One Foot in the Barrel

Bianca Valenti and the women who ride mountains

By Haven Livingston

Bianca Valenti drops in at Mavericks on a perfect day (Pedro Bala).

It’s 2018 and women have finally gotten their foot in the door of big wave surf contests. Gaining tenure in that arena, however, is a work in progress. The world has seen women compete at Jaws and Nelscott Reef, but we are still waiting to see them compete at the most notorious big wave location in California … Mavericks. The competition has until February 28th to make it happen.

Big wave women surfers have been working for years to make their participation in the Mavericks event a reality. The six contestants who have been invited to the 2017/18 event are thrilled. They are Paige Alms (HI), Bianca Valenti (CA), Keala Kennelly (HI), Justine Dupont (France), Emily Erickson (HI), and Sarah Gerhardt (CA). All of them have played key roles in pushing the visibility of big wave women surfers to the surface, but Valenti has by far been the most outspoken about being allowed to compete at her back yard big wave, Mavericks.

“It’s a lot harder for women to access this sport than men. From the beginning, a 12-year-old girl is discouraged from ‘dangerous’ sports, while a 12-year-old boy is encouraged,” said Valenti.

Women, who have to put in more training for the physical readiness of big wave surfing, also continue to struggle to gain the acceptance in the big wave line up. While comments like, “you should be in the kitchen baking cookies” that Hawaiian big wave pioneer Betty Depolito got decades ago are less common, there is still subtle, and not so subtle, pushback from male counterparts.

“It’s awesome to see how many people are inspired by what we’re doing,” said Valenti. “The more support we get from the men in the sport the faster we can excel in the sport. We need to welcome people and make them feel like they belong. It’s all about working together – the men and women.”

The first opportunity for women to compete against one another in a fully sanctioned big wave contest came in 2016 With the Pe’ahi Challenge in Hawaii. Conditions at Pe’ahi (aka Jaws) were less than ideal for the 12 women who charged during the two 45-minute preliminary heats and hour-long final, but, as we say, they persisted. Alms walked away with the top prize that day, something she would repeat in 2017. All the women came away feeling like they had won that day just because they were there.

Stand-out moments that have led to women’s acknowledgement as top big wave surfers include: Paige Alms becoming the first woman to get barreled at Pe’ahi in 2015. After being the first woman to tow-in surf at Teahupoo in 2005, Keala Kennelly won the open-gender category of barrel of the year at the XXL Big Wave Awards in 2016 for getting barreled at Teahupoo, one of the heaviest breaking big waves in the world. Sarah Gerhardt was the first woman to charge Mavericks back in 1999, and she still charges it nearly two decades later.

In between the glory drops on big waves are grueling hours dedicated to cardio and strength training, juggling families, careers and finding time to surf. Nobody becomes a big wave surfer for the fame and fortune, though many, including Valenti, would at least like the opportunity to become a career athlete. It’s clear that the women who have made their way to competition level have done it out of a pure love of the sport.

“Any time I get to surf big waves, that’s when I feel most alive,” said Valenti.

Event organizers hold the women accountable to keep on proving themselves, but these women know that their surfing speaks for itself and will keep getting stronger. One thing is certain, if Mavericks gets the green light this winter, we’re going to see the best of women’s big wave surfing that Mavericks has ever seen.

Portrait of Valenti (Sarah Makarewicz).

Valenti and Andrea Moller having fun while paddling out (Fred Pompermayer).

Valenti in perfect position near the signature Mavericks peak (Fred Pompermayer).

Valenti in the channel on a foggy day (Fred Pompermayer).

Valenti and Keala Kennelly sharing a Mavericks bomb (Fred Pompermayer).

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