The Women of Surfing on Big Waves, Beach Essentials & Body Image

Women’s surfing is having a moment right now, and it’s about to have an even bigger moment when the 2020 Summer Olympics arrives in Tokyo, Japan, and debuts surfing as an Olympic sport for the very first time. No pressure, right? While pertinent details surrounding location (ocean vs. wave pool), qualifying competitions, team sizes, and more are still being ironed out by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the ladies of surfing are busy catching waves at some of the most beautiful places around the world. Think Fiji, Maui, Australia, and Brazil.

MISSBISH caught up with four of the biggest names in women’s surfing following their intimate Women of Surfing panel at Agenda Festival in Long Beach, California. Sage Erickson is a 26-year-old world championship tour surfer with more than two dozen top five victories under her belt, including her recent Vans US Open of Surfing 1st place win. Twenty-four-year-old Courtney Conlogue is one of surfing’s most winningest females and just claimed another victory at the Paul Mitchell Neon Supergirl Pro, during which she surfed against two-time Supergirl Pro champ Erickson. At 11, Conlogue was named the youngest athlete selected to join the USA Junior Surf Team. Pro surfer, 31-year-old Jessi Miley-Dyer now gets to call the shots as a Commissioner of the World Surf League (WSL). And finally--taking after her pro surfing dad Chris Ward--little ripper, 19-year-old Malia Ward is making waves on her own terms.

Meet the women of surfing and read their thoughts on big waves, their favorite beach essentials, why loving yourself and your body is so important, and so much more.  

When you’re not on the road, where do you call home?
Sage Erickson: I was born and raised in Ojai, California.

Courtney Conlogue: I’m based in Santa Ana, which is in Orange County, California.

Jessi Miley-Dyer: I’m from Sydney, Australia. But I live in Santa Monica, California.

Malia Ward: I live in San Clemente, California.

From your perspective, how has women’s surfing progressed in the last five to ten years?
SE: There was definitely a mold in surfing, especially when it came to careers. There wasn’t a big push in making women’s surfing the highlight of the sport. If you didn’t ride for a major company, which generally owned major surf magazines, you weren’t getting the publicity that you deserved. With the World Surf League (WSL) coming in and having such an appreciation and value for women [surfers], it’s given us the confidence to do what we love. The level of surfing has improved as well as the variety of individuals that compete on the tour. No one’s a carbon copy. We also use social media as a place to establish our own brands while still having the financial support of an organization that really cares about us.

CC: It’s changed drastically. There’s competitive change and lifestyle change. Our prize purse is now at $60,000 USD and the men’s is at $120,000 USD, but I’m sure it’ll increase. The women have finally found a niche and we’re evolving into our own entity, but we’re still competing with the men. I love having the men’s tour with the women’s, and now you can actually have a career as a professional surfer. As for lifestyle, I’m able to be a performance athlete and I’ve really stuck to that. I want to inspire others through my daily life—my fitness, my art; any endeavor that I pursue.

JMD: The main positive thing for us is the prize money. The first year that I did the tour was in 2006, and the total prize purse was $56,000 USD between 18 women. Right now it’s $280,000 USD. It’s a really big jump over the last 10 years with the minimum now being $10,000 USD per event. We really wanted to make the tour sustainable for women on it because I totally believe if you’re going to be a professional athlete and you’re the best in your sport, you should be able to make a living off of it. At the very least, if there isn't corporate support or sponsorships, we should be able to give women a platform where they can still be successful.  

MW: My dad’s a professional surfer, so I grew up watching him. I didn’t see much of the women’s side until I started competing myself. I realized there weren’t a lot of girls when I first started, but there’s been a huge hub of girls coming together and surfing more. I think it has a lot to do with where they have events. Women are starting to change the mold by using our talents and power to break through a male-dominated sport.  

Since your dad, Chris Ward, is a famous surfer. Was it inevitable that you’d become one, too?
MW: I mean, my dad never pushed it on me. Growing up, I noticed a lot of surfer girls’ dads forcing surfing on them and they hated it. I didn’t really like surfing at first. I didn’t like the big waves and I was scared. But I fell in love with it on my own and with my friends. Where I grew up made it inevitable, not just my dad. Now that I surf, it’s an amazing thing to do it with him.

What was the most exciting moment of your career?
SE: There have been so many highlight moments! It’s hard to pinpoint one. When I was a junior, I was competing at the US Open and I was the underdog in the final. I was up against Coco Ho, Malia Manuel, and others who were all in the top 17 World Tour. The waves got really small and inconsistent so I capitalized on that and won. I surprised the hell out of myself. It’s cool because it’s the biggest staged event, and I got carried up around 40,000 people, which was a motivating feeling.

