Diversifying the water and the international surf narrative through coaching
Surfing requires grit. Surfing while female and black requires next level grit. Meet Rhonda Harper, the grittiest of them all. Founder and director of Black Girls Surf, Harper knows how to make dreams come true.
Growing up in Kansas in the 1970s, Harper experienced firsthand segregation, discrimination, sexism, and racial injustice. She lived it – every day. This included walking over two miles to the segregated pool to swim. This lack of access to quality pools and lessons left many young black kids unable to swim. Learning to swim was not made a priority for many black children, so the thought of wanting to be a surfer for a young black female was definitely unusual and not part of a normal conversation. Still, Harper dreamed of surfing. She collected surf magazines like a squirrel collects nuts. She was so hooked that at seven years old she started a paper route just to fund her magazine habit.
Harper, or “Coach Rho,” is now a long way from Kansas. Her parents moved to San Jose, CA when she was ten years old. Her first visit to the beach was Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz. She was immediately drawn to the cliffs and crashing waves. California beaches were segregated up until the 1960s and Santa Cruz still holds a reputation for localism in and out of the water. She recalls experiencing ongoing prejudice during her visits to the beaches in Santa Cruz.
One such incident resulted in a racial slur written in surf wax on her car windshield. “As a teenager I was angry about that. I wasn’t going to allow people to treat me a certain way,” Harper recalls, and she wasn’t scared to fight back. In fact, her nickname back then was “Rocky” because she liked to fight and got in her fair share of trouble. She now recalls with a bit of pride that she bullied the bullies. “I couldn’t stand seeing someone pick on the littles.” Perhaps it was in her DNA to stand up for the underdog.
Regardless of young Harper’s intentions, her mom did not condone the behavior and warned her daughter, “You’re either going to end up in jail or end up dead unless you change.” And soon thereafter, put 15-year-old Harper on a plane to Hawaii to live with her sister who was studying at Chaminade University on the North Shore of Oahu. Her parents hoped that being close to the ocean would mellow her out.
“I brought over a suitcase full of surf magazines, hundreds of them. I would watch all the surf movies growing up, like Beach Blanket Bingo and just dream of that life,” she says.
Harper recalls a nearby bench in Oahu that still exists today. “I would sit on that bench and watch the waves and water for hours. I felt like my Hawaiian dreams had come true; it was a pinnacle moment for me.” It was 1984, and at the time Harper was the only female African American to attend Waialua High. There, she took a course in Hawaiian History. “I was shocked to learn that it was the Hawaiians that invented surfing. I went home and took every photo of white surfers off my wall.”
Being in Hawaii with so many brown surfers gave Harper a sense of belonging. “I would watch people of color surfing and think, if they can do it, I can do it.” So, she taught herself how to surf on the North Shore of Oahu, the most coveted, gnarly, and revered area for surfers in the world. “I love the hard fall,” she says, with a slight chuckle in her voice. “When I’m under water getting hammered, I’m smiling, I’m loving it.” She credits her toughness to growing up in segregated Kansas, the daughter of activist parents. Her mother worked for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and her dad for the unemployment office, helping black vets. Her father would always say, “If they don’t have a job for you, you create it.” Harper praises her parents for giving her the tools and strength it took to create Black Girls Surf in 2014.
At 53, Harper can now look back and recount a few things that led to her current role. But more than anything else, it was the magazines that planted the seed to start Black Girls Surf. “I never saw people of color in the magazines, and I wanted to change that.”
In 2012, Harper was the Managing Editor of the Black Sports Network and was covering the Vans Triple Crown on the North Shore. She recalls saying into the microphone, “Thank you Black Sports Network for supporting this event …” and thinking, “Hey, there are no black surfers in the competition.“ That is when she enrolled in International Surfing Association (ISA) judging courses and became an ISA competition judge. She says, “I wanted to learn what the judges were looking for and why certain surfers got more points than others. I wanted to figure out why more black surfers were not in the ISA.”
Fast forward to 2014 when Harper says she “got her hands dirty.” She got together with a fellow female black surfer and organized a competition to showcase black surf talent in Africa, calling it “Black Girls Surf.” When asked why she picked Africa she doesn’t mince words: “Where else could I find more than one black female surfer?” She does have a point. In my 26 years of surfing in America, I have only surfed with black women on a handful of occasions.
It took years to plan the competition, and their efforts were hampered by pushback from the very industry that is now embracing change. Then, the 2016 travel ban hit and put more roadblocks in their way. In 2017, it was on, but only one female was on the roster. She went to the ISA and the World Surf League (WSL) hoping to find female surfers of color, but there were none. So that’s when she started Black Girls Surf camps, so she could find, enroll, and coach black female surfers for the WSL. Living true to her father’s words, “If you can’t find it, create it.”
I asked Harper if she felt the Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder last year shed more light on her efforts.
“I’ll take whatever I can get. It’s been a long time coming and it’s finally here.”
She is right. Big companies and organizations like Hurley and the WSL are now sponsoring Black Girls Surf. This support saves Harper from using her Coast Guard pension to pay for contest fees and travel. More than that, it is a sign of change, progression, and empowerment in the lineup.
Harper plans to have twelve camps up and running in West Africa and California. Most recently she was focused on 2021 Olympic hopeful Kadjou Sambe (featured on our cover). Harper discovered Sambe in 2016 during an online search for female black surfers and the two clicked. They spent this past year training in the cold waters of Santa Cruz but were unsuccessful in making the team. Her goal in four years is the Olympics and to have her female black athletes on the team. I pried a little deeper and asked what really gives her joy and keeps her pushing. She shared that recently a South African female prison asked to enroll some inmates as part of a new prison reform program. Harper shared that both her parents worked on prison reform issues and that she is deeply moved by the potential to help these women through surfing.
Can you imagine the NBA or NFL without black athletes? Of course not. So why is surfing different? It’s all about the lack of access. For too long, black kids have been denied access to pools and denied access to beaches. They have also been denied representation in surfing magazines that traditionally only featured white guys and white girls in bikinis.
Luckily, things are starting to change. From blonde babes to dark skinned beauties, we all should be able to share the ocean and thrive. A true evolution of surfing has begun.