Names Bianca Valenti as one of 2018’s Most Accomplished Athletes
Barrier-busting big-wave surfer
Despite the fact that women have long been surfing the world’s biggest waves—Betty “Banzai” Depolito was charging Waimea Bay, the legendary break off Oahu’s North Shore, in the late seventies—they’ve been given few opportunities to compete in big-wave contests. The first women’s heat didn’t take place until 2010, at Oregon’s Nelscott Reef Big Wave Classic. Last fall, after years of struggling to get support from the male-dominated surf industry, Depolito created a women-only contest at Waimea called Queen of the Bay, though it was canceled when the waves never came.
To date, no woman has ever competed in an event at Maverick’s, the monster swell south of San Francisco, even though Sarah Gerhardt broke the gender barrier there back in 1999, just weeks before the first Maverick’s event. That’s about to change, following the persistence of Bianca Valenti and the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing, which she cofounded with three other pro women in 2016. That same year, the California Coastal Commission required the group behind the Maverick’s contest to include women in order to secure permitting. And CEWS then stepped in to ensure that the women’s purse matched the men’s.
“The organizers had told us, ‘Women aren’t ready’ or ‘It’s unsafe,’ or they’d say, ‘Yes, you can compete,’ but then nothing would happen,” Valenti says. “When we started using policy to try to make a change, things finally shifted.”
Six women, including Valenti and Gerhardt, were invited to compete in 2016. The event was canceled that winter (due to unrelated legal issues) and again earlier this year (due to lack of swell), but the weather window reopens this winter, and ten women are on the roster to be called if suitable waves arrive. Just as important, the contest is now part of the World Surf League, which Valenti is lobbying for a lot more changes.
“We still aren’t in every event, and we’re not getting pay equality,” Valenti says. “But this is a good first step.” —Megan Michelson