Over the past year, professional surfing has undergone a remarkable and very unexpected evolution. Beginning in 2019, the World Surf League is offering equal prize money to men and women at all of its events, making it one of very few global sports leagues to do so. A key part of this story was the push to get women included in the big-wave contest at Mavericks, on the Northern California coast, an effort headlined by 31-year-old Bianca Valenti. In a way, her whole career had been leading up to this mission. Outside executive editor Michael Roberts reports on Valenti’s journey from a teenager frustrated by the bro culture that ruled surfing to the front lines of a movement that could have a lasting impact on all of sports.
Outside Podcast Theme: From Outside Magazine and PRX, these are Dispatches, stories from our writers in the field.
Peter Frick-Wright (host): There’s something big happening in professional surfing right now, and it’s not happening in the water.
Beginning in 2019, the World Surf league is offering equal prize money to men and women at every one of its events.
This change makes them the only U.S.-based global sports league to do so, and one of just a few to make that commitment internationally.
And at the center of the push to make this happen is big wave surfer Bianca Valenti.
Bianca Valenti: I'm a professional big wave surfer and a restaurateur and a coach of surfing. I'm many things.
Bianca is 31-years-old, from San Francisco, And over the last couple of years, she and the other co-founders of the committee for equity in women’s surfing have waged a very strategic campaign to get women invited to Mavericks, one of the biggest contests on the big wave tour, held at a break in Northern California. And their efforts to open up that contest became the flash point in a much larger change going on in surfing. The result? Equal prize money for men and women on the entire professional world tour.
Outside’s Executive Editor Michael Roberts recently had a chance to talk with Bianca about how she got Mavericks to change, and what it’s like to be a woman trying to surf her way onto the tour. And it turns out that, in a way, Bianca’s whole career has been leading up to this showdown. Mike takes it from here.
Michael Roberts: Last December, the World Surf League held a contest at Jaws, the infamous giant wave that breaks off Maui. This is where Laird Hamilton and others made tow-in surfing famous. It’s called Jaws because, well, it can eat you.
Audio from event webcast: “Welcome to the Jaws challenge at Pe'ahi, the second event on the big-wave tour and it is on. The green light has sounded and the surfers are making their way into place...”
Roberts: The forecast models were calling for really enormous waves. Some of the biggest ever for a competition there.
Audio from event webcast: “...we’re expecting surf in the 40 to 50 foot face range for sure, it’s going to be an incredible show..”
Roberts: The first heat got off to a wild start. Elite women like Kealla Kennelly and Justine Dupont were taking epic wipeouts. And Bianca Valenti took one of the nastiest of them all. It was so bad that she got a concussion—something she told me nine days later, just minutes before I was going to interview her on a stage in front of about 400 people at an event in San Francisco called Outdoor SF, a gathering of local gear companies.
Audio from Outdoor SF: Welcome to the Sixth Annual Outdoor San Francisco, everybody!
Roberts: That morning, Bianca had been inside a hyperbaric chamber getting oxygen therapy to help her recover. She was clearly feeling better, though, because she was drinking a beer as she told me this. Once we got mic’d up, I asked her to describe her own experience that day.
(from Outdoor SF recording) Can you tell us what your experience at Jaws was, just last week?
Valenti: Yes, so … (audience laughs) Wake up 4:00 AM, it's pouring rain out, you have to be at the harbor at 5:00 AM. 5:00 AM, get to the harbor, all the competitors are there, I've got my caddy and my support team. I have to stowe them away on the boat because only athletes are allowed to go. As we're heading out to Jaws, it's still dark. And our plan was the women are going to run first and we chose that. But at the same time you don't get, you don't get to assess the conditions really. You're just like thrown into it. So as we're coming up to the break, it's really misty and foggy and I was thinking to myself like, have there been any events that I can think of where they've postponed because you can't actually see the judges, can't see the waves?
