Bianca Valenti is one of the best big wave surfers in the world and is one of the driving forces in the fight for gender equality in the sport. In this episode, she sits down to talk about her reverence for the ocean and the environment and her insistence that sports be a place where all dreams, regardless of the shape and color and sex of the dreamer, are possible.
Bianca Valenti: The second I went under the water,
I was like rag-dolled, flipping and turning
my board's ripped out of my hands.
I opened my eyes.
All I saw was dark, and then luckily
at that second, my feet touched the sand,
and I just barely, slowly swam to the surface,
and I thought, "If there's another wave,
I'm going to die."
Kelly Corrigan: There is no part of me that can imagine
getting dragged out into the ocean by a jet ski
and dropping myself over the edge of a 60-foot wave
on a piece of fiberglass,
but if I wanted to and someone told me I couldn't
because I was a girl,
I can easily imagine the energizing surge of emotions
that might follow.
Bianca Valenti is a woman
who is both beyond
our imagination in her daring
and everyone who has ever fought
for equity in any space.
She makes riding big waves and making big waves look easy.
Both sides of the equation are her life's work.
I sat down with Bianca in Pacifica, California,
to understand more about her reverence
for the ocean and her insistence
that sports be a place where all dreams,
regardless of the shape and color and sex
of the dreamer, are possible.
I'm Kelly Corrigan, this is "Tell Me More,"
and here's my conversation with big wave surfer
and change maker Bianca Valenti.
Hey, Bianca. Thanks for doing this.
Thanks for having me.
Yeah. You're my first surfer that
I've ever really known, so I'm superpsyched,
and I'm also starting at ground zero here
with information, and I'm guessing that
people watching might be, too.
So lay it out for us. You started
when you were 7?
Yep. I was standing up on a boogie board,
and my mom said, "Do you want to try surfing
on a hard board?"
And I was like, "Yeah."
She said, "OK. You get a $75 budget."
The only thing that we could find in my budget
was a used surfboard covered in skull and crossbones.
Oh, my God! I was thinking of this
as a mother and thinking, like--
that's the point where I might think
this isn't such a great idea.
No. I was scared of that board,
and the guys at the surf shop said,
"Come back tomorrow,
and it'll look all fresh and white."
My mom put her beach chair right at the edge
of the water and said, "Don't make me
come and rescue you."
My first wave I remember catching a wave
and going left and then right and then left again
and just, like, feeling, like, "Wow!
"This is the best feeling I've ever had in the world,
"and this is all I want to do.
I want to be the best surfer."
Ever since that moment, she would wake me up
before school at 5:00, and then we'd go to the beach,
and she'd walk the dog on the beach.
I'd be the only one out surfing.
And did you have a sense of gender?
Did you think this is something boys do
or something girls do,
or it was just sort of you and the ocean?
No. It was like-- it was just about the surfing,
and it took me a few events before I ever made a heat.
So there's usually 6 people in a heat.
And the first time I advanced out of a heat,
I remember hearing it on the megaphone
and just having this feeling of, like, "Oh, my gosh.
I advanced!" Yeah.
And then the next contest, I made it to the finals,
and then I started winning all the time
and beating all the boys, and then I started
also competing in the open women's
when there was a division, and I would be competing
against women in their 20s as this--
And you were 10 or 11.
this little girl, yeah,
and I'm still friends with a lot of those women.
They were kind of my first mentors
and role models.
At what point did it start to be,
um, a problem that you weren't male?
By the time I was a teenager, I had been subscribing
to every single surf magazine,
watching every single surf movie...
Bodhi: It's not tragic to die doing what you love.
Valenti: always hopeful of, like, seeing myself
in the magazine.
And you had clearly distinguished yourself.
I mean, you were special.
I was always at the top of the podium,
and so I was always confused as to why I didn't see
women in the magazines or in the videos
because I knew they were out there
and they were surfing really well.
Well, to be specific, there were women
in the magazines, and there were women
in the movies.
They were just in bikinis, standing
on the sidelines.
They weren't peeling off a wetsuit.
