Women of the Wild

These California athletes have put adventure at the center of their lives

By Aloe Driscoll

What is a wild woman? Wild is defined as “living in a state of nature” and “not subject to restraint or regulation.” And a wild woman is what I aspired to be when I set off from Santa Cruz to surf Central America during the summer of 2015, just as eager to break the prescribed boundaries of being a thirty-something woman as I was to immerse myself in the raw and rugged landscape of the Pacific Coast. Though I traveled solo, I wasn’t alone. Increasingly, more and more women are putting adventure at the center of their lives.

And who can blame us? Adventure inspires us to forge a deeper connection with the natural world and the beings within it, to surpass the limits that others set for us and reach beyond our own wildest dreams. Adventure-centric lives broaden our horizons, giving us room to discover our true potential and often lead to opportunities we never expected – in my case, a career as a writer. In the case of Lynne Cox, Juli Furtado, and Sachi Cunningham, adventure has created three matriarchs of adventure sports who inspire everyone around them.

“You can’t be what you can’t see,” says the adage, which refers to the importance of archetypes in establishing racial and gender equality. Cox, Furtado, and Cunningham are pioneers in their respective sports, viewing the cultural preconceptions about gender as challenges rather than limitations. In overcoming them, they raise the bar for both sexes, setting powerful examples for the next generation of wild women, and showing us all that what we can imagine is even more important than what we can see.


Lynne Cox

Lynne Cox will serve on a panel at Telluride to talk about the documentary film, Fishpeople (Anne Chatillion).

When Lynne Cox set her eyes on swimming the English Channel, people told her it was impossible: at 14 years old, she was too young – and a girl. Undiscouraged, Cox wrote to Florence Chadwick, who held the women’s record for swimming the English Channel in 1950, to ask for advice. Chadwick not only called Cox, she also sent a telegram of congratulations when Cox completed the swim from England to France at age 15, shattering the men’s and women’s records. What she took from the experience: “If you succeed at something … it’s your duty to help others along the way.”

Cox went on to break other world records, and establish new records swimming distances that had never been attempted before. Ultimately, she focused on challenges that had the potential to improve international relations. “It was not just a desire to swim, it was also to explore the world and to use the swim as a connection between people,” notes Cox, who conceived swimming the Bering Strait as an opportunity to change the way the US and the Soviet Union viewed each other. She successfully completed the swim in 1987, the first person ever to do so.

“I choose not to be limited by other people’s limitations,” Cox says, adding that resistance she encounters from others often sheds valuable light on her vision. A huge amount of planning and preparation goes into each new challenge. “All the preparation is like the mountain, and actually doing the swim is just the summit,” she says, recalling that she spent two years preparing for a swim in Antarctica, which lasted a chilly 25 minutes – during which she covered 1.2 miles without a wetsuit in 32 degree water – the first person ever to do so.

Cox spent two years studying risk management with the Navy Seals; and solicits help from local people in learning about tides, currents, water temperature, and marine biology in the places she swims.

An author of six books, Cox is eager to pass on what she’s learned. Look for her newest book, Swimming in the Sink, coming out in paperback on June 13, and make sure to check her out in FISHPEOPLE, a documentary by Keith Malloy selected for the 2017 Telluride Film Festival. She’ll be doing a book tour over the summer and serving on a panel at Telluride over Labor Day Weekend in September – and of course, swimming in whatever pool, pond, lake, river, or ocean she can find.

Cox swims without a wetsuit, relying on speed and acclimation training to combat cold (Anne Chatillion).


Juli Furtado

Former world champion Juli Furtado designs mountain bikes and components specifically for women (Juliana Bicycles).

“You’re not a role model just because you can do some sport really well,” notes Juli Furtado, who strives to be down to earth, funny, and graceful in defeat, like when she did ‘horribly’ in mountain biking at the 1996 Olympics. Born to blue-collar parents, Furtado didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in her mouth. When violence, divorce, and suicide devastated life at home, skiing saved her life. A former member of the US National Ski Team, the avid racer switched to cycling after sustaining a series of knee injuries, going on to win the US National Road Championship, and a series of World Championships in mountain biking.

“I knew to gain the respect of the men, I had to be fast,” says Furtado, describing her first year at the Sea Otter Classic, when she caught up to the men’s division (which started 10 minutes ahead of the women) and the men refused to get out of her way. The tide changed the next year when they cheered as she passed, no longer embarrassed to get caught by a woman.

Leveraging her influence as an athlete and a degree in Marketing, Furtado founded the women-specific mountain bike brand Juliana Bicycles in 1999 and steered the Santa Cruz-based company through a massive rebranding in 2013. “I was lucky to be a woman because I could open an entire market. Men couldn’t do that,” notes Furtado. The savvy businesswoman has left her mark, christening the leading model ‘the Furtado,’ though the move wasn’t about promoting her own name as much as planting a flag in the ground for women in a world full of brands named after men – a tough pitch, in a room full of eight men.

Having recently turned 50, Furtado still leads an adventure-centric life, splitting her time between Santa Cruz and Truckee, mothering her 9-year-old son, Wyatt. She kicked off spring with a trip to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, where she did a little bit of surfing and had a lot of fun with friends.

Even when she was winning, Furtado kept pushing herself, knowing her time would be compared to the men’s (Juliana Bicycles).


Sachi Cunningham

Sachi Cunningham bowed out of a career in Hollywood to pursue an adventurous life (Jessica Christian).

The 2017 WSL Big Wave Awards on April 29 felt like a victory lap for photographer and filmmaker Sachi Cunningham. Her hair and eyelashes had grown back after six rounds of chemotherapy, following a positive test for the BRCA1 cancer gene. As a mother to 4-year-old Nami, Cunningham never questioned undergoing a hysterectomy and double mastectomy: she knows how it feels to lose a mother to cancer.

“The ocean played a large role in healing me,” says Cunningham, who still swam out and shot on several of the biggest days this past winter, despite lightheadedness and nosebleeds from cancer treatment. Named 2017 Athlete of the Year by Save the Waves, Cunningham takes her behind-the-scenes role seriously, capturing images of surfers – specifically women surfers – on some of the world’s biggest waves. “You would think that every wave gets documented, but it doesn’t … the women are not covered,” she says.

Teaming up with big wave charger Bianca Valenti, Cunningham set out to even the scales and give women greater visibility in a sport where they’re often invisible. Cunningham’s images of Valenti and Beth Price in the Aug/Sep 2016 Special Edition issue of Surfer Magazine marked the first time photos shot from the angle of the water at Ocean Beach had ever appeared in the publication’s 50-year history. Cunningham notes these milestone photos – and the fact that they’re of women, by a woman – as her greatest achievement. “I like changing things and being the first,” Cunningham says. “I take real pride in that.”

What’s next for this wild woman? Taking a year off from working at San Francisco State University as a Professor of Multimedia Journalism to travel, spend time with her family, and work on her latest project: Sea Change. The feature length documentary centers around four of the best big wave women surfers currently in competition – and Cunningham, who steps in front of the camera for a change – to tell their stories in the first person.

“Trust your gut, don’t be afraid, and be patient,” are the life lessons Cunningham offers to young women. She encourages her own daughter to be gutsy, daring and adventurous—and her tactics seem to be working so far. While Cunningham was attending the WSL Awards, Nami caught her first wave back home in San Francisco.

Cunningham braves precarious conditions to take powerful images of women surfing (Emma Chiang).

In between rounds of chemotherapy, Cunningham donned her wetsuit and swam out at her home break, Ocean Beach (Krista Brenner/Sprout Photo).

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