And so as we get out there, it's just like everything is chaos and it's rushed and it's like, okay, the first heat is in the water and we're like, oh, I'm the second heat. I was like, okay, I'm getting in the water and I'm going to sit and watch the conditions from the water. And as I'm sitting there, I'm watching all my friends who are the best surfers in the world, just eating shit. And I’m just like, okay. And then this huge set comes in that's bigger than this wave and everybody gets cleaned up. And I was just like, It's not even 7:30 AM yet. And I’m like, wow, okay.
Roberts: (voiceover) One important thing to know here: this was Bianca’s second time surfing at Jaws. The first time was almost a year earlier, in January 2018, when she’d paddled onto a huge wave but hadn’t made it. So this time, she really, really wanted to ride a monster.
Valenti: The heat starts and you're out there. And I was like, okay, I'm going for the big one. That’s what you gotta do. You got to go for the big one, you've got six people on safety who’re dedicated to you -- but turns out all those six people are busy rescuing everybody else.
Anyways, I try to catch a few waves throughout the whole time. I'm watching Keyala throwing herself over the ledge, eating shit. Everybody's just going for it, going for it, going for it. But the waves are moving really, really, really, really fast. They're really hard to catch. I paddled for a lot of waves and I can't catch them and I'm on a 10-foot-2 surfboard. Then finally I was just like, okay, they're moving at this speed. I'm waiting for this really big one. And I stroke into this wave and I was thinking, I've got a perfect line, this is a clean wave, and I'm going to make this. And then about one second later, I'm on my back looking up and I mean that wave is as big as this building. And I was just like, what? (audience laughs) And then like, and then I get instantly sent to the bottom, 30 feet down. I pull my inflator and I was just pissed off because I was just like, what happened? Why did I fall? I thought I had a perfect line. I thought I had a perfect wave selection. And it just holds me down, holds me down and holds me down, holds me down. And I'm thinking, Oh, is this going to be a two-wave hold down?
The very last second, it releases me up. And I get up there. This guy, Victor Lopez, who's Jerry Lopez’s brother. So he's like a pioneer of big waves. He picks me up and I just instantly started screaming. I'm like, what happened? Why did I fall? Tell me what I did wrong, please Victor. And he's like, Jaws is Jaws. It can eat you or bite you at any time. So maybe stand wider next time.
Roberts: (voiceover) Or maybe pick a better day. After the women got thrashed, the men had just one heat before event organizers said the conditions were too dangerous and cancelled the rest of the day.
(from Outdoor SF recording) So I want to rewind a little bit and understand a little bit of your journey, like how you got to here.
(voiceover) The fact that Bianca was even at Jaws competing, and that men and women surfers were there competing for equal prize money—it’s all kind of incredible. It’s a very sudden change for surfing and a huge moment in outdoor sports. And Bianca Valenti was a big reason why.
After our conversation in December, I wanted to hear more from her about how all this came about. We decided to meet at my house north of San Francisco, which happens to be just a few blocks from the Italian restaurant she co-owns with her parents. Because being a professional big-wave surfer doesn’t afford a glamorous life—or even pay all the bills—Bianca has been training to be an Italian wine specialist. When she’s not in the water, she’s working tables at the family business. So, one afternoon before a shift, she showed up at my front door with a puffy nose, the result of her surfboard smashing her in the face that morning when she fell off a wave.
Anyway, when we got into the interview, she told me she’d wanted to be a pro surfer ever since she was 7 years old and got her first board.
Valenti: The first week I started surfing, I got a poster of Kelly Slater and I had put him on my wall. It said 1992, Kelly Slater World Champion. It was the first year he won it when he was 21 and I thought, I want to be like that person, and I just didn't realize that you kind of can't.
No one else gets to be Kelly Slater other than Kelly Slater, of course. But if you were a boy growing up in Southern California in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and you were beating everyone your age in surf competitions, you had a shot at a pro career. What Bianca came to realize, painfully, was that for girls and women, talent wasn’t your most important asset. Unlike on the men’s side, the big-dollar sponsors weren’t looking for winners. They wanted models.
