The biggest wave surfed this year on the World Surfing League XXL Competition has been surfed by a woman. Maya Gabeira surfed a 73.5-foot wave on February 11 in Nazaré, Portugal, winning the WSL’s 2020 women’s XXL Biggest Wave Award. Although the award is split into gender categories, Gabeira surfed a bigger wave than all the men.
The 2020 men’s WSL XXL Biggest Wave Award winner, was Kai Lenny, who rode a 70-foot wave.
Gabeira broke her own previous record, a 68-foot wave and World Surf League reported the Brazilian big-wave surfer had set a new world record in women’s surfing.
Although the awards were announced a month apart, this triumphant moment for women in surfing has gone largely unnoticed. As a result of the Covid-19, the awards were announced weekly over the summer via Instagram. When the men’s award was announced on August 17, they announced the women’s award was delayed due to needed further judging.
The award was not easily differentiated between the two-women field. The prize-giving was delayed due to the team having to measure the waves, they were close.
WSL’s Vice President of tours and competition Jessi Miley-Dyer told The Atlantic, the women’s award was postponed because the waves surfed by two finalists. Gabeira and Justine Dupont were really close in wave size and were too close to call. Saying the decision was not to do with the fact that the women’s waves were so close in size to Lenny’s.
“The men’s and women’s divisions are separate and judged separately.”
The men’s and women’s events were measured differently, with the men’s was judged by lots of video analysis and photographs. While the women’s required extra judging which resulted in a 16-page scientific report according to Miley-Dyer.
Dupont, from France, was surprised by the announcement. The findings showed her wave was 2-3-foot smaller… After which she called out a few flaws in the system via Instagram, pointing out Gabeira fell on her wave, whereas she rode away clean.
“The WSL announced that the record for the biggest wave surfed would be awarded to a surfer who does not finish her wave. I decided to smile about it even though I am deeply hurt to be subjected to a decision that I believe is totally unfair. I’m especially disappointed and ashamed of this league which claims to represent our sport.”
Gabeira says, she is not a very competitive person and she was very in the zone and a little braver on the day at the WSL Nazaré Tow Surfing event.
“I was risking more than I usually like to do. When I let go of the rope, I had a feeling it could be the one but wasn’t sure. The speed was very high but the noise that the wave made when it broke made me realize that this was probably the biggest wave I’d ever ridden.”
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I want to acknowledge the effort the @wsl made this year to better their measurement system for the biggest wave award! We know how hard it is to make this a precise number once we only have data from photos and videos after the wave is ridden! And also making the whole measurement process a public document for the 1st time ever. There is always room for improvement and I look fwd to that and to using the same method for all in 2021! The link for the full height analysis report is in my stories … Photo: @polvo32
Either way, the competition shows female athletes have a strong foothold in the sport when it comes to ability and are competitive with males.
Although there are still barriers for women competing in extreme sports like big wave surfing. As extreme sports are seen as mostly masculine. Gabeira, says a major problem facing women who want to enter big-wave surfing is access, it can be lonely when deciding to become a big-wave surfer as a female.
“It’s just harder to establish [yourself as a woman] in a male-dominated community. Guys take other guys under their wing; they travel together. I don’t have a group of girlfriends traveling with me chasing huge waves. Men have many different groups to go with.”
While historically the WSL awards were not gendered resulting in most of the awards and world records being held by men. This contributed to the illusion that women could not surf big waves. But in 2018 a separate women’s world record category was added for more gender equality in the sport according to Miley-Dyer.
“You know, it’s really an age-old question in sports: Do women have to be better than men? Or better than the best women to be recognized as the best woman ever?”
“Maya felt very strongly that there should be a separate women’s world record, and it turned out that we could do that … and we changed [the Big Wave Awards] platform, to give them the opportunity to win more awards.”
Gabeira also believes the moment of her winning could signal a new beginning for the league.
“Our sport is very male-dominated, with the performances on the male side [being] often much stronger than ours as females.”
“So to find a way and a place and a certain discipline to shorten that gap, and to conclude this year that a woman did surf the biggest, tallest wave of the year is quite phenomenal. It opens the idea that in other categories and other areas of surfing, this could be accomplished, too.”