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Georgina Miranda | 08.01.2019

Sarah Gerhardt is one of the most humble legends you will ever meet. Best known for becoming the first woman to surf Mavericks, Sarah is not only a pioneer in a male-dominated sport, but she has created a legacy in the world of big wave surfing. When she isn’t riding waves, she also holds a doctorate in Chemistry and teaches full time along with being a devoted wife and mom in Santa Cruz, California.

At Outdoor Project, we've made it part of our mission to celebrate and amplify the voices of women in the outdoors, and Sarah is a role model for both surfers and scientists alike, and anyone out there setting a new precedent. In our third year of Women in the Wild, we are proud to share our platform again with courageous and inspiring female figures who are making a difference in the outdoor industry and the world at-large. It’s been an honor to be a guest editor this year for Women in the Wild, and I am grateful and inspired by all of the remarkable women that I got to connect with and interview. They are shaping a new narrative daily, and they show us anything is possible with tenacity, creativity, and purpose.

 

Over the past 20 years of surfing Mavericks my priorities have shifted towards others: Mike, our children and students in my Chemistry classes, but the desire to surf and to push myself on all levels remains strong.

—Sarah Gerhardt

 

In this interview, we talk to Sarah Gerhardt about balancing your passions, carving new paths, using hope to get through challenges. This interview has been edited for clarity.

 


Photo courtesy of Peck Euwer.

Georgina Miranda: Tell us about Sarah Gerhardt. How would you describe your connection to the outdoors today?

Sarah Gerhardt: I feel most alive and centered when I’m in the ocean. Just the sight, smell, or sound of the ocean in any of its moods has a calming effect on my inner being. It’s like a Mother to me—stern, encouraging, compassionate, inviting, playful, hopeful, peaceful, and tempestuous. If I didn’t have other loves and responsibilities, I would see it and play in it every day for hours. It feels like my blood runs salty, and I wither when I’m not in the salt water. The woods, mountains, lakes, and rivers are lovely and grounding for me, but not nearly as much as the ocean. I make the ocean as much a part of my day as I can!

GM: You are a pioneer and the first woman to surf Mavericks. Take us back to 1999. What was life like building up to that moment? What made you take the leap to dare?

I started surfing in 1988 with a rocky beginning. I was the only girl in my high school trying to surf on a tiny board and in a poor fitting wetsuit in bad waves. I was alone, cold, and frustrated for the first 6 months. I almost gave up, but fortunately the summer came around and I started catching waves. Then, I was hooked, and I surfed every day.

After 4 years of surfing, I went to the North Shore on Oahu for the first time and got my butt kicked. Yet, I loved it since it was so powerful and overwhelming. I could just leave the dirt-kicking, cat-calling naysayers on the beach.

After that trip, my Mom’s cancer returned, and I struggled for a couple years with depression due the sadness of her declining health, long periods spent without surfing, and the fact that I wasn’t in the place, the ocean, that helped me cope. At the time, I was also majoring in chemistry at Cal Poly at San Luis Obispo, which was another butt kicker.

I finally returned to Oahu in 1995 over breaks at school and got plugged in with a great mentor and a bunch of fun guys who brought me in as one of the boys.

My mom passed away in 1996, which was a huge blow to my heart and reason for living. After her death, I took time off of school and stayed on the North Shore to focus on surfing big waves. I surfed Waimea and Oahu’s outer reefs and got interested—obsessed—in surfing Mavericks. I returned to school to finish my bachelor's degree in chemistry, but I almost gave up on my dream of getting a Ph.D. just to focus on surfing Mavericks.

Fortunately, I didn’t give up, and even better one of my good friends from Oahu agreed to join me in my adventure. I asked Mike Gerhardt to marry me and go to Santa Cruz so I could attend University of California at Santa Cruz for the Ph.D. program in chemistry (and surf Mavericks). We arrived in Santa Cruz in September of 1998, and one month later we were at Mavericks with Mike’s good friend, Jay Moriarity. Mike and Jay charged the bowl, and I just gaped at it. It was so much more powerful than anything I had experienced, and I doubted my ability to surf waves there.

