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With more women taking up the sport of surfing every year, there’s reason to be excited about what the future holds. Some of the world’s most influential surfers have used their platforms to make change both in and out of the water. Ready for some motivation? These are ten inspiring women surfers you’ll want to know about.
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In 2003, when Bethany Hamilton was just 13 years old, she lost her arm in a shark attack while surfing in Kauai. Her life and future as a surfer were in jeopardy after losing nearly two-thirds of her blood. But, she didn’t let her injury keep her away from the ocean. Surfing with one arm is difficult, and doing so professionally is almost impossible, but when you combine incredible passion, unwavering resilience, and the desire to achieve lifelong goals, the seemingly impossible becomes a little more attainable.
Her upbeat attitude has given her a unique perspective on life following the attack. She miraculously returned to her board just 26 days after the attack. She became a national champion two years later. In 2005, she won the National Scholastic Surfing Association National Championship for 18-and-under surfers. She debuted on the World Tour in 2009, and her best result was a third-place finish at the Fiji Women’s Pro in 2016, where she defeated six-time world champion Stephanie Gilmore and world No. 1 Tyler Wright.
Keala is one of the most inspiring big wave surfer on the planet, and a true joy to watch in the water. On the WSL World Championship Tour, she spent over a decade in the top ten, finishing runner-up to the World Title in 2003. In 2007, she left the WCT tour to become a regular on HBO’s drama series John From Cincinnati. Keala chose to pursue her passion for big wave surfing instead of returning to the WCT competition circuit after the show. She is the first professional world champion to openly represent the LGBTQ+ community, and came out even though it caused many of her major sponsors to cut ties. Keala is also open about her bipolar depression diagnosis, and a strong advocate for mental health.
Keala was a committee member that helped establish a Women’s Big Wave Tour and was instrumental in getting women included in the Titans of Mavericks Big Wave Event and winning the fight for equal pay in surfing in 2018. Keala has shattered glass ceilings in her sport with her groundbreaking performances in some of the world’s heaviest waves.
Maya Reis Gabeira (born 1987) is a big wave surfer from Brazil. She is best known for surfing a 73.5 ft/22.44 m high wave in Nazaré, Portugal, in February 2020, which Guinness World Records declared to be the world’s largest wave ever surfed by a female. It was also the year’s largest wave surfed by anyone. She also held the previous record for the largest wave ever surfed by a female, which she set in January 2018 at 68 feet/20,8 meters. Her dedication to big wave surfing is constantly breaking records and pushing the boundaries of what humans are capable of.
Gabeira is widely regarded as one of the best female surfers in the world and one of the most popular female surfers of all time, having won numerous awards, including the ESPY Award for Best Female Action Sports Athlete.
Stephanie Gilmore has won the WSL surf championship seven times. She has dominated surfing on a global scale for the past two decades, and with her latest title, she has surpassed Layne Beachley, the six-time world champion. She is now the only surfer in surfing history to have earned this many titles and accolades for women’s surfing.
Stephanie started surfing at the age of ten and won the junior title in New South Wales in 2003. She received the Laureus World Sports Award, one of the most prestigious awards in the world of action sports, when she was 22 years old. In addition, she received the ESPN ESPY awards for best female athlete in action sports in 2011 and 2013. In her early years as a surfer, she won four more titles in a row after that first victory. Stephanie is a role model for all women around the world in terms of overcoming obstacles and fighting for equality.
Khadjou Sambe, who grew up in Dakar’s coastal capital, had never seen a Black woman surfing the Atlantic swells. However, Khadjou, Senegal’s first female professional surfer, inspires the next generation to break cultural barriers and surf. At age 14, she didn’t see any girls surfing in the water and thought, “Why not me?” She used to sneak out of her window to go surf, as surfing was generally frowned upon in her family. Khadjou now trains for professional surfing and coaches local girls through Black Girls Surf, a worldwide movement to encourage Black girls to take up the sport of surfing. Her tenacity and dedication has paved the way for girls don’t feel welcome in the lineup to follow in her footsteps.
Rell Sunn was a Hawaiian surfer who paved the way for women’s surfing. Not one to shy away from a challenge, Rell Runn became Hawaii’s first female lifeguard and a five-time world champion longboarder. She challenged men in contests they’d thought were theirs, and earned the nickname ‘Queen of Mākaha’. In 1982, Rell was diagnosed with breast cancer and given a one-year prognosis. Through her treatments, she surfed regularly and helped others struggling from the disease. In 1996, Rell was inducted into the Surfing Walk of Fame.
Sky Brown has accomplished more in her twelve years than most athletes do in their entire lives. She is the world’s youngest professional skateboarder, and absolutely rips in the surf. The athlete from Miyazaki, Japan, continues to dazzle audiences and announcers with her advanced techniques and positive attitude as the youngest competitor at the 2016 Vans US Open. In addition, she’s inspiring young girls worldwide to pursue careers in male-dominated fields because she learned to skate before most people learn to walk.
Sky Brown will be competing in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. If she wins, she will be the youngest Olympic medalist since 1936.
Carissa Moore is a four-time World Champion from Honolulu, Hawaii, who grew up as a surf media darling. Carissa would also be provisionally qualified to compete for the United States at the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games, an honor befitting of one of surfing’s all-time greats, both on and off the water.
The surf industry has a long history of promoting unrealistic beauty standards, commonly featuring women with unattainable physiques. One of the most relatable women on the WSL CT, Carissa told ESPN W about her struggle with binge eating disorder, spurred by comparing herself to her peers and surf industry ‘hottest surfer’ lists. However, she now feels much more confident in her body and shows that powerful surfers don’t have to fit the surf brand mold.
Elizabeth Sneed, surfer, model, and founder of Curvy Surfer Girl, is originally from Texas but moved to the island of Oahu and took up surfing. She inspires women of all sizes to wear the swimwear they want to out in the water, and that surfing is open to athletes of every body type.
With her Curvy Surfer Girl brand, Elizabeth hopes to change the one-size-fits-all stereotype of women’s surfing. What began as an Instagram account to promote body positivity in surfing has evolved into a movement to hold surf brands more accountable for representing various body shapes and sizes. When you see images of her riding waves at Waikiki in a cute bikini, you can’t help but want to grab your favorite swimsuit and paddle out yourself.
Dominique started out as a competitive runner, but soon became obsessed with the sea after her friends taught her how to surf. Now, she rarely goes a day without getting into the water, and regularly surfs in Waikiki.
Nique is Billabong’s first Black and Hispanic team rider, and has inspired more people of color to take up surfing. Nique’s unique surf style also shows that you don’t have to grow up around perfect waves to be a phenomenal surfer. She competes on the WSL and APP tours, as well as invitation-only longboard competition regularly.