CC: When I qualified for the World Tour and when I won the US Open because it was in my backyard. The crowd and conditions were amazing. Also, my World Tour wins. Winning Bells Beach two times, for me, is iconic because I grew up watching and checking the mags for the winners. This was before you could see it instantly on social media.

JMD: The group of women that we have now is really incredible. They’re so competitive yet so nice. When I was competing, I was ruthless. They want to win so badly, and I’m really lucky because I get to see behind the scenes. I get to see them paddling out in the dark before the event starts. I get to see them warming up. I actually really like seeing that secret competitiveness. For me, as well, we go to some amazing places on tour. Fiji is like a fantasyland for surfers. That event also happens to be during my birthday (laughs).

Can you explain your duties as a World Surf League commissioner?
JMD: Commissioners are responsible for the integrity of the sport. We have the last say on rules and regulations while we’re on-site. We look after judging, scheduling, progression, and innovation. We also look after the surfers to make sure they’re getting what they need. One of the main things that I get to do when we’re on-site is determine when we start. I’ll be sitting out on a boat in the lineup watching the waves with the forecast and conditions in front of me. There’s a lot riding on the call time.

How many days a week do you surf?
SE: I've definitely been putting a lot more time in the water. I’m surfing about five times a week at least. I don’t really care if I’m the first person out in the lineup. I’m going to get the same feeling from the ocean any part of the day.

CC: It depends on where I am and the swell. Sometimes I’ll take breaks. I was just in Bali and surfing 6-8 hours a day. I trained a lot then, but when I went home, I felt a little under the weather so I have been taking it easy. If the waves are good, I’m training. If the waves are bad, sometimes I’m still training (laughs).  

JMD: I still surf a lot. I’ve had a few injuries and say that I’ve become a bit of an “old lady.” I’ve had a life well-lived in terms of competitive sports. I’m more inclined to surf and have fun on waves that aren’t that great because it’s not my job anymore. It’s back to being my passion.

MW: I would say about three to five days a week and about 4 hours each day.

What’s your workout routine when you’re not on a surfboard?
SE: I’ve definitely ramped up on working out. I’ve found that being lighter, quicker, and agile on my board has made me a better surfer. At one point, I put a lot more focus on the gym and not surfing, and I feel like my talent struggled a bit. I needed to find the balance between both. I went to the gym six times last week in addition to surfing. I’ve felt the most competitive in the last two years so that’s motivating for me. When you look good, you feel good.

CC: In Bali, I was doing four hours of yoga each day—2 hours of yin in the morning and 2 hours of yang in the afternoon. I do a lot of cross-training in gyms and hiking as well.

MW: I love doing Tone It Up. It’s amazing! I go on Pinterest and make my own workouts. Equinox Best Butt Ever is my favorite. I also train with Tim Hartwig in Beverly Hills and with some other surf trainers.

Besides your surfboard, what are your beach essentials?
SE: My SLOWTIDE towel. It’s cool to have an art-based accessory that I’m proud to wear. My Oakley sunglasses; they finally came out with a round lens (laughs). Definitely a good sunscreen. I’m an avid experimenter when it comes to different products, I use Shiseido the most. I like cute backpacks or beach bags. I’m a super unorganized person so I need a place to put all of those things. And sometimes, a book.

CC: Always a gauze-y white blouse. I love being tan, but I’ve learned what the sun does to you! Sunscreen—I’m huge on prevention. Sunnies. A big fun, floppy hat that covers my face. A good book or magazine. A nice big beach towel and a beach bag.

JMD: A thick sunscreen with zinc. The best brand is from Australia. It’s also cool to see that rash guards are coming back. Also, a big beach towel.

MW: Sunscreen. Leave-in conditioner--my mom’s always told me to bring it. Sex wax. A bikini, and headphones.

“The level of surfing has improved as well as the variety of individuals that compete on the tour. No one’s a carbon copy."

How are you empowering other female surfers or athletes to pursue their dreams of becoming pro?
SE: I think that I’ve put a lot of emphasis on discovering who I am and what makes me feel comfortable. I’ve tried to represent surfing in a beautiful and wholesome way. I really value people’s opinions and don’t appreciate negativity, so I try not to put things out there that would bring me that sort of attention. When I was younger, people that I looked up to definitely left an impression and I think it’s a good thing to have a role model. I try to be someone who represents happiness, drive, motivation, and success. I try to display it genuinely because that’s what would have empowered me when I was younger.

