Come and have your mind changed!
One of the lasting images of yesterday’s contest at Honolua must surely be that of Steph, world title secured, standing tall in the barrel. A hint of a soul arch bathed in golden afternoon light. You could instantly imagine it on the wall of a Roxy store, Queen Steph, larger than life.
That she fell rather than make it out clean is perhaps emblematic of the women’s contest at Honolua. There were moments of beautiful surfing, moments where we saw how far the women’s sport has come and where it’s headed next. But Hanaloa’s perfection also shows every weakness in high relief. In the morning in particular, many of the women struggled as their boards chattered across the face and the wave’s power threatened to send them flying off into the next county.
Lakey’s early exit in round two came as a surprise to just about everyone — including Steph. While Lakey’s world title chances felt like a long-shot, she has determinedly pushed Steph to fight for every last heat. But like many of the women in the draw, Lakey has yet to sort out how to surf Honolua and it revealed a brittleness in her approach. She’s athletic, talented, and well-coached, but she often struggles when the waves don’t do quite what she expects — and Honolua offered way more speed than Lakey quite knew what to do with.
The match-up between Steph and Lakey for the world title has offered a study in contrasts. Steph makes it all look easy, even when it isn’t. She doesn’t look coached, or even coachable. Steph’s surfing looks intuitive and inevitable. Lakey is competitive and she trains hard. She hasn’t yet learned the secret to putting all that aside and letting her surfing flow when it needs to. When Steph doesn’t quite know what to do on a wave, she slows down. When Lakey is uncertain, she tries to do more and do it faster. But she has time and she’ll only get better.
What’s true for Lakey is true of the women’s side of the sport, as a whole. Yes, there remains a significant gap between the top end of the draw and the rest. The barrel dodging isn’t a great look. Worse, there were many times when perfect sets rolled through the lineup and the competitors sat on their hands and watched them. Did you want to yell at them? I confess, I did. Fucking go! What are you waiting for?
It’s the unique burden of women athletes that they have to argue for the existence of their sports. If an event isn’t interesting, critics are quick to jump to the conclusion that women shouldn’t have contests and shouldn’t compete at all. Men’s sports, well, of course, we have men’s sports. Men are considered the default. No one would really argue that men’s sports shouldn’t exist. And yet, it happens all the time with women’s events. No one got barreled? Well, why do they even have a contest of their own. Or at least, so runs the argument.
But we all know that the nature of heat surfing imposes a certain conservatism. You can go for broke, try to get barreled, and get nothing. Or, you can throw a few turns, get a six, and paddle comfortably back to the lineup. We see this dynamic play out in men’s surfing all the time. Safety surfing is hardly just a girl thing.
Though Steph won the world title yesterday, Carissa provided the gold standard. She has the power and technical finesse to turn Honolua into her playground. She found a couple barrels and threw big turns. Her boards looked exactly right for her without the speed wobbles and chatter that some of the other women experienced. But Carissa has grown up surfing in Hawaii. She’s competed in Triple Crown events. This is, in fact, her playground.
How many of the other women have the time and resources to put into surfing Hawaii regularly? Arguably, not many. The marketing narrative around women athletes has remained focused on lifestyle and fashion. The incentive structures in many of their contracts almost certainly reflect that way of thinking. How often have you seen a women’s brand send their surfers on a boat trip? Not too often. How many edits of women just surfing — no narrative, no lifestyle — have you seen? Again, not many.
There’s a sea change coming, though. You can already see it in how some of the brands have begun to shift their marketing and in how some of the younger surfers approach their sport. It’s only been a generation since Title IX in the United States, which opened the way for women to participate in sports on an equal level in high school and college. As those women have grown up and had girls of their own, the cultural attitudes around women athletes have steadily shifted. And they will shift even further still.
When I think of Steph’s world title run, sure, her timeless style stands out. That golden soul arch. Morgan Maassen’s magic pictures of J-Bay, Steph jiving along those glorious green walls. What a beautiful highlight reel.
But the heat that stands out to me was not about any of those things. It was a semi-final match-up between Steph and Carissa in ferociously mediocre Huntington. The thing was a fucking bare-knuckle street fight. Steph needed to advance to hold her lead in the title race against Lakey. Carissa was trying to dig her way out of an early season slide down the rankings. They must have ridden a dozen waves each. Fierce, no holds-barred contest surfing that went all the way to the buzzer.
In a rare glimpse behind the curtain, the webcast showed us Carissa as she waited for Steph’s final wave score to drop. The producers must have thought Carissa had it won. But in fact, the judges handed the heat to Steph. In that moment, we saw just how much Carissa wanted it, just how much was at stake for the athletes involved.
Yes, the absolute level in women’s surfing has room to grow. Sure, it does. But that white-hot competitive fire. I’m so here for that.
And it’s only going to get better.