A serious discussion.
I just woke up from the worst deadline hangover of my life. It took me three tries this morning to open the thing on my computer I use for writing. Then the file saved, well, to somewhere? I don’t exactly know where. What I’m saying is, it’s not going super great over here.
During the past month of deadline-a-palooza I did not surf. Also, I missed you guys the most!
One afternoon, I hung around a photo shoot at the Venice Beach skatepark. My job as a writer at a photoshoot is generally to show up, watch my story subject, and stay the fuck out of the way. My eyes strayed repeatedly from the skateboarding to the ocean just beyond the edge of the pavement. It was mostly walled up, onshore and crumbled, but I wanted to paddle out so badly I could taste it. Just say fuck it, forget the job I was supposed to be doing, forget the deadlines and the interviews, forget it all, and just go surf. Wisely, I’d left my boards at home.
Thanks to the skateboarding and the interviews, I missed most of the Gold Coast heats. I dipped in here and there, but not enough to get a feel for the judging or the narrative. Caroline Marks’s exuberance was fun to see and it’s been clear for a while that a CT victory was coming. Good on her for delivering. I do gently want to hold her arms to keep them from flying around, but the judges don’t seem to mind this stylistic quirk. Is it fair that I do? I’m not sure.
I couldn’t help but feel that the hype around her victory did Marks a disservice. It was as though one event win meant a world title was inevitable and the other top women had simply disappeared off the end of the horizon. Watching free surfing clips suggests that’s definitely far from the case. You don’t, as Steph did, win a seventh world title and then, a mere months later become a washed up has-been. You don’t, as Lakey did, give Steph a serious run for the World title, and then, well, do nothing. You don’t, as Carissa recently did, paddle out at Chopes and become irrelevant. It doesn’t at all work that way. And as we all know, few things are inevitable in sports.
As I dug into the women’s rounds at Bells, I felt disoriented, as though I’d lost any insight into the scoring during the off-season. The changing labels on the rounds — seeding, elimination, heat of 16 — left me more confused than usual. No doubt I’ll figure it out. Bells always surprises me by how simple it looks to surf, and yet how often it turns out not to be simple at all. In between mumbles, Curren said something to this effect during his time in the commentary booth. Rumble, mumble, some waves don’t work, mumble. There’s wisdom there, if you take the time to listen for it.
In yesterday’s round of 16, as round 3 (I think?) is now called, Steph, Carissa, and Lakey predictably came out firing. To my eye, Carissa looked the sharpest. I think sometimes her style is so understated that the judges underscore her — but I’ll admit straight up that I’m a fangirl over here. She’s working on a film, apparently, and I can’t wait to see that thing. Steph brought her usual long lines and graceful turns to the party — it’s classic and stylish, and I could watch it all day.
Lakey took a few waves to find what she wanted, but when a long wall opened up, so did she. The judges love her high-speed, multiple-turn approach. Really, I lost count of how many turns she fit into that single wave. It was an impressive number. If each of those turns looked much the same, the judges didn’t seem to mind.
Lakey is women’s surfing’s answer to Mick Fanning — and depending on your view of Fanning, that’s either a sick burn or a compliment. What’s missing is Fanning’s knife-precise rail work and tight control. Lakey often looks on the edge of losing it, like she’s hanging on by her toe nails. She makes it work. Is it fair to criticize her for surfing to what the judges reward? I’m not sure of that, any more than whether it matters that Caroline’s arms make me slightly dizzy. But we’d have nothing to talk about if we didn’t have opinions about these things.
I only saw the first exchange between Caroline and Bronte and they looked closely matched. I saw later that Caroline advanced, though Bronte seems to have let it slip through her fingers, more than it as any big statement from Caroline. The golden light called to me and I slid out for a bike ride. Bike fitness and deadlines are not the best of friends, but a girl has to try, at least.
A week or so ago, I sat on a wood pallet with a friend, drinking espresso out of paper cups. A large sheet of canvas swung in the breeze behind us. On the other side was a trade show booth stacked with thousands of dollars worth of mountain bikes, their swooping carbon lines gleaming and their intricate suspension systems engineered to tolerances precise enough for a moonlanding.
We were talking about Michelle Parker’s free skiing film from last year, All In. “I feel like I’ve been waiting my whole life for content like this,” I said. It came out far more earnestly than I had intended, but I realized I meant it. High-action, women-centered, big adventure. “More like this,” I said.
At the time of that conversation, the surf community was in paroxysms over Keala Kennelly’s incomplete wave and one-event world title. I watched this unfold through my peripheral vision. It’s for big wave surfing to decide whether they want to reward going for it or making it. For me, it mattered only that Keala won the event that was offered to her. People told her growing up that girls couldn’t surf. She’s a legend, because she proved them wrong.
Predictably, the argument over equal prize money became central to the argument over Kennelly’s title — and the women’s presence in the big wave lineup. The argument is inescapable now and we’re right back into it with the Bells contest and coming swell, predicted to be ginormously humongous. Just as the women struggled with oversized Jaws on the big-wave tour, the Bells lineup will leave some of the CT women fumbling and lost.
But that’s the only way women’s sports grow. They grow by taking on bigger challenges than they can necessarily meet right now today. They grow by trying — and sometimes, failing. You can dismiss them as not good enough, if you like. That’s your prerogative. But you can also measure the progress of women’s surfing in the distance between Keala and Caroline. I doubt anyone has ever told Caroline Marks that girls can’t surf. And that makes all the difference.
I’ve spent years watching films and clips and reading stories about men hucking mountain bikes off houses and surfing exotic destinations — because that’s all there was. And it’s fine, actually. When I talk to women in mountain biking or surfing, it’s an experience we share. We’ve known intuitively all along that these stories weren’t really for us. Certainly, they weren’t about us. Sometimes, when I read an especially caustic and dismissive comment about women’s sport, I want to punch walls.
But I also want to say, these stories aren’t for you. These stories about women dropping big snow lines in the Alaskan backcountry or women throwing themselves over the ledge at Mavericks or trying and failing to throw airs in contest heats — they aren’t for you. They are, finally, for us.