Once we moved to Santa Cruz, I shifted my focus to the chemistry program, away from surfing. I was out of shape and mind for surfing big waves. Yet, there was still a deep desire to ride a wave at Mavericks, so I started training again and got a 10-foot, 4-inch board shaped by Bob Pearson of Arrow Surf Shop. I went back out there with Mike in February of 1999 and rode several waves that session. We went again the next swell in March, and I rode more waves. I was stoked, but it was still really scary. The giant waves (30 to 45 feet), very cold water (49 degrees), massive rocks inside, and sea life (orcas, great whites, seals) were intimidating—and they still are!

GM: How has your surfing evolved/changed since then? You are creating a legacy—does it feel that way?

SG: Surfing has always been an individual pursuit for me, a “private practice in the company of others,” as my yoga teacher says. I have always had a passion to surf anything—the world’s smallest waves and also the biggest waves just outside my comfort level.

Over the past 20 years of surfing Mavericks, my priorities have shifted toward others: Mike, our children, and students in my chemistry classes. But the desire to surf and to push myself on all levels remains strong.

A very big blessing for me and Mike is to give the gift of the experience of riding waves to others through the Ride a Wave program, which we have been doing since 1999. Another major change for me has been the inclusion of many types of boards. I will ride a 9-foot, 8-inch noserider, and 11-foot Soft Top, a 9-foot performance longboard, a 10-foot gun, and 6-foot, 3-inch thruster within the span of a week! Also, I surf where my daughter wants to surf if she goes, instead of where I want to surf. Every once in a while, when the stars align, I still find the magic solo sessions at 2 feet or 30 feet.

I’m not sure about the legacy part, as I’m terrible at contributing to social media, and it seems like that is where so much status is derived now. I want to contribute something positive though, so maybe next year I will jump on the social media bandwagon.

GM: Share more about the balance of adventure and everyday life. You are a chemistry professor, wife, mother, and you ride huge waves. What does a day in the life look like?

SG: My family and the students in my chemistry classes at Cabrillo College in Aptos, California, are the first and second priorities in my life, with surfing coming in a close third. I arrange my schedule so that I can be the best wife, mother, and teacher and get in the water or be physically and mentally fit to surf every day. I practice yoga, cross-train, mountain bike, and swim masters.

Usually I’m surfing or working out solo or with my husband at dawn or right after the kids go to school and before my classes start. Now that my daughter surfs, I go out with her when we’re done with school and after I take my son to the skate park. Every day is different with lots of flexibility incorporated into it. My kids may get sick, and sometimes they need extra support or have a last-minute chance to hang with friends. The surf may be worse or better than predicted, so I’m ready for a run or yoga, or I may change plans and go surfing if the conditions are right. I get lots of support from Mike and his mom—she lives with us—and friends. My sister is my best friend, and we talk all the time, but she lives 900 miles away.

Here’s one day in the school week: I get up at 5 a.m. to read, meditate, write in my journal, and connect with Mike. I get kids up at 6:30 a.m., ready for school by 7:30 a.m., practice yoga, cross-train, or surf at 7:30 a.m., hold office hours at 10 a.m., teach two general chemistry labs from 11:15 a.m. to 5:35 p.m., make dinner, go for a walk to the ocean, and get in bed by 9 p.m.

GM: What initiatives/projects/goals are you focused on?

SG: At school, I’m focused on incorporating active learning strategies into my lectures and labs. I took a year-long course through a National Institute of Health grant with UCSC faculty and faculty from the surrounding community colleges. I am applying the tools and techniques I learned there. It’s a big task since I learned “how to teach” by watching the professors who taught me—think zero active learning.

I’m joining the Leadership Academy at Cabrillo College with many goals, but one in particular is bringing plastic and glove recycling to the chemistry and biology departments, and eventually to the whole campus.

