The Bay Area local makes waves in a perennially male-dominated sport.
The same week that Bianca Valenti began surfing, she put up a poster of world champion surfer Kelly Slater on her bedroom wall. He was her idol; she was a 7-year-old kid. So, naturally, she decided she’d be just like him — a successful pro surfer, simple as that. At that age, she didn’t see herself as a “female” surfer. There was no modifier necessary.
“When you’re little, you don’t realize, ‘oh, that’s a boy,’” she said. “You don’t focus on that. You focus on doing things that are fun.”
Now 33, Valenti has been surfing almost her whole life. That love of surfing never left her; in fact, it’s what has fueled her desire to better the sport, making it accessible for everyone.
The San Francisco-based big wave surfer has garnered significant attention for spearheading the women’s equality movement in surfing. In 2016, Valenti and a handful of other female professional big wave surfers — Paige Alms, Keala Kennelly, and Andrea Moller — co-founded the Committee for Women’s Equality in Surfing (CEWS) alongside attorney Karen Tynan and San Mateo County Harbor Commission president Sabrina Brennan. It’s largely because of CEWS’s efforts that the next Mavericks surf contest, the world-famous Half Moon Bay-based big-wave surfing competition, will have a women’s division.
Valenti has been directly involved with these developments for women in the surfing world. These tangible wins for female surfers — the inclusion, the equal pay — they’re all recent. But for Valenti, they’ve been a long time coming, and it’s often been a choppy ride.
Even beyond her activism, Valenti is impressive: There’s no disputing her athleticism or her drive. She’s been a regular on the Mavericks monster wave almost since she arrived in Northern California and first began surfing giants.
“Surfing is hours and hours of training a day, recovering correctly — all to perform as your best athletic self,” she said. “I do whatever I can to keep my schedule set around the waves, because conditions are a big part of it too. I’m hustling.”
Valenti is also a co-owner of Valenti and Company, a restaurant owned by her family in San Anselmo. She works there as a sommelier to support her surfing career; she’s also started her own business making ear drops to combat surfer’s ear. The costs of surfing professionally can be incredibly high — just a single surfboard can cost hundreds of dollars — and without the backing of big name sponsors, surfers must pay out of pocket for travel, equipment and training.
It was later in her teenage years that the importance of sponsorships for surfers trying to turn pro became apparent to Valenti. It was around that time that she realized that prospects for women trying to turn pro were undeniably different than for men. No amount of love of the sport, no matter how deep or driving, could change that.
“I realized that if you didn’t have a model image, the sponsors weren’t there for you,” she said. “The surf magazines were all guys, and if there were pictures of females, it was a girl in a Reef ad wearing a bikini.”
Valenti was frustrated: at the lack of representation for female surfers, with the targeted recruiting of female surfers who had the ‘look,’ with her lack of sponsorship despite her considerable talent. When she spoke out about it, sponsors turned their backs on her.
“If you’re a female and surfing, you don’t have the same opportunity as men,” Valenti added. “You can’t surf in the same events, you won’t get the same sponsors or media exposure — even if your skill level is the best. I realized the rewards system was based on looks.”
That realization lit a fire under Valenti. When she met Sabrina Brennan, who had recently been appointed to the San Mateo County Harbor Commission, the two decided that Valenti would form a group of female surfers that would eventually become CEWS. Valenti had been fighting to participate in Mavericks since 2014; when Brennan approached her with the idea to utilize the permit granting process as leverage for the inclusion of women in the competition, Valenti already had one foot in the door.
After its creation, CEWS pushed the California Coastal Committee to withhold granting the necessary permits from Cartel Management, Mavericks’s then-organizer, until they included a women’s heat. CEWS successfully argued that the surf competition could not be granted exclusive use of part of the California coast if it excluded access to members of the public — in this case, women. That year, Cartel Management said Mavericks would include a women’s heat for the first time.
Even the creation of the heat in 2016 didn’t mean smooth sailing for Valenti — she wasn’t on the list of women invited to compete.