Yeah. The only kind of representation
in the magazines would be the classic G-string model
standing on the beach, watching the guy getting
a good wave out in the water,
and I just got really, really mad.
So explain to me as a person
who has never seen a big wave competition.
Give us a sense of, like--
first of all, it's, like, 60-foot waves,
like a 6-story building you're at the top of,
something like that?
Well, yeah. I would say a big wave is anything
from 15 feet and up. OK.
You know, it's not about competition.
They don't happen very often.
Throughout the world, it's hard to find waves
that break that big.
Have you had a conversation
with yourself about, like,
"I am willing to die"?
Heh heh heh.
Because you must know that you're at risk.
My mom has a phrase that says,
"We're all walking time bombs."
Ha! There's a point of view.
And I think about just, like, getting in the car
every day, but the truth is
is people die all the time in car crashes.
I got into big waves almost dying.
I didn't really understand, like, how big the waves were
at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.
Went up there one day on the first swell of the year
with a friend, who also had never surfed Ocean Beach.
Then all of a sudden, there was, like,
a really big whitewater that we had to duck dive
and go under, and then the next wave
was--was something I had never seen before.
It was, like, the size of a house
and about to break 10 feet in front of us.
We were in the worst possible place
that you could be, where we were just
gonna have to take the full impact
of the biggest wave that I had ever seen
in my life at that point.
The second I went under the water,
I was, like, rag-dolled,
flipping and turning and spinning,
my board's ripped out of my hands.
A tornado had hit me. I'd never experienced
anything like this in my life before.
I had no idea which way was up
because I had been spinning in so many different directions.
I opened my eyes. All I saw was dark,
and then luckily at that second,
my feet touched the sand, and with all
the energy I had left, which was almost none,
I just barely, slowly swam to the surface,
and I thought, "If there's another wave,
I'm going to die,"
and then we got to the beach,
um, and I just stood there looking back at those waves
and thinking, "Those are the most perfect,
"biggest waves I've ever seen,
and I want to surf those waves."
We are, like, right around that corner
from Mavericks, which is, like,
the biggest waves in the continental U.S.?
Yes. Mavericks is one of the biggest waves
in the world.
A lot of people call it the Mount Everest of waves.
The thing that you haven't addressed--
and maybe it's because you don't have
this problem, but all I can think about
is, like, how are you managing fear?
Like, there are sharks,
these waves are 60 foot tall.
Like, that's all I can think about
when I think about what you do every day.
Yeah. As a surfer, you have to be able
to sit with fear, and so the breath work
is a huge tool.
That's when I start breathing up,
which is a really slow inhale and a slow exhale,
and that lowers the heart rate,
and it also helps you just to relax.
The calmer and more collected I can be before the wave,
the more focused I am, and then, like,
once I'm in the spot and I see I'm in the spot,
there's kind of like this, you know,
"Oh, my gosh. I'm in the spot" moment,"
and then you start making that drop,
and it feels like freefalling and a weightlessness,
and that's the moment in which you're totally present.
Like, there's nothing else in the world
I'm thinking about as I'm dropping
into a giant 50-foot wave.
It is, like, really superterrifying and scary,
but at the same time, it's majestic
and it's beautiful,
and being so close to the power source
and the energy of nature like that
is something that just really charges my battery,
and, like, it fills me with life
and makes me feel so alive.
Even if you're not surfing the waves
but you just see them, it is truly spectacular.
I imagine it's like what going to the Grand Canyon is like
or Niagara Falls.
It's also, like, a reminder of just how tiny
each of us are.
We're like the size of a grain of sand
in this whole universe.
There's something that's just so special
about it energetically.
OK. So I have this quote I wanted
to ask you about.
I was snooping around on the Internet,
and there was this little piece
about rules for writing about surfing.
One rule was "The ocean is always a metaphor,
"always with female pronouns,
always fickle, sometimes rewarding."
Heh! Another was
"Every dialogue must include 'bro,'
"'dude,' or 'man.'
