When Carissa Moore paddled out into the waves during the Maui Pro event on Dec. 1, she knew her entire career had come down to this moment. Despite all that was on the line — a world championship and a spot on the first U.S. women’s surfing team in this summer’s Tokyo Olympics — she remained calm.
“I knew that I could give it all I had and it still might not work out,” she says. “But I made peace with that, and felt calm and present.”
It’s a strategy that paid off. At 27, Moore became one of the first two women to make history representing the United States in the Olympics this summer. She will be joined by 17-year old upstart Caroline Marks, who made the team at the same meet.
Surfing will join karate, skateboarding, sport climbing and baseball/softball as debut sports when Japan lights the Olympic torch this summer. Surfing, which has a big following in Japan, will take place at Shidashita Beach, about 40 miles outside Tokyo. To ensure that the wave quality is where it needs to be, the Tokyo organizers have set aside a 16-day period, during which two days will be used for the event.
While surfing has been a part of the American landscape for nearly 100 years, the spotlight has largely been devoid of women who surf. Its inclusion in the Olympics serves as the culmination of years of fighting for equality.
Those who forged a path
At 46, Dustin Ashley Tester has vivid memories of being one of only a handful of girls who surfed in her youth. She began at the age of 7, when her father introduced her to the sport. “I can remember lining up against boys in my teens and noticing I was one of only a handful of girls,” says the owner of Maui Surfer Girls, a camp dedicated to bringing girls into the sport. “There was certainly no track for girls for the Olympics then, or even for becoming a pro.”
Big-wave surfer Andrea Moller, 40, had similar experiences. “When I was in my 20s, I wanted to ride big waves and I couldn’t even get a tow in from the men,” she says. “I couldn’t get a chance to prove myself.”
Tow-in surfing is a technique whereby surfers get a ride out and into the big waves, usually by jet ski. The method become common around 1990, when some of the big-name male surfers began using it to break through the 20-foot wave barrier. It was a game changer and allowed surfers to start challenging themselves in waves in the 30- to 40-foot range. While popular at the time, it fell out of fashion in the early 2000s.
Looking to get in on the action back then, Moller teamed up with fellow surfer Maria Souza, and together, they bought their own used jet ski as a way to access the big waves. “It began a long phase of proving ourselves and earning respect,” Moller says. “Over and over again, we made calls to competitions to try to gain entry for women.”
The big turning point for women came in an unexpected package, the 2002 movie “Blue Crush,” which centered on a female surfer. “It gave women’s surfing mainstream media coverage,” says Tester. “It brought on an influx of young girls interested in the sport, which helped boost our numbers.”
It wasn’t the end of the fight for equity, however, and Moller and several other women continued pressing their cause. Jessi Miley-Dyer, a retired surfing pro from Australia who today serves as the vice president of tours and competition for the World Surf League (WSL) says that in 2012, the organization graduated from charity status to privately held organization. “That changed things,” she says. “It gave women’s surfing a voice at the top.”
In her position at WSL, Miley-Dyer also chairs the organization’s women’s initiative, and introduced Rising Tides, which engaged over 1,000 girls between the ages of 6 and 18 in beachside surfing programs last year.
In 2017, she helped bring equal pay to women’s events. “For me as an ex-pro, it’s a big deal to see us reach pay equity and to see how far the sport has come,” she says. “It’s also important that women now get to surf the same big waves as men and showcase their talents. It switches everything, including the conversation about what they’re wearing to what they’re doing.”
The fight for equality is perhaps best reflected in the number of women now participating in the sport. According to the WSL, there was a 31 percent jump in women’s qualifying series members from 2014 to 2019. From 2014 to present, that number leaped by 200 percent.
Moore is quick to tip her hat to Moller, Miley-Dyer and others. “We wouldn’t be where we are today without the women who came before me,” she says. “All their effort has given us a platform to shine.”
For her part, Moller is pleased to see the younger generation benefiting from the efforts she and other early female surfers put into the equality fight. “It’s history and I’ve waited my whole life to see it,” she says. “Today’s young females will be able to cash out through this and I’m very happy to see that for them. I believe I made a difference, and that will be my legacy.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Caroline Marks qualified for the Olympics after Carissa Moore. The two qualified at the same meet. We regret the error.