It’s easy to romanticize the life of pro surfer Bianca Valenti. She lives in a peach-colored house filled with plants and surfboards in San Francisco. When she wants to surf, she bikes the five blocks down her street to the Pacific Ocean, with one of her (often pink) boards in tow. But being a champion surfer requires hours of non-surf work, too — like the 7 a.m. workout class she took on a recent rainy Wednesday in San Francisco.
The class, held at a minimalist jiu jitsu studio, is movement-based strength training. Valenti takes it three times a week; she alternates that with swimming, sprinting, breathwork and, of course, surfing. She’s cheery despite the early hour, greeting classmates with big hugs, and congratulating one on his new baby: “Boy or girl?” she asks, jogging in place for a warmup.
Over a soundtrack of electronic music and indie pop, Valenti’s instructor, clad in a Pretenders sweatshirt, guides the class through a series of exercises that grow increasingly complex — they rotate through resistance bands, kettlebells and suspension straps. The strength training is crucial for big wave surfers like Valenti, who chase waves that rise over 20 feet:
It’s an essential part of preparing for competitions like the Mavericks, a famed surfing contest that takes place in Half Moon Bay, Calif., about a half-hour drive south of San Francisco. For big wave surfers, the waves at Mavericks are their Mt. Everest — and the competition could take place any day now. This year’s event is especially significant, because it’s the first year in which women will be able to compete, and for the same prize money as men, thanks to efforts led by Valenti.
But the Mavericks competition can only happen if the right waves materialize, meaning that for now, all big wave surfers can do is wait; they go about their daily lives, training, while knowing that at any point during the big wave season of November to March, they could be called, often with just 48 hours notice, to compete.
“Make sure you put in that those two always have the coolest pants,” a coach tells me, gesturing to the floor, where Valenti, wearing neon-colored workout pants, is joking with her friend Miranda Maas. A champion diver, Maas is wearing striped purple yoga leggings. She tells me how dedicated Valenti is to her sport: Valenti is constantly checking to see where in the world has good surf, and she considers a day wasted if she doesn’t get a chance to hit the water.
Valenti is taking it easy today. She might be going to a a big wave surf competition in Oregon this upcoming weekend. She’s excited, she tells a classmate — she’s the competition’s defending champ. “Yeah, B,” someone yells.
The waves at Mavericks start breaking at 15 feet and have been measured at 100 feet.
The water is chilly, usually in the 50s, whereas one of Hawaii’s leading big wave spots, Jaws, is usually in the mid-70s. When the waves break, around 20 to 40 times a year, there are usually dozens of surfers waiting their turn, bobbing in the dark waves. Mavericks’ popularity comes partly from its location — there are only a handful of good big wave surf spots on the West Coast outside Hawaii, and its closeness to San Francisco makes it accessible. It also has a dangerous reputation; two surfers have drowned surfing there.
“It’d be like every single time you went snowboarding or skiing, there was an avalanche chasing you,” says surfer Sarah Gerhardt, who, in 1999, became the first woman to ever ride the wave. “And you had obstacles and mobiles. And people.”
Gerhardt, an invitee to this year’s competition and a chemistry professor at Cabrillo College in Santa Cruz, Calif., didn’t know that she was the first woman to surf Mavericks 20 years ago — she was used to being one of the boys. Neither did she care about cementing her reputation as a big wave legend, she says. She just wanted to test herself.
The same year Gerhardt surfed the wave, the first official competition at Mavericks, called Titans of Mavericks, was held. Women were not invited to compete, nor were they in subsequent years. (The competition has been held just 10 times since its inception, because weather conditions don’t always produce surfable waves.)
“It’s not a gender thing. It’s a performance thing,” Titans of Mavericks founder Jeff Clark said in 2016. “Women just aren’t there yet.”
This year’s inclusion of women didn’t come from the organizers having a sudden change of heart. In 2015, Sabrina Brennan, a commissioner with the San Mateo County Harbor District Board of Commissioners — one of the bodies responsible for issuing permits for Mavericks — argued that the competition shouldn’t be given a permit unless women were allowed in the event.
The next year, Brennan co-founded the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing with big wave surfers Valenti, Keala Kennelly, Paige Alms, Andrea Moller and lawyer Karen Tynan. The group argued for inclusion in Mavericks, and later, for equal pay. (If women are included in surf events, they’re typically awarded less prize money: At a surf competition last September, Valenti earned $1,750 for her first place prize. Her male counterpart won $7,000.)
Mavericks is held at a public coastline, argued the committee, and funded by taxpayers. Why should public funds go to a discriminatory event?
The California Coastal Commission agreed. Mavericks invited a handful of women to compete in the 2016-2017 event. But the event never happened due to financial issues. The 2017-2018 competition, with new organizers the World Surf League (WSL), also didn’t happen because of poor conditions.
But women big wave surfers have recently scored a victory. In September, the WSL announced that they would be distributing equal prize money to men and women across all their competitions. This year’s event, featuring a women’s heat, could finally be the first equal Mavericks, with women paid the same prize money as men — if the waves cooperate.
For big wave surfers such as Valenti and Gerhardt, life is a constantly shifting balancing act ruled by the ocean swells. And because women’s big wave surfing is relatively new, there’s not much financial support for women surfers. In other words, women must balance the intensive training necessary to be a champion athlete with day jobs — in Valenti’s case, working as a sommelier at her family’s restaurant and running a company that makes ear drops for swimmers and surfers.
Keala Kennelly, a decorated big wave surfer and Mavericks Challenge invitee, says she doesn’t think top men in the sport have to deal with “the same stress” as women.
“I feel like they have lucrative sponsors. They’re getting their travel paid for. They don’t have to work one and two other jobs to do their main job,” she says. (Other reporting has pointed to the fact that male surfers are able to more easily sustain themselves outside championships with sponsors and by appearing in photos and videos.)
The possibility that Kennelly might have have to pack up and leave for a competition is a constant possibility at the back of her mind.
Kennelly works as a DJ and a bartender. She’s never late, never calls in sick, she says. She’s always reliable. “But they know if a big swell pops up, if they call an event on, I become the most unreliable.”
The women have learned how to make it work. Valenti and Kennelly are supported by their bosses and coworkers, and have networks of friends to crash with and cars to borrow at competition locales, in order to cut down on transportation costs. Valenti is keeping Alms and Moller’s surfboards at her house in case Mavericks gets called.
And despite the frustrations, the women say it’s worth it. “It’s super gnarly, but I love what I do and I’ll keep doing it,” Kennelly says. “The change is happening slowly, but it’s happening.”
After years of struggling to be included, Valenti, Gerhardt and Kennelly now have to wait a little longer. They continue checking the storm satellites and the weather reports that rule their lives.
In reality, everyone in the surf world is growing antsy about Mavericks. It has been months of waiting, with only a few weeks left in the official competition window. March 12 and 13, which looked to have promising waves, have come and gone without being called. Some say there’s still hope for the end of the month.
When her class ends, Valenti heads out for her day, ready to juggle more obligations: another media interview soon, a shift at the restaurant later. In the car, I ask about Mavericks. Is she disappointed at the prospect that it might not happen this year?
“No,” she says, immediately. Of course she’d like for it to happen. Of course she’d like to win some money. But that’s part of being a big wave surfer, she explains. You just have to be patient; you have to be okay with uncertainty.
And she’s excited for her Oregon competition, too, for the community there. Any time women can get together to surf for a competition, it’s a win, she says. She’s winding her car through the San Francisco streets back to her quiet, oceanfront neighborhood, far from the noise of the rest of the city.