how we look or what we wear on the water. We are beautiful, and we bring a grace to the sport. But you just can’t ignore how well the women are surfing.
Growing up, I loved watching the girls from Hawaii — Megan Abubo, Rochelle Ballard, Keala Kennelly. They were charging. There were a lot of women surfers to look up to, but there was no media to broadcast it. Now with the WSL, little girls get to watch us and aspire to be on that tour. That next generation is going to be insane. I follow this little girl from Australia. Her name is Sabre Norris. She’s doing air reverses … and she’s 10. I wasn’t doing air reverses when I was 10. I barely know how to do them now!
So who knows … maybe soon it won’t just be the uncles keeping an eye on all the surf spots.
It’ll be the aunties, too.