Binaca Valenti photo: Melani Williams

Big Wave Women Prove Puerto Isn’t Just a Boys Club

Story and photo by Melanie Williams

On July 15, 2019, six women and 24 men paddled into barrels big enough to fit a semi-truck. The Puerto Escondido Cup, hosted by the Surf Open League, was held in waves with faces reaching up to 30 feet! Five of the six female surfers were also competitors in this year’s Peʻahi Challenge at Jaws where Keala Kennelly (HAW) walked away with a world title.

“Conditions were way better than Jaws,” said Kennelly, who finished fifth in the Puerto contest.

“Jaws was survival conditions. This was fun, and I felt good!” commented runner-up finisher Emi Erickson (HAW) after a couple of beautiful frontside tube rides. “It felt really playful out there. It was big and gnarly!” It was only the second time on a quad fin set-up for Erickson, who feels most confident on single-fins.

The women put on a spectacular show, complete with the undefeated Puerto Escondido Cup champ, Bianca Valenti (USA) pulling into and getting spit out of massive tubes.

The Mexican state of Oaxaca was very proud to be a major sponsor of this event. Oaxaca is not only the home of the “Mexican Pipeline,” but also offers more than twenty worldclass sand-bottom point breaks.

Unfortunately, no big wave event would be complete without some collateral damage. After pulling into a backside closeout, Raquel Heckert (BRA) broke her gun during the final, with just eight minutes to go: “I was getting sets on the head over and over. I didn’t even have time to pull my board up on the jet ski.” Breaking a board was a major disappointment for this unsponsored 25-year-old Brazilian charger who had to turn to crowdfunding just to purchase the expensive last-minute plane ticket for the swell. With her only board broken, Raquel paddled back out on a loaner from generous fellow Brazillian competitor, Michaela Fregonese.

Fregonese’s campaign ended earlier that day, leaving the event site in an ambulance after suffering a deep laceration to her abdomen when she collided with the board of a fellow competitor who was out of position. She was released from the hospital after 30 stitches and an overnight stay under a doctor’s watch. She is expected to return to the water in six weeks.

Local Mexican competitor Isabelle Leonhart took third place, making for a very proud hometown of Pascuales, Colima. Leonhart was a major supporter of the equal pay movement that caused quite a stir for this event: “This shall […] spark a chain reaction we really need in our society,” noted Leonhart.

When this year’s Puerto Escondido Cup contest was first announced, women were scheduled to receive about $0.36 for every $1 the men received. For many of the women, this seemed unacceptable.

“Some of the girls were thinking they were going to shine the contest. So I came up with the idea to crowdfund the women’s heat and Bianca pulled the trigger. The people have spoken: they want to see equal pay,” stated Kennelly.

It took just over 48 hours to raise their goal of $9,000 for equal prize money and, in all, the campaign reached over $12,400. After taxes and fees, the women were able to contribute an additional $200 to each of the men’s six finalists, as well as buy some equipment for the Puerto Escondido lifeguards.

Equal pay has been controversial since raising the prize purse for the women often means taking money away from the men’s purse, something no one wants to see. Yet, none of the women in the event had sponsors paying for travel expenses. They all work other jobs to finance their love of big wave surfing.

“I believe equality is a great thing; I don’t know why it’s so hard for people to grasp,” commented Erickson, but she also understands that change takes time: “I believe in the old school way of doing things: show up and be present and keep doing a good job; don’t focus so hard on the money issues. I focus a lot on other things.”

It was an emotional moment on the podium when event champion, Valenti, hugged Mexican competitor Leonhart.

“I want every woman and man, every boy and girl in this country to be a witness to this and to be aware of it because it will initiate a change of thinking in their minds—an eye-opener to what is possible,” Leonhardt said. “It will encourage women to appreciate the value of their work, the value of their daily efforts and strengthen their self-esteem. It will open young girls’ minds to pursue their dreams, work hard, and invest in their future because they can believe that they will be rewarded according to achievements,
not gender.”


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