'Bonus points for 'duder,' 'bro man,'
"or the mash-up triple score such as
'duder bro man,'" and the third was
"Show a woman's barely covered bottom
somewhere in the article (duh)."
It's always baffling me, and it still baffles me today
why surf culture has this superweird machismo,
bring out the worst of the male ego.
This the guy? Yeah.
A lot of the times,
I just go surfing by myself,
and I'm always so focused on the waves
and thinking about my performance
that you stop noticing it.
And so you wanted to compete at Mavericks,
and they wouldn't let you.
In 2014, women were invited to compete in Oregon.
It was the Big Wave World Tour,
and it was at a spot called Nelscott Reef.
That experience of just being out in the water
with 7 other women, the camaraderie,
it was also the first time
that big wave surfing was streamed
live on the Internet.
Announcer: You're looking at live action here.
Fading into the pit.
Valenti: You're out there, and you're, like,
about a mile out.
People are catching waves, but you don't know
if you need a certain score, if you're in first or last.
Corrigan: You have no information.
Yeah. And when we went in, someone pulled me aside
and said, "I'm standing here with the winner
of the event Bianca Valenti."
Woman: So you just won the contest.
Announcer: She was just on fire.
She caught a bunch of waves,
and because she was turning on the face,
getting back into the power pocket,
she was awarded as the champion here
at Nelscott Reef.
Valenti: The feedback from everybody
was just like, "Wow! That was so awesome.
We didn't know women could surf big waves like that,"
and people's minds, like, expanded.
That really relit my competitive fire.
I just thought, "Well, they'll definitely want to
"have a women's division in every other event
on the Big Wave World Tour,"
and the closest one to my house is Mavericks.
I called in on the radio and asked Jeff Clark...
Who managed the tournament or something?
Mm-hmm. He's the first person who surfed Mavericks.
I said, "Hey, you know, since Oregon went so well,
"what do you think about having women
compete at Mavericks?"
This is a very clever move on your part.
Mm-hmm. To ask this question
in front of an audience is very--
What I heard-- I heard a yes.
After that, I e-mailed every single
female big wave surfer who I knew,
which was, like, 12.
I said, "My house is open to anyone
"who wants to come over for a swell.
"We're also gonna create a fund to help
people get there."
I had no idea how we were gonna do that.
Good for you.
But was just really trying to get
everybody psyched up and fired up.
There was a tech company in San Francisco
who went to the organizers and said,
"Hey. We want to sponsor a women's division
in your event,"
and the organizers told her no.
They didn't want that.
We had to figure out how to creatively
make the event happen.
Woman: I just want to thank WickrX
just for giving all these amazing female athletes
a platform to show our stuff.
[Cheering and applause]
And is there any homophobia in surfing?
Like, did you--were guys hitting on you
and then finding out you're gay
and not liking that, or...
Heh. It's funny you should ask
because just two days ago in the water,
this guy asked me "Do you have a boyfriend?"
And I said, "No. I have a girlfriend,"
and then I looked at him, and I said,
"Do you have a boyfriend?"
Ha ha ha!
It's like give me a break.
I don't care about your love life,
and why should you care about mine?
It's like my mom always taught me that it's
the content of people's character that matters.
So speaking of characters,
at "Tell Me More," we do this thing
with every guest.
We want to know about somebody who's
important to you and somebody who
helps you think more clearly
or do your work better,
and you picked a kind of awesome woman
for your Plus One.
Tell us about Mira.
She is the cofounder of Brown Girl Surf,
which is a really amazing program that brings
brown girls from neighborhoods
where they wouldn't normally have access to surfing,
and you can see how it transforms people's lives
and how it empowers them.
It's how surf culture should be.
So we asked Mira to talk a little bit about you,
and here's what she said.
Mira: I met Bianca actually really early on
in my surfing journey.