Valenti: I got frustrated in high school. I was competing in professional events and at that point, I had a lot of sponsors and I [had] friends who had sponsors. Things would happen like this, didn't happen to me, but a friend of mine was told she had to lose 20 pounds or she would lose her sponsorship. It became very clear once you started paying attention—or like, once you're not a little kid and you look through a magazine and there's meaning to things and you're not just going, whoa, that's cool. That's cool. That's cool. I realized that, wow, I've been surfing since I was seven and I never see a picture of a female in a magazine that represents surfing, or the only female in there is the reef model wearing a g string. That was tough because as a kid you have big dreams and if you want to be a pro athlete you also want to be -- like I wanted it to be on the cover of a surfer magazine. When I was eight, I was like, this surfing's awesome, it’s cool to be on magazines. Surfing is fun, I'm good at it. And so you dream really big and then all of a sudden you're at the top of the podium but you aren't getting the support.
Roberts: So Bianca quit competing, but she kept surfing. When she started college at UC Santa Barbara, she became a force on the surf team.
Valenti: So I was doing really well and everything and there was just this underlying rage factor where I’d just be like, man, I’m here at UCSB and it's awesome. UCSB is like a fabulous place to go to school. You're living at the beach. We had a surf team, we’re the national champions every year, I was the captain of it, tons of friends, lots of fun. But there's this underlying thing like, I should be a pro surfer and why do I have to go to school and be here and why can't I be on the trips -- every time I'd be out in the water, guys would acknowledge it or they'd be like, Whoa, I've never seen a girl surf like that. There was always people reaffirming my skill level. That's really what fueled the bullshit factor where I was like, this is such bullshit, the inequity in surfing.
Roberts: Away from competitions, Bianca started seeking out bigger waves, often with guys she’d met in the water. But it wasn’t epic rides on huge swells that convinced her that she could be a big-wave hero. Instead, it was a near-drowning that got her hooked.
On an early-winter day in 2006, she and a friend named Parker paddled out at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, which is notorious for nasty rip tides and a punishing beach break. Even veteran surfers can spend half an hour trying to make it through the whitewater, then just give up before ever catching a wave. But Bianca and Parker didn’t have any problem.
Valenti: And sometimes when you make it out too easily, it's a bad sign. There's kind of like a bigger 10 foot wave, like bigger than a doorway, is coming at us and that’s a lot of white water to duck dive. Then straight after that, there is like a 15 by 15 foot wave, so it's like 15 feet tall, 15 feet wide. And I just remember never having seen anything like that in front of my face before, like right about to hit me. And I looked at Parker and he said, welp, see you on the other side.
I tried to duck dive. When I duck dove under, I started flipping and twisting and being absolutely ragdolled, and beaten and throttled. Like I had never ever felt this kind of power before. Finally the rag dolling stopped and I opened my eyes and it was all black. I don't know if I was just deoxygenated or what, but at that point I didn't know which way was up and my foot touched the sand. So, that was good. And I started slowly swimming to the surface, very slowly, maybe two, three, four strokes because I was out of gas, and I thought right before the surface, if there's another wave like that I'm going to die. And I didn't even have any like, emotions about it because I was like so exhausted. And I came to the surface, there was not a second wave -- here I am today to tell the story-- and I was gasping for air, and my body was convulsing in places like my cheeks and my neck and like the whole body was just like pulsating. And I have never experienced that before. Went to Parker, saw him there. He said I'm going in. And I could say me too. Then we got to the sand and I just stood there looking at those waves, going I want to ride those waves. I know I can do it, I've got the skills for it. And I never looked back.
Roberts: Something had happened to Binaca underwater that day. She’d felt the raw power of the ocean and she loved it. She wanted more.