At home and in my adventure life, I’m working on awareness. It’s easy for me to let life become a series of checklists or to focus on tomorrow so I can detach from the daily challenges. My goals are to meditate more often, to learn hand balancing postures in yoga, to pray and listen to my intuition before I make decisions, and to be grateful for each moment.

As far as surfing goals: take it one session at a time. I had fun surfing Mavericks this year, and our daughter came out on with us the last day of the season on Frank Quirarte’s ski. Maybe I will surf it again next season! One session at a time...

GM: Where do you draw your inspiration/motivation from? Has that changed over your time?

I’ve always had motivation to be outside, which came from my mom. She was quadriplegic from muscular dystrophy, so every break and all summer was spent camping outside in the Redwoods. How else could she deal with an inquisitive, hyperactive child like me? I was on my own to explore and run around since forever, and I loved it. I was inspired by my mom’s verve for life despite the disability, poverty, and challenge of raising two girls on her own. She had more joy than most people with all their faculties. Her faith gave her hope in the darkest and brightest times. How could I be anything but charging and pursuing my dreams? That fundamentally hasn't changed.

GM: What have been some of the biggest challenges you have had to overcome related to your outdoor pursuits or your career? What helped you overcome those challenges?

SG: I have asthma. I was hospitalized several times every year until I was 14 years old. Coincidentally, I started getting better once I started surfing. After our kids were born, it came back, and for a couple of years I just struggled with my breathing and allergies. I thought it was from being weak and out of shape. Fortunately, once I was diagnosed with asthma again, I could treat it, and I’m breathing much better!

We were poor and malnourished, and it took me until I was married to Mike to figure out how and what to eat. I spent many years sick with sinus infections and bronchitis. I’m still learning, and I feel better now than I did when I was in my twenties!

I had terrible surf equipment, and I didn’t get the right wetsuit and boards until Mike and I moved to Santa Cruz. Part of that is from the evolution of the wetsuit for women, and the other part is that Bob Pearson listened to me and made me a magic board (more than 30 magic boards now).

I was alone in my surfing pursuit for the first 4 years. I had to motivate myself to go and was actually alienated from peers in high school because of it. It was lonely, but I was also busy taking care of my mom, so I didn't really have the chance to hang out like others. And I loved surfing!!

The other passions in my life are in conflict with surfing. It’s a daily tension and challenge!

I overcome challenges with hope. I believe that the bad days won’t last forever, and there are always better days on the horizon. I spend time in gratitude and quiet. I try to be true to who I am and to balance resting and pushing myself.

GM: What do you see as the most important issue or set of issues affecting women in the outdoor/adventure space? Where do you see yourself having the biggest impact on these issues?

SG: One of the issues that impact women in the outdoor/adventure space is the media. It’s mostly run by men, and it often portrays women stereotypically. For example, females are often portrayed in surf advertising as weak young women in scantily clad clothing. It also uses masculine and violent language to describe the act of surfing—shred it, tear it, slash it, kill it.

Women are often treated within the view of masculinity. They are either sex objects or manly. It’s difficult to enter the sport if a woman doesn’t feel like either one of the extremes. I certainly didn’t feel like I fit into the image of a surfer. I wasn’t Gidget, and I wasn’t manly, although I fit that the more I hung out with the “boys.” I spent several years feeling like an outsider. Once I was on the “inside,” sponsored by Roxy, and part of a great crew of big wave surfers, I felt like an imposter.

It’s intimidating to start a sport that has its own culture, language, and equipment. The ocean too can be a terrifying place!

I made an impact for women in surfing by pursuing my dream of surfing Mavericks even when there was limited support for it and when there wasn’t a precedent. I kept my eye on the goal and trained for it, and along the way I found a crew who accepted me as I was.

GM: How do you feel about competition in the sport? What opportunities do you see for equality in the world of surfing both professionally and non-professionally?