I was living in the Marin Headlands,
and I was surfing Cronkhite
pretty much any day that I could,
and Bianca surfed there regularly,
and she's just, like, a total shredder,
and there weren't a lot of other women out surfing
Cronkhite most of the time,
and Bianca was so friendly and introduced herself to me
the first day she saw me out in the water,
talked to me in the parking lot,
and it was just really nice as someone who was new
to surfing and new to that place to feel welcome,
and it wasn't until--it was, like, a couple years later
when some folks in the parking lot were saying,
"Oh, did you hear? Bianca won Pipeline!"
And I was like, "Oh, my gosh! Like, our Bianca?"
And then I realized, you know, this whole time
I've been in the water with a world-class surfer.
Like, that's why she was so good, you know?
Bianca is in a sport which is probably, like,
one of the most intense head game sports
you could be in, right?
Like, she's--she's catching these waves
that can literally kill her.
Her degree of self-confidence has to just be so high.
For someone who's doing a sport like that
to then basically put themselves
in this incredibly exposed position,
which is what happens when you stick your neck out
and become an activist, that's just--
it's just a hugely courageous step.
She's been a huge inspiration to me.
As girls and women of color, our whole lives
we receive messaging that enforces the idea
that surfing is not necessarily something
that is meant for us.
I want girls and women and gender-expansive folks
of color to feel like surfing is for them.
It is for us.
Brown Girl Surf, we-- our mission is based in joy.
We are all about creating a surf culture in our own image
inspired by our own joy and love for the ocean.
So many folks have signed up for our program and said,
"I didn't know this was something I could do,"
and we're like, "Yeah," and then they come
to a Brown Girl Surf program, and they meet
all these girls and women of color who are surfing,
and they're like, "Whoa," you know.
"Where have y'all been?"
We're like, "We're here, and now you're here, too."
Girl: Seeing Brown Girl Surf made me feel
like surfing was a place that I could fit in.
Mira: For too long in California,
we've just kind of tolerated, like, localism
as just this thing that happens.
It basically reinforces the racial inequity
that's been built into our system here
in the United States.
Housing covenants in coastal communities
that literally say you can't sell this house
to someone who is not white.
We have this whole stacked history
of things like this that have prevented
people of color from even being able to live
in these more desirable coastal areas.
A lot of these racial inequities are just baked into the system
in ways that people don't even see or realize,
so for example, in Pacifica State Beach
at Linda Mar, which is the closest beginner surf beach
to San Francisco and the East Bay,
no one could even apply for a permit
except for there were these 4 surf schools
that had been awarded permits in 2005 for perpetuity.
Brown Girl Surf, we started our community programs in 2014,
and we could never even apply for a permit?
We've been working with the Parks, Beaches,
and Recreation Commission in Pacifica and have proposed
a new permit system with the goal of equity,
and the commission has agreed to develop that policy,
and we're working on it with them now,
so it's a huge victory.
For the first time since we started community programs,
Brown Girl Surf is now able to operate
at Pacifica State Beach,
and we can start to make surfing a more equitable sport
in the Bay Area.
Bianca for me has been a total inspiration,
and to know that I actually helped inspire her
is just really humbling,
and it also just reminds me about how all the work we do
is connected, how we are all part of a bigger movement
around creating a more inclusive and equitable and joyful
surf culture for everyone.
Isn't that great? Yeah.
I met Mira at--she started surfing
at Fort Cronkhite.
It's an advanced spot, and so I remember
seeing her out there and just checking in, like,
"Hey. Do you know how this rip works,
and here's the cliff."
That was your first conversation,
was you reaching out to make sure
she was safe?
When you're surfing, you're always aware
of, like, what's go-- who's around you,
what's around you.
It's part of--part of your duty
is, like, to also watch out for your fellow surfers.
Yeah. When you think about women in sports
who've totally inspired you,
who comes to mind?
Billie Jean King... The best.
is at the top, yeah.
Is she not the best?
She is the best.
The Williams sisters.
Does it surprise you or frustrate you
that we're still talking about equity
in sports even though Billie Jean King's been
at this thing for, like, 50 years?
My grandmother is 95,
and she was the first junior sailor in Auckland.
No kidding! She's a Kiwi.