She moved up to Marin County and fell in with a crew of guys who encouraged her to chase down bigger and bigger waves—at Ocean Beach and the kinds of spots few people know about. One guy in particular, Nate McCarthy, owner of the Proof Lab surf shop, kept telling her that she shouldn’t give up on her dreams of being pro. She entered a few shortboard contests, but didn’t have much fun.
Then, in 2012, she took a moon shot and flew to Hawaii for the Pipeline Pro. The event takes place on the North Shore of Oahu at the same break as the famous Pipeline Masters, but that men’s-only competition is always in December, when the waves are huge. The women’s contest happens in March when the waves are less huge. And that year, the conditions were a special kind of nasty thanks to something like 10 days straight of monsoon rains. But Bianca—she killed it.
Valenti: And then rain stopped in the window for the contest, they had to run it at that point, and we were surfing in big waves like brown water, like chocolate. It was so gnarly and I ended up taking down all the like pretty much best pros in the world, best at big waves. It was Keala Kennelly, Claire Bevilacqua, Rochelle Ballard, Melanie Bartels, and that was awesome. The waves were not amazing, but I was like, wow, I just beat all these big names, all these heavyweights. Maybe there is something to this for me, the big waves. Then I decided to, you know, but I still didn't find the support. After winning that event, I thought I was going to catch a break. Not really.
Roberts: The breakthrough moment for Bianca—and for women’s big-wave surfing—came in 2014 at the Nelscott Classic, in Oregon. The event was part of the men’s professional tour but organizers invited Bianca and a dozen other women to compete.
Valenti: For me, I was actually coming off an injury and I remember getting the email at like 10 at night. I was seeing that the event was going to go off in three days and I was three months off of an MCL tear. I called my physical therapist right away and I said, hey, they're going to run the event. What do you think? Do you think I'm ready? Can I do it? And he's like, well, I probably shouldn't tell you to do it, but if it was me, I would do it -- because he's a surfer too -- and he was like, just make sure you don't fall...
Roberts:She did fall on her first wave, but it was after getting a good ride in. Then she caught another huge one.
Valenti: I get into the beach. And they're like, “You won.” And I was like, No, yeah! A beer company, a local beer company threw down some money for us in the end. And so all the ladies got a little bit of money. I got things like a thousand bucks, everybody else got the excess. Then we had the award ceremony that night at the local Indian casino and it was just hilarious. And I thought, yes, let’s do this.. [fade out]
Roberts: The women had surfed really well at Nelscott. The organizers and spectators loved it. To Bianca, the obvious next step was to push for a full big-wave tour. She talked to other women, and they agreed.
Valenti:And they wanted in, they were wanting to tour. But then, when we'd ask or try to discuss with organizers of events,there was pushback. No, not everybody's ready to surf Mavericks. Not everybody's ready to surf at Jaws. There aren't enough of you. The skill level is not there. It's dangerous.
Roberts: At one point, those arguments might have been legitimate. Until relatively recently, there weren’t many women riding Mavericks. But by 2016, there were more than enough to support a women’s heat at the event. And the growing controversy around their exclusion was attracting national media outlets, including CBS.
(audio from CBS)
Announcer: In the 17 years since the competition was first held, only men have competed
Jeff Clark: It’s not a gender thing, it’s a performance thing. Women just aren’t there yet.
Announcer: Jeff Clark was the first to surf this spot, back in 1975.
(fade out audio from CBS)
Roberts: Not surprisingly, Bianca was the most prominent voice on the other side.
(audio from CBS)
Announcer: Bianca Valentini disagrees. She’s been surfing the waves here for about 8 years.
Interview Question: “Big wave surfing is kind of seen as a boy’s club.”
Valenti: Totally. Yeah. Those arguments saying there aren’t enough women, they don’t surf well enough, they maybe used to hold true, but now those excuses don’t work anymore.