CC: I had a dream in the fifth grade that I would become an astronaut or a pro surfer. I didn’t know what it took to get to either because there was no platform. While I was in college, I was also pursuing surfing--it’s possible to do both. Whether someone wants to become a champion surfer, or innovator, or coder, or woodcarver, I want to inspire people to be the best version of themselves. It’s all about creating your own recipe and finding true happiness. I share what I experience because I think it’s beautiful and I want others to realize it’s possible for them to do it in their own version.

JMD: I think that you can’t be what you can’t see. When I was trying to become a professional surfer, it was kind of a tricky time because the industry was more inclined to work with models. Rip Curl was a really great sponsor and they looked after me. It’s an interesting space to be in because you feel torn between following your passion as a competitive surfer and wanting to be a free surfer. Staying in the industry has been really great because it’s meant to be that I’m here now during the golden era of women’s surfing. Surfing means many different things to different people and you don’t have to be a competitive surfer. It’s really important to me that little kids get to watch the Steph Glimores and Courtney Conlouges of the world and realize that they can do it, too. For a long time, we didn’t have that platform or coverage.

MW: I’ve been saying this since I was little. I just want to inspire girls! It’s a cookie-cutter line, but it’s true. You can inspire others by inspiring yourself and doing what makes you happy. I want to capture that in as many different ways as possible. Instagram is my favorite platform for doing this. When you stay true to yourself and authentic, that leads to more people wanting to do that, too. The more you focus on yourself and your authenticity and not what others are doing... people will recognize that.

You spend a lot of your time in a swimsuit. What do you have to say about body positivity, embracing your bodies, and feeling comfortable in your own skin?
SE: I think it’s natural to compare or want what we don’t have. The biggest freedom that I’ve found is finding true happiness within yourself and realizing that there’s always going to be someone smaller, or someone blonder. It’s important to bring yourself back to a place where you’re thankful for the small things and admire beauty in different ways. I think personality shows more than good looks. We live in a time that’s so saturated with marketing telling us what we should think or how we should look, but I think people really relate to what’s authentic.

CC: I got really comfortable in my own skin when I did the ESPN Body Issue in 2016. You want to talk about wearing your skin with pride?! It was very empowering. Those first moments when you have to drop your robe are when you start showing who you are in your rawest, purest form. I wanted to show people what I do, what my body has become through my sport, and what I’ve done to get there. People who feel comfortable with who they are radiate beauty.  

JMD: I think it can be hard. All women have a stage in their lives when they aren’t sure of their confidence. This sounds ridiculous, but every summer this meme pops up on my feed that says “How to have a beach body,” and I love that the response is “Go to the beach. Have a body.” It’s awesome! (laughs) Women’s surfing is interesting because we represent different shapes, sizes, and nationalities. We have girls who are 5’0” and go all the way up to 6’3”. Everyone’s just rocking it, and more and more women are speaking out about what it took for them to feel OK in their own skin.  

MW: It’s a huge concept right now. It’s important for girls to show what they really look like. Scrolling through Instagram is just like looking through magazines and seeing the ads--it’s not real. People forget that, and it’s important for little girls to know that Instagram isn’t a reality. It’s a business.  

What do you think it takes to become an Olympic surfer?
SE: The Olympics is going to depend highly on surfing ability. It’s the highest graded athletic event in the world. It’s going to come down to who’s the best surfer and who’s judging.

JMD: We’re not 100 percent sure what qualifying will look like. But the Olympics is going to be amazing for us. It’s the biggest stage for the sport in a lot of ways. It’s also an institution that helps to validate the sport. All of the best surfers around the world will be there. This is a moment that we can’t afford to miss because there’s a chance that we won’t be in it forever. We want it to be successful. I want to see the best surfers from the WSL tours being represented. To have a Kelly Slater up there next to a Michael Phelps is really huge and important.   

What’s your next goal?
MW: I have a bunch! The next one that I’m really excited about is USC (University of Southern California), I just got in. That’s a huge goal. After graduation, I want to focus and dedicate time to my sport. I also want to further build my brand into fitness and I want to make a million dollars (laughs)!

What’s the biggest wave you’ve ever surfed?
SE: I’ve surfed some big waves but I haven’t surfed super huge waves compared to my peers. I would probably say 8 to 10-foot backs, so like a 20-foot face. It was like moving through mountains of water. I kissed the sand when I got to shore and said, “I’ll never do this again." I value my life so much, and the sacrifice isn’t really worth it for me. My adrenaline high isn’t enough. I want to go home and see my family and friends, and have pizza (laughs). At this time, [big waves] aren’t my passion.

CC: Wow (laughs). I’ve surfed a pretty big 25-foot wave. I do want to surf more big waves, but I’m pursuing my world title now so I’m trying to stay safer and focus on that. I’ve had that goal since I was a little girl and I want to get there.

Photos by: Christina Choi

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