She's from New Zealand. Yep, and she had
a older brother who taught her how to sail,
and so the boys were short crew
when the weather was bad, and they said,
"Bunny, you can-- you can join"--
Bunny? Yeah. Her name's--
that's her nickname.
"You can join the club,
but you can't come to the meetings."
She said she would just sit around the house
and pray for bad weather and high seas
because that's when they would be short crew
and then call her to come sail.
So did you know that story growing up?
Do you have a moment that you're
particularly proud of in terms
of, like, advancing equity?
I feel like that's the whole story
of America right now is everyone
just wants things to be fair.
I think my proudest moments are when I'm teaching kids
and seeing the stoke on their face
and helping them find the love for the ocean.
Last week, I spoke to a high school--
girl's high school, 500 teenagers
and just sharing stories with them
and getting them fired up to be change makers.
I think those are my most fulfilling
and proud moments.
Can you talk about your experiences
seeking sponsorships, winning them, losing them?
Seeking sponsorships just always felt like
an uphill battle.
I've worked to support my big wave surfing habits,
and so have the other women.
If you're gonna strike a swell
and you're gonna go chase it and show up
when the waves are big, minimum, you need
5,000 per swell, and that doesn't take
into account missing work or, you know, paying
for dog care, or--
And typical prize money for a big wave
would be $1,700 or something?
There haven't really been very many competitions, Kelly.
When I went to Oregon in 2014,
there was actually zero prize money
for the women.
For the men, there was 50,000.
For the women, we had zero,
but at the last minute, a local brewing company
threw in 5,000 bucks, and we all split it equally.
For my friends who came from Hawaii,
it didn't cover the cost of their trip.
What's next? Like, in terms of, like,
what you're gonna apply all your
emotional energy to other than surfing
around the equity stuff?
Where do you take it from here?
I think, you know, it's pretty important
for athletes like me, who are risking our lives
hucking ourselves over ledges,
pushing the envelope of possibility,
to have things like health insurance
and, like, a retirement plan
and ownership in our work,
and then also, I want to collaborate
with all the other best athlete change makers
in every other sport and streamline
all of our efforts because we're all
fighting the same fight more or less,
so I think that that will help us
create better waves faster.
OK. So the last thing we do on "Tell Me More"
is a little bit of a speed round.
Are you ready?
I hope so.
If your high school did superlatives,
what would you be most likely to become?
I think mostly likely to be found at the beach.
Oh, good. Good. They knew you then.
What's your guilty pleasure?
That's like--like, I don't actually
feel guilty about anything.
That's awesome. Yeah.
What's your go-to mantra for hard times?
Right now, it's ride a better wave.
What's the last big change of heart you had?
What was yours?
Hey. That's not how this game works.
I'm in charge.
I need inspiration on that one.
No. Uh, thinking that I wanted Georgia,
my 19-year-old to call more
and then thinking, no, it's better
that she's not.
It's better that she's sorting it all out
on her own and that she's working
with her friends to solve problems,
and it shouldn't be me anymore.
Well, my most recent big change of heart
was feeling like I don't ever want to go
anywhere without my puppy.
OK. I have a quote I want to ask you about.
You talked about people saying that you
push too hard, and you said that
"There's this fear-based scarcity mentality,
"this idea that the pie is only so big
"and you can only slice it so many ways,
but you can grow the pie."
That's right. There's a better
compensation model for all athletes.
There's a better opportunity model
I do believe that we can grow the pie
and that everyone can win,
and the first time I really felt that way
was having someone like Mira,
who I know together we're stronger
and that what we're fighting for
is good for everyone.
That's the mentality that I live by
and the belief that helps me keep fighting the good fight.
My grandmother always says, "If you have
"a roof over your head, food in your belly,
"and a shirt on your back, you don't have
anything to complain about."
That's the advice she would give me
whenever I was upset growing up,
and it always frustrated me until one day
it really hit home.
That's great! That's so great!
I can't thank you enough for doing this.
It was such a pleasure to be with you.
Thank you. Yeah.
There's a good set right now.
There's a good set? Yeah.
That's a good set, people.