Written by contributor: Kristen Berg | Title Image: WSL / Kelly Cestari
For years after I first fell in love with surfing, my love of the sport was expressed purely as a spectator. I had phases as a fan of other sports, but when I caught the surf bug, I became a bit obsessive. My obsession had me streaming contests and traveling long distances to watch events, taking me to destinations far and beautiful. The actual act of surfing, however, haunted me. I was terrified of the thing I loved the most, and embarrassed by my fear.
"[I]f you can balance on a small board in life-threatening conditions, you automatically have sex symbol status. It is unfortunately easier (and almost guaranteed for those who pick up surfing later in life) to look like a 'kook'..."
Surfing has always been synonymous with “cool.” Everyone seems to instinctively understand that if you can balance on a small board in life-threatening conditions, you automatically have sex symbol status. It is unfortunately easier (and almost guaranteed for those who pick up surfing later in life) to look like a “kook” – a term that denotes the opposite of cool, and which no one wants to be associated with. I avoided surfing with my friends for years, usually by opting to drink beer on the beach, purely out of fear of looking stupid in the water.
Eventually I had to face the question everyone was asking me: “Why do I love surfing so much?” I could tell you who won Teahupo’o in 2010 (Andy Irons, of course), I knew the names of surfers featured in the newest surf movies, yet I couldn’t actually surf. That, and being female, opened up a whole other set of terms and stereotypes even less flattering than “kook.”
With the constant nagging of my girlfriends who were having the times of their lives surfing, and my own nagging concerns that I was chasing the sport merely for its male stars, I decided enough was enough! I put on my big girl (board)shorts, started on baby waves, and sought out lessons during my travels.
I found I loved being in the water, on a board, but my lessons were not consistent enough to imprint the skills and confidence I was after. At the beginning of new set of lessons, I felt like I was starting all over again – which was almost more damaging to my ego.
Finally, I was forced to extend a trip to Bali because a hurricane destroyed my island home (a different story altogether). I embraced the opportunity to dedicate real time and work into my surfing. Days with a very patient surf coach and an encouraging friend turned into weeks and months. I put my time in, suffered the sore ribs, bruises, reef cuts, and saw it all pay off in progress that propelled me into intermediate surfer status.
Best of all, I was finally more obsessed with actually surfing than what was going on in the WSL.
I carried my new skills and stoke with me back to work, and continued to pour myself into my pursuit of surf happiness on my weekends and days off.
A year later, I solo tripped it to my very favorite destination, to watch my absolute favorite professional surfing event. This stop had taken my heart hostage after, on a prior trip, a friendly local surfer let my friends and me tag along on his local adventures, navigating the island’s nooks and crannies, showing us “secret spots.” This time, I hoped to find a surf coach to take me to breaks more appropriate for my level, fulfilling my long-held dreams of surfing this particular bit of paradise.
That plan went bust upon my fateful reunion with my original local tour guide. Did I mention he was a well-known champion surfer? Known to charge on the biggest, gnarliest days? His early success as a competitor, his undeniable talent, and his fearless reputation followed him wherever he went. His waterman prowess was the stuff of legend. His intimacy and comfort with one of the world’s most powerful waves was obvious when he would casually lay back in her gargantuan barrels – barrels which make most experienced surfers just hold on for dear life and pray for survival. He went from mere mortal to godlike whenever mother nature delivered a fresh set of potentially life-ending mountains of water.
He belonged out there. On that small island he was both famous and infamous… and there was no chance I was getting in the water with him.
This time, our meeting sparked intense feelings. Previously just “buddies,” our companionship quickly morphed into something else… accompanied by an insufferable amount of PDA. We somehow jumped from no expectation of ever seeing each other again to being determined to “make it work,” despite nationality differences and visa restrictions.
I took to "surf wife life" like it was my destiny.
No matter how early we had to wake up, how far we had to drive, or what we had to do to get there, if there was a swell coming, he was going to be surfing.
The (unspoken) problem was that I went back to spectating from the sidelines (or, in this case, the giant channel). I had a lot of “legitimate reasons” not to surf. The other side of the island had more appropriate breaks for me but the season was wrong, I didn’t have my own board, blablabla. All candy coated excuses covering the truth: my state of terror had taken over, once again. And multiplied. The idea of looking like a “kook” in front of my favorite surfer, and the object of all my affections, paralyzed me to staying put on dry land. Dry land, where I quite happily cooked big meals and played with puppies, while he risked his life for the sheer thrill of it. Dry land, where there was, by definition, no surf for me.
The beginning days were near perfect, as I got to be in the middle of the action without actually getting wet. But I soon got envious that he was having all the fun, while I was left in charge of organizing all the logistics that made it possible.
In the Hollywood rom-com version of this story, my badass champion would have become my mentor and coach, unearthing my hidden natural surf talent, and propelling me into surfing greatness. At the very least he would have helped me fix my duckdive. But I was too scared to surf with him – ever. Too scared of what he would think, too scared of what his friends would think, and horrified of the shame I could potentially bring him among his surfing peers. The idea that I would embarrass him exacerbated the fear I had about embarrassing myself. He was always vocally supportive of me surfing with him and he never did anything – other than being completely mesmerizing in the surf – to make me feel how I felt. It was all me, my insecuries, my deep-rooted fears of not measuring up and of looking like a “kook.”
Our relationship ended before the ninja could become my sensei and fulfill that Hollywood trope.
I look back and wish that I could have felt more at ease with myself, been more confident with my skills, and with him. No stranger to the ocean – I work on boats, I am a dive instructor and a freediver – there was no valid reason for my intense fears. I wish we would have surfed together, and I wished I had allowed myself to feel the simple joy in just that, instead of being held back by intimidation and impostor syndrome. But most of all, I wish that I had not let someone else’s achievements and my concerns of others' perceptions undermine my pursuit of my own goals… especially the one that scares and excites me the most.
Fast forward a few months. While I still have my regrets, I also have my own version of a happy ending: me, paddling out, with a different stunning island view, on my own or with my girlfriends, every chance I can get.
Love the honesty and insight in this piece. I can totally relate to the insecurities and allowing what others think prevent you from progressing. I only got over this once I embraced my ‘kook status’ hahaha. More articles from this author, please ;)!
Beautifully written story! So true, the feelings of female pressure in and around the surf scene has a resistance that requires courage to overcome. Nothing like smashing goals in the sea, but even better just getting amongst it 💖
What a great piece of writing! I’m really happy to see you out on the waves, and hopefully someday soon, I’ll be able to bring my fam out on a surf trip to visit. Luv ya Bizzy!
This is AWESOME and inspiring… I can relate so much with the imposture syndrome and embarrassment. Let’s not forget the fun!
Kristen you are one of the most inspiring people I’ve had the pleasure to meet, and to share a short period of time with you and your journey.
Thank you for showing your vulnerability.
It reminds me to be kinder to myself xx
If only you could See yourself as the rest of the world sees you my love. Not only can you do all the things you can also write it down. Massive love to you!
I’m so proud of you. Not only for speaking your truth here but for always chasing the waves your way. Keep doing that (and writing) and your happy path will reveal itself to you. I love you, Bizzy + Ben. Speaking of, I just read him your story out loud. He wants to learn more. What other stories do you have in that journal of yours? Well done lady
Very well written , keep writing and surfing you have amazing talent . Cheers Maurice
Nice work Berg
Kristen we met in 2014 in Melbourne. I still to this day think you are one of the coolest women I’ve ever met. I never read blogs but yours caught my eye. Awesome read! Thanks for sharing your story. You will absolutely have your happy ending and it will be so perfect. Stay surfing girl!
Great story, great writing – we want more!