Girls in the Curl

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Fearless pros like Rochelle Ballard, are inspiring more women to surf

One of the scariest waves in the world breaks just off the southwest coast of Tahiti near a tiny village called Teahupoo (pronounced Cho-po). This two-story wall of water, often just as thick as it is tall, has battered and broken countless professional surfers and killed at least one of them. When the wave closes out, it looks as though the entire Pacific Ocean is trying to stomp onto the shallow coral reef below. It is terrifying to watch, insane to surf — and Keala Kennelly's favorite spot.

"It's really dangerous. I've almost drowned. But I've won it three times," she says, referring to the professional surfing competition held at Teahupoo each May. With her sun-bleached blond hair and slim, muscular build, Kennelly, 24, is one of the growing cadre of elite female surfers who are transforming the once male-dominated sport of surfing into both a passion and a pastime for a growing number of women around the world. Fierce and strong yet graceful and elegant, she represents a new kind of athlete that girls can dream of becoming.

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Jan. 17, 2004

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It's a trend that's getting a Hollywood endorsement in the film Blue Crush. Kennelly plays herself in the film, and some of her surf-pro pals, including Megan Abubo and Rochelle Ballard, provide the action as stunt doubles. Blue Crush tells the story of tough but sexy surfer chicks who live in beach shacks on Oahu's North Shore. No Baywatch bimbos, they wake at dawn to surf big waves, work as hotel maids during the day and party whenever they want. Boys are on the side. "Every little girl who sees the movie is going to want to surf," says Izzy Tihanyi, founder of the Surf Diva surf school for girls, which is based in La Jolla, Calif., and enrolled some 2,500 girls last year.

Women's surfing also rides a surging tide of fashion. Surf brands such as Quiksilver, Rip Curl and Billabong — originally created for males — have rapidly expanded their female lines over the past few years. The clothes' increasing popularity has in turn drawn younger girls from the malls to the beach. Once they get there, a boom in surf schools makes learning to surf as common as enrolling in a yoga class. No longer content to sit on the sand and watch the guys feel the ocean beneath their feet, an estimated half a million women in the U.S. are taking up the sport (twice as many as in 1996), along with the freewheeling way of life it symbolizes. "Most people get hooked straightaway to the rush of standing up and getting pulled along by the waves," says Australian surfing star Pauline Menczer. "Then the lifestyle comes with it. Once you've experienced both, you can't leave the ocean."

The new wave of surfer girls can be found everywhere from New Jersey to France. In Biarritz, on the coast of southwest France, Helene Malvaux, 12, is learning to surf. "My brother's been doing this for a few summers now, so I thought it was time I had a go," she says. At Surfrider beach in Malibu, Calif., Megan Stone, 16, says she surfs because "it's something that isn't ordinary." And up the coast in Santa Cruz, Mel Hanson, 42, a mother of two, got hooked last year after a friend taught her how. Not even a couple of wipeouts that left her scratched up and seeing stars have dimmed her enthusiasm. "I think about it all the time. It's an addiction," she says.

While professional women's surfing has existed for decades, only recently has the sport gained much visibility. Since Surfer magazine was founded in 1960, it has had only five covers featuring women, including legends Linda Merrill from the 1960s and Margo Oberg from the early 1980s. "Surfing is the ultimate male club," says Surfer editor Sam George, who adds, "Men don't want to see women in the water."

And they show it. In what is known in surf lingo as snaking, men sometimes cut women off to catch the best waves. "Some guys are nice and give you tips," says Stone, "and others will scream, 'Get out of the way! It's my wave!'" Even pros like Ballard have to put up with snakes. "It is crazy," she says.

The guys are going to have to learn to share the ocean. On the pro scene, 100 women are competing, twice as many as five years ago (800 men compete professionally). The women's prize money for each of the six competitions in the World Championship Tour (W.C.T.)--which is host to events on beaches in Australia, Fiji, Tahiti, Portugal, France and Hawaii — has doubled, although at $60,000, it's hardly a treasure.

Australian women have long dominated the sport; 10 of the top 16 hail from Down Under, including current world champ Layne Beachley. But women from France, South Africa, Spain and Japan are breaking into the ranks. And U.S. surfers like Abubo and Julia Christian are moving up. "The strength of the women is phenomenal now compared to what it was five years ago," says Beachley.

That strength was on display on a drizzly August day in the small town of Lacanau, on France's Atlantic coast, where Alex Naturel and his girlfriend Julie Marson, both 17, were among the hundreds of spectators watching 64 women compete in the Orange Lacanau Trophy, a qualifying event for the W.C.T. The tourney lasts five days, with heats beginning at 8 or 9 a.m. and wrapping up by 6 p.m. It's an elimination tournament, with the finals a contest among the four remaining riders. A panel of judges awards a score of 1 to 10 for each ride. "Surfing is an art form, and women appear much more adept at expressing this than men," noted Naturel, an enthusiastic supporter. Marson, decked out in a Billabong hooded sweat top and pants, reflected the fashions sold at the "surf village" erected for the occasion.

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