SG: I am personally not interested in competing in surfing, but I know there are many who are. I am grateful that there is finally an opportunity for women in competitive surfing to actually earn a living. So many women, even the top in the world, were barely surviving on the competitive tour, especially if they weren’t beautiful and therefore lacked sponsors. I’m grateful that a few non-competitive women have the support of brands like Patagonia. It’s a different time than it was 20 years ago!

GM: What can the greater outdoor community and companies like Outdoor Project do to better amplify and celebrate the voices of ALL women in our community?

There needs to be more women in charge of the media and advertising and contributing to it. All voices from all cultures and genders need to be included. Diversity needs to become normal.

GM: What’s been the most useful advice given to you along your journey? What advice do you wish you were given when you were younger?

Life isn’t about the destination, but rather about the journey. I wish I listened to that when I was younger. I was all about the destination, and it was disappointing to get there—to surf Mavericks, to earn my Ph.D., to get a full-time teaching job, to reach my short term goal and then realize that I didn’t feel any more fulfilled than before I reached my destination. Learning that this is a journey for all of us makes me more compassionate to myself and others.

GM: Any other tips/advice/encouragement do you have for women looking to embark on a similar career or path or wanting to make a difference in the world?

Find out what you love and don’t give up on that no matter what! If there are detours (there will be), just come back to your goal and get after it again. Don’t wait for someone to hold your hand. It’s nice if there is someone, but don’t count on it. Give yourself lots of positive talk. Make it louder than the doubts and negativity. Become an expert, but don’t wait to start on your goal until you are. Just take as many baby steps as needed until you are an expert. Be open to advice. Once you are on the path, mentors will come along to give you direction.

GM: At Outdoor Project, we put a strong emphasis on the phrase “adventure like you give a damn,” which refers to putting effort into responsible recreation. This can come through volunteering with a local conservation group that stewards an area you care about or helping getting an underserved community into the outdoors; educating others on Leave No Trace practices; packing out some extra trash; or even doing things at home that help protect the environment and nature, like reducing use of plastics. How do you “adventure like you give a damn” in your own way?

SG: I’m grateful for the opportunity to use the gift of surfing to share it with others through Ride A Wave. I’m also grateful to support protecting the surf ecosystem as an ambassador for Save the Waves. I’m teaching my kids to reduce, reuse, recycle, rethink, and to clean up after themselves. I pick up trash in the water and on the beach every session. My passion for the gift of surfing can’t be separated from the responsibility to protect it.

GM: What’s been your favorite adventure to date and why? What’s on your adventure bucket list and/or coming up for you?

SG: Mike and I had an incredible surf trip to Peru in 2001 (yes, that’s a long time ago!). We stayed in Lima and surfed Pico Alto and tons of waves around there. We’d been married a few years, but it felt like a honeymoon.

We also love where we live, and we staycation all the time.

Want to hear more from Sarah? Check out One Winter Story, a documentary about her historic ride at Mavericks. You can also follow her on Instagram @sgerhardtscruz, which Sarah, a self-proclaimed social media Luddite, promises to update with better photos—once her kids teach her how.

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Brought to you by:

Women in the Wild 2019

Women in the Wild is a movement that recognizes the amazing women who enrich the outdoor community with their passions, inspirations, and accomplishments. Outdoor Project is proud to grow this campaign in 2019 with the help of guest editor and 2018 #womaninthewild Georgina Miranda, adventurer, entrepreneur, mountaineer, and founder and CEO of She Ventures. We're proud to open our platform once again for the incredible stories and photography of women throughout our community. From in-depth interviews with outdoor advocates, influencers, and athletes to female-focused content from the community, Women in the Wild 2019 aims to amplify the voice of women in celebration of female fortitude, strength, and camaraderie in the outdoors.

For a complete list of content published in correlation with Women in the Wild 2019, visit Women in the Wild 2019: Amplifying Women in the Outdoors.

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