(fade out audio from CBS)
Roberts: As it turned out, the most important ally women surfers had in their campaign to get into Mavericks didn’t surf. Sabrina Brennan, a Harbor Commissioner for San Mateo County, can see the break from her home and she’d been paying attention to the Mavericks contest since it started 1999 as the, quote, “The Men Who Ride Mountains.” She’d been a competitive snowboarder in her 20s and she wanted to watch women at Mavericks contests. So in 2015, she made a short presentation to the California Coastal Commission, which issues permits for events along the coast, arguing that they should require a women’s heat as a condition of the next Mavericks permit.
Writer Kim Cross covered this saga for Outside Online.
Kim Cross: So she basically goes and makes this 3-minute pitch to the commission in 2015 and says, You need to include a women’s heat in order to give Mavericks this permit. And they sort of agree but instead of making a heat the condition of the permit, they say, Contest organizers, you need to give us a plan to include women in the future.
Roberts: As a member of the harbor commission, Brennan was well versed in public policy. Her argument was based on an environmental justice clause in the California Coastal Act, which stated that no person can be denied equal access to any program or activity operated by the government. And since holding Mavericks required the state to close off a section of coast, women had to be given the same access to the event as men.
It worked. By the winter of 2016-2017, women were invited to compete. But big enough waves never materialized for a competition. Then things really snowballed: the group that had been running Mavericks went bankrupt, and the World Surf League, which had a newly appointed woman CEO named Sophie Goldschmidt, took over the contest. Sabrina Brennan and Bianca Valenti saw an opportunity to push for more—not just inclusion at Mavericks, but the exact same money the men were getting. Add it all up—a progressive-minded sports league, hard-charging activists, lots of media attention—and you get to September 2018, when the WSL makes its monumental announcement granting equal prize winnings to men and women at all its competitions.
Cross: And a ton of things happened, there was a ton of negotiation; the announcement was still kind of a surprise to a lot, but it was a very very big deal.
Roberts: The really intriguing question is whether the same public policy arguments that broke open Mavericks can be applied to other sports. After all, a lot of events take place on public lands or depend on public resources, and the agencies that manage those resources can enforce anti-discrimination guidelines. Bike races use public roads. Stadiums are built on public land. Public parking lots are critical for a whole host of competitions
#14 BIANCA [51:35]: And so for me, the more interesting topic that comes up now is just thinking of public resources and open spaces and like that we all pay tax dollars. Like I don't get a tax break because I'm a woman, right?
Roberts: Bianca told me that in the wake of the World Surf League’s decision, she’s gotten a huge amount of positive feedback. At the Jaws contest back in November, she says the men were as excited about the future as the women. The sentiment was: we’re all in this together. I asked her if this made her think a lot about her teenage self, when she was so angry and frustrated about needing model-good looks to make it as a PRO. She said no, but admitted to holding on to those feelings. That’s what’s driving her to make things different for kids growing up around the beach today.
Valenti: Oh yeah, one million percent. I don't think of my younger self now, but those feelings have lasted and I want to change that for the little girls and boys who are coming up so that way we can really see what girl surfers are capable of in performance. We need the support, we need the resources it all goes to getting better and to exploring human potential. And that's what is so exciting about surfing big waves; it’s going places we've never been before.
Frick-Wright: That’s Bianca Valenti, talking with Mike Roberts. He wrote and produced this piece. It was edited by me, Peter Frick-Wright. Music by Robbie Carver.
You can read Kim Cross’s story about equal prize money at outsideonline.com. Searching her name is probably the easiest way to find it.
And thanks to Outdoor SF for letting us record.
This piece was brought to you by Strava, and their new podcast Athletes Unfiltered. If you like this show, you’ll probably like that one. Find it wherever you get your podcasts.
If you want Bianca Valenti’s help pairing wine with, I don’t know, a rabbit pappardelle, her restaurant is Valenti and Co, in San Anselmo, California.
The Outside Podcast is a production of Outside magazine and PRX. We’ll be back in two weeks.