Girls in the Curl

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

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The women's competitions have a different feel to them. "Obviously, women aren't as powerful," says Brenda Miley, national women's director for Surfing Australia, the country's organizing body for the sport. "Men are doing really radical maneuvers, while women are more stylized and working with the wave." For example, men can propel their boards higher out of the water for "aerials." But for Kennelly, that's beside the point. "Do people compare how hard a woman can hit a tennis ball versus how hard a man can?" she asks. "Men can handle gnarlier waves, but I think it is silly to compare." (Women are beginning to attack monster waves, a feat that requires them to be towed into the wave's path by a Jet Ski.)

Increasing numbers of spectators appreciate the women's graceful moves, but that hasn't translated into added respect on payday. A top-rated man, such as six-time world champ Kelly Slater, can earn up to $1 million a year from endorsements and prizes, whereas women's annual earnings top out around $200,000. Some pro women have had to drop out of the competitions because they cannot afford plane tickets to events. "Life on tour is far from glamorous," wrote American Holly Beck on an online message board during the recent Lacanau event. "Girls sleep in sleeping bags at the contest sites because they can't afford hotel rooms. I'm in France right now, and we have five people staying in a room meant for two."

The money tide is turning, though slowly, particularly as the fashion companies pump more marketing funds into their women's lines. Says Melanie Redman-Carr, who currently heads the W.C.T. ratings: "Ultimately, a lot of the girls aren't making much money, certainly not as much as the men do. But with women's surfing becoming more and more popular, companies are backing the women and paying them more. Ten years ago, none of us were sponsored. Now it seems as though every girl is."

That's certainly paying off for the sponsors, because the $2.4 billion surfwear industry is booming. Two of the biggest players, Billabong and Quiksilver, expect their lines of girls' board shorts, T shirts and other apparel to soon meet or beat earnings from boys' lines. "Girls are embracing the lifestyle, the whole surfing experience," says Heidi Bartholomew, director of marketing and design for Billabong Australia. Even girls who have never caught a wave like wearing the floppy, casual clothes, often embellished with Hawaiian floral patterns, stripes or logos.

Even surfboards have gone girly. Kristina Marquez sells boards decorated with glitter, hibiscus cloth cutouts and other decorations for $500 and up at her Santa Cruz store, Paradise Surf Shop. Five years ago, Paradise was the only surf-gear store catering to women. Now other local shops devote large sections to women, a trend being replicated on the East Coast as well.

Clearly, surfing has transcended fashion for many women, and the number of participants seems poised to continue to grow rapidly. The veteran women surfers aren't all that surprised. They understand the irresistible magic of being in the ocean and playing with this awesome force of nature. "You dance on water," explains Kennelly. "It is this impossible thing that is made possible."

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