A thoughtful discussion.
I am sitting in the airport on my way to work a bike event in Seattle. No lie, I checked a bag filled entirely with Goretex. I love my bike people, but their choice of weather is not always my favorite. Somehow, I will survive this experience.
Even through the shitty airport wifi — and really, in 2019, why is airport wifi still so shitty? — I can hear you. I can hear you yelling at me, like, Jen, Jen, what the fuck, what is up with the women’s big wave event at Jaws. Help us understand. Well in truth, I think some of you just want me to post up as a target for your comment section shenanigans. Well, someone has to do it, so here I am.
My foundational belief about women’s sports is the following: I believe that women athletes should have agency over their sports. They should be able to determine how and where they compete and what they earn. They should be able to progress their sports at the speed they want to progress them. They should have events that reflect their priorities, their ambitions, their values, and their dreams.
The women who compete in big wave surfing have made their priorities very clear, I think. Based on what we know from Daniel Duane’s reporting (among others), the women in big wave surfing want equity. They have set as their goal to achieve the same opportunities to compete that men enjoy. They’ve sought equal prize money and they have made it their priority to build their sport on these values.
That means, if the men paddle out at ginormous Jaws, the women are going to paddle out, too. That means if there’s an event for men at Mavericks, the women are going to demand entrance, too. And they will take the hold-downs and the criticism that comes with their determination to chase the biggest possible waves and the biggest possible goals. They would not thank anyone who tried to hold them back, who tried to tell them that it’s too big or who tried to tell them that they aren’t ready.
By contrast, I think it’s fair to say that the women on the CT are following a somewhat different path. When I asked Steph Gilmore and Carissa Moore about surfing Teahupoo, they were open to it, but they want to take it step by step. On the question of prize money equity, Gilmore says it wasn’t a priority for her. She only came late to understanding the symbolic importance it has in inspiring other women. Of course, Gilmore doesn’t speak for the entire CT — Fitzgibbons and Conlogue both told me they would go, right now today, if an event happened in Tahiti.
Shortboard surfing is a different sport from its big-wave sister and it makes sense that the women who do it are searching for different things. They want opportunities to showcase their style, their meticulously crafted turns. They want space for self-expression. It’s not that they’re ignoring the men’s side of the sport and it’s not that they aren’t looking at how the men are pushing what’s possible. Moore, in particular, says she’s aware of the gap in the performance levels between men and women — and perhaps more than anyone, wants to change it. But exact parity does not appear to be how they are thinking about their sport.
But, and read this slowly my people, both approaches are equally valid, as long as they reflect what the women doing the sport actually want their sport to look like. It doesn’t matter what I think, or what a bunch of men yelling in the comments section think. What matters is what women want their sports to be and what goals they set for themselves as athletes. That’s it.
To support women’s sports, in truth, requires coming to it on its own terms and engaging it based on the goals that women athletes have set for themselves. What it doesn’t mean is setting men’s sports as the norm, and constantly measuring the ways that women fall short of this imagined ideal.
Sure, the women competing at Jaws were not on the same level as surfers as the men. That’s true. But on their own terms, they have already succeeded. They paddled out in the same event, on the same day. That is the goal that they’ve set for themselves. And they’re evolving their sport steadily and determinedly in the direction they want it to go. Nothing is ever built in an instant.
The thing about elite athletes is, they are never willing to settle. They are always pushing, always chasing, never content with average or normal. In this, women athletes are no different from men. That process is not always pretty and it doesn’t always run smoothly.
Stand or fall, the women in big wave surfing have my respect for their determination to paddle out and their refusal to back down. There is, eventually, something inspiring in that — which is maybe the point of watching sports at all.