Bianca Valenti leads the fight for equality in surfing

More than a decade ago, Bianca Valenti almost quit surfing. She was tired of struggling to get by, without the money to even fly to competitions. She was tired of female surfers barely making enough prize money to cover their expenses and knowing sponsorship deals were often based on appearances as much as results.

"I got burned out, and I realized if you didn't have model looks, you weren't going to be paid," she said.

But instead of giving up the sport, she found her love of the ocean again through big-wave surfing -- in which specialists ride massive waves measuring 20 feet high and taller. She also found a way to help other female surfers, spearheading the Committee for Equity in Women's Surfing (CEWS) and pushing for the famous Mavericks surf competition to include a women's heat.

Now, as the big-wave season gets into full swing, Valenti, 33, is gearing up to do what she loves.

"She's one of the best," said Paige Alms, a fellow professional big-wave surfer and member of CEWS.

Growing up in Southern California, near Dana Point, "was an easy place to be a beach kid," Valenti said. First, she boogie boarded, then her mom signed her up for a longboard surf club as a way for her to have a community of other girls to play with. Valenti competed up and down the coast, but it "was not super serious," she said -- mostly just family fun.

It wasn't until she was 9 or 10 that she started surfing every day and relying on her mom to drive her all over for competitions. Soon, Valenti lived and breathed the sport.

"All of my creative writing papers [at school] were me dreaming of being a rock star surfer," she said.

There was just one problem: It wasn't easy to be a female rock star surfer.

Most professional surfers make a living through some combination of prize money and sponsorship. At 15, one of Valenti's sponsors flew her to Costa Rica for a competition, and she made $200. At first she thought, "This is the life!" but her naiveté wore off quickly. Soon she realized that to get the points she needed just to make the big World Surf League tours, she would have to fly all over the world to contests -- and she didn't have sponsorship deals to consistently help with the travel costs.

It's something a lot of pro female surfers, especially the big-wave surfers, have gone through. Nearly all of them work other jobs to make ends meet.

"I can relate to wanting to quit," Alms said.

While working on a degree in global studies at UC Santa Barbara, Valenti stopped surfing. She was too frustrated.

"I spent freshman year being so mad," she said.

But eventually, she started to remember she simply loved to surf. She also discovered the thrill of riding big waves. A neighbor's boyfriend invited her out to a huge wave, where she watched him get barreled -- riding through the hollow part of a breaking wave -- and she thought, "I can do this."

Then during a visit to see her dad in San Francisco, she headed out to Ocean Beach and got pummeled by the 20-foot waves. She was tossed and turned and held under the water while waves crashed over her.

"I thought, 'If there's one more wave, I'm going to die,'" she said.

When she made it to the surface, she was convulsing and gasping for air.

"I stood there in the parking lot and was like, 'I want to surf these waves,'" she said.

Valenti moved up to Northern California, started training for bigger waves, entered her first contest in five years and found a community among the big-wave surfers.

Women's big-wave surfing was going through an evolution then. In 2014, the first women's Big Wave Tour event was held in Oregon at Nelscott Reef. That's where Alms and Valenti met, along with a larger core group of female surfers. They started to think: Why shouldn't they have a full tour like the men, be included in the big events and make the same money?

In 2015, Sabrina Brennan, a San Mateo County Harbor Commissioner in California, started to push the California Coastal Commission to require Mavericks, staged off the coast south of San Francisco, to include a female heat. She got hooked up with Valenti, and the two became part of the group that founded CEWS.

"In my mind, [Valenti's] a real activist," Brennan said.

Valenti took on the job in addition to surfing and working her regular -- paying -- job as a sommelier at her dad's restaurant north of San Francisco. She talked to the other surfers, and she met with Coastal Commissioners and event organizers. She even got bullied and pressured by those who thought the women weren't good enough to be surfing the prestigious big-wave events. When the previous owners of the Mavericks surf competition first named a list of women invited to surf the contest in 2016, it did not include Valenti -- a move viewed as payback and something Alms calls "bulls---."

"We didn't back down because we really had nothing to lose," Valenti said.

And eventually it paid off.

"Things have really started to change," Alms said. "We're pushing the boundaries of the sport, and Bianca's at the forefront of that."

Alms and Valenti were taken by surprise in September when the World Surf League, which has taken over the Mavericks event, announced not just that it would have equal prize money for women and men at Mavericks (which CEWS had been advocating for), but that there would be equal prize money at all of its contests starting next year.

"We feel really proud of what we've contributed to the sport," Valenti said.

That doesn't mean it got easy, just that it got easier.

Valenti still works as a sommelier. She has sponsors and puts on surf camps and corporate team-building workshops. She even started a company that makes ear drops for swimmer's or surfer's ear. And she surfs almost every day, as much as she can when the waves are good.

"I'm still trying to figure it out," she said.

In September, Valenti rode one of the biggest waves a women has ridden at Puerto Escondido in Mexico and won the first-ever women's heat at the contest down there. Now it's on to the World Surf League Women's Big Wave Tour. The holding period for those events, in Hawaii and at Mavericks, just started, meaning when the swell conditions are ideal the contest will be called. A competition hasn't been held at Mavericks since 2016, because of the financial woes of the previous owners in 2017 and then less-than-ideal conditions last winter.

Maybe this year will finally be the year Valenti gets to surf her local iconic event that started the whole thing -- the first-ever women's contest at Mavericks -- and maybe she'll even win it.