“[Cartel] blackballed me for advocating for inclusion,” Valenti said grimly. “But now there’s new management. At this point, the most important thing to know is that (when this event happens) it’ll highlight women for the first time, because what we did lasts no matter who’s running it. From now on, any new organizers will have to include women and follow the policy to get the permit.”
This year’s Mavericks would have been the first to include a women’s division, but the window for the contest officially closed on April 1. There’s a history of unpredictability with Mavericks; it’s only happened 10 times since first opening in 1999. It was last held in 2015, before there was even official talk of including women. During the 2016–2017 window, Cartel Management declared double bankruptcy, ending any chance of that year’s Mavericks despite good conditions. In the years that have followed, conditions have been trying— despite pockets of good waves and weather, the organizers have continued to struggle to pick a date for the contest.
Despite their absence from competition, female big-wave surfers are not new to the monster waves at Mavericks. Sarah Gerhardt was the first woman to surf at Mavericks in 1999, the competition’s inaugural year. Today, more than a handful of women in the water at once still isn’t exactly commonplace, according to Steve Hawk, a long-time surf journalist. But he says women are “less of a minority than they were in the 80s and 90s,” when he began surfing in Half Moon Bay.
Hawk says the presence of female surfers in the water is enough to set an important precedent.
“It’s just going to make younger girls feel all the more welcome and likely to commit themselves to something that’s hard to learn,” he said.
Their presence is one thing; their respective performances are another. Hawk thinks that the high caliber of talent displayed by the big names in female big-wave surfing qualifies them to compete with men directly. Theoretically, he says, he’s a fan of having women and men compete against each other in the same division. Surfline, where Hawk was once the editorial director, ran a column on the subject in February.
“My wife uses a saying that I love, which is, ‘people need to beware the soft bigotry of low expectations,’” Hawk said. “Keala [Kennelly] and Bianca are surfing waves I want nothing to do with. Just because I’m a man doesn’t mean I’m surfing bigger, gnarlier waves than they are.”
Veteran surf photographer Frank Quirarte has been photographing Mavericks since the mid-90s. He’s also a member of the rescue team for the Big Wave Tour for World Surf League, Mavericks’ new organizer. He’s seen Valenti surf the waves at Mavericks often, and said that she’s been “crossing her t’s and dotting her i’s.”
“Knowing her and how dedicated she is — that’s what impresses me about her,” Quirarte said. “She puts in the time, she surfs everywhere, she’s also a conditioned athlete and she’s trained hard because she wants to be successful.”
Quirarte echoed Hawk’s sentiment in saying the biggest challenge facing women in big-wave surfing is that there aren’t many of them. Even with their small numbers, though, it’s clear to him they’re making an impact on the larger surfing community. In the time since CEWS and their efforts have begun to garner attention, the 15-year-old daughter of one of his friends has been repetitively asking him to take her out to surf Mavericks.
“She’s a good surfer with potential, and I see that and it makes me feel good that she sees Bianca and all of them as role models,” Quirarte said, speaking of the girl. “And they need more of that. It inspires boys too.”
World Surf League announced in September that it would award male and female winners equally at Mavericks. It’s another big win for women in surfing, but Valenti has no plans to stop working as hard as she does. She’ll continue advocating alongside other female surfers and supporters like Brennan, who says Valenti is “not someone who cowers in the corner afraid of losing opportunity.”
“I’ve never known her to be indecisive or conflicted (about her advocacy),” Brennan added.
For now, Valenti will keep an eye on the swells while staying conditioned. She’s hopeful that CEWS’s groundwork with permitting policy will serve as a template for promoting equal opportunity in other outdoor sports. This triumph for women’s equality in surfing is just the beginning.
“It wasn’t easy. There were a lot of moments where we could have easily said, no, I don’t want to catch this wave — I don’t want to try anymore,” Valenti said. “But we persisted.”
Despite the window for this year’s Mavericks having passed, Valenti’s hopes for her future and the future of big wave surfing are high.
“It’s like we’ve just ridden one big wave successfully, and now we’re attempting to conquer many more,” she said.
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