Andrea Moller grew up at her parents' marina on a tiny island off of São Paulo, Brazil, where the ocean, she says, was her life. Fast forward 20 years or so, and she is a pioneer of Pe'ahi, considered the first woman to ever paddle in at the now-famous Maui break. She's also a heavyweight in the stand-up and prone paddle world, winning more races than there's room to report here.
Her career started in earnest at 17, when she moved from Brazil for Maui to visit and windsurf. A few months turned into a semester at college, which turned into a year, which turned into a degree and a family on the Hawaiian island. And the rest is visible in her career accomplishments and personal ethos, shaped from years as a highly focused athlete, mother and paramedic.
Anna Dimond: What drew you to heavy waves like Pe'ahi?
Andrea Moller: There is something about that volume of water, you really have to work with nature. Jaws is just so much stronger than you. Because there's that feeling of risking your life, when you make it, there's a real survival. You want the challenge. Each wave you surf out there -- every time you're like, 'Wow, that was intense.' Whereas for regular surfing, for me I'm constantly trying to do a move, and prove yourself. And in big-wave surfing it's much more than that. It's not about a turn, or an aerial, it's about surviving. Every time you survive a wave, you want to push it a little more, and a little more.
Every time you survive a wave, you want to push it a little more, and a little more.
Because I was a windsurfer, I learned how to read the wave from behind, like you sail into a wave. Which is very much how tow-surfing is: The jetski comes from behind, and the wave is forming with you, and you read your waves differently than when you're sitting watching the face of the wave. So it was like second nature. And then of course I knew how to surf, so paddle-in surfing was the next step.
AD: You had your daughter, Keala, at an age when a lot of people tend to start building their careers. Were you nervous that having a baby would derail your athletic dreams?
Moller: I focused more on becoming a professional athlete after I had her. Because before I had my kid, you have a lot of time on your hands. Once I got pregnant, I was 22, had Keala at 23, so nine months of pregnancy made me think, ‘I can't wait!.' You have your kid, you get back in shape, as soon as she's one and going to daycare, or she's easier to drop off with someone for an hour. I was so dying to [surf] again that the one hour that I had I would train as hard and as focused as I could. My kid taught me how to manage my time well.
AD: What was your process to prepare?
Moller: It took us a year. We trained on the outer reefs, even paddling in, too. We wanted to rescue perfectly, because when we went to Jaws, if I was the girl who showed up at Jaws and I immediately lost my board and hit the rocks or had to be helped by the guys, I could hear it already like, 'What are they doing there?'
AD: Do you remember your first day in the lineup with Maria? What was the reaction?
Moller: Yeah. There's this amazing, glassy beautiful wave on the outer reefs, and we surfed it so much that day. And then our ski started [stalling out]. We thought we better stop here, because if we lose the ski, we'd have to swim a long way home. Which we had done before, so over the years we learned how to fix the ski and we were our own little mechanics. But that day we decided to zoom over to Jaws and just sit in the channel and watch, because we couldn't really tow in with our half-broken jet ski.
There's only a few guys that would ever put a girl on the wave, so we started surfing and making it. From that day on, we said, let's go.
And I remember we got to the lineup and Maria and I were like, ‘I think I can do that.' We watched for a while, and it was either either Yuri [Soledade] or another surfer who said, ‘Want me to put you in a wave?' There's only a few guys that would ever put a girl on the wave, so we started surfing and making it, and from that day on, we said, let's go. Once that door opened for us, we were going there every time it was breaking.
AD: What is the toughest part of juggling family and your career -- whether it's athletic or not? Moller: The toughest part is time management and really finding your goal and not letting it drift away from you. When you have a family, you have to be present at home, but you cannot give up your own passion. And I think a lot of people do that, because they feel they have to go shopping or do the laundry or pick up their kid or drop off their kid, and they forget their own dreams. A lot of moms don't compete anymore because now they have a child.
You can be a really awesome mom and still be an athlete if you want to. But you have to want it. And deal with guilty feelings sometimes.
But the other tough part is knowing what you want and managing that time. You don't want to neglect your child, so if you really want something and focus and believe in yourself, you can do both. You can be a really awesome mom and spend time with your kid, and still be an athlete if you want to. But you have to want it. You maybe have to deal with guilty feelings sometimes. Like, I went to Maverick's. My kid stayed behind, for three days and my daughter struggled. And you have to be OK with that, to trust that your child is good and knows that you love them, and I think my daughter sees that. She sees how much passion I have for surfing, for example, and she says ‘OK mom, you go surfing and I'm going to play with Nadia,' her horse. That's what she wants to do. So we're both doing things that we want to do, and at the end of the day we're together, sharing our adventures. And she's learning not to give up, I hope.
AD: When it comes to picking a romantic partner, is there an attribute that makes your balancing act possible -- something that allows women who want to pursue something passionately, but also be a mom?
Moller: Well, it's extremely hard to find that, right? The father of my kid, we were married and ended up eventually getting divorced. I look back and wonder, maybe we got divorced because I really didn't stay at home, and be the perfect wife that stays home all day. I was the hard-working, going and working full-time, and managing the kid and being an athlete. And maybe that could have killed it.
But now, I have a boyfriend and he is super supportive, so it is possible to have a relationship where you can be who you are - I am a person who has so much passion for the ocean, I need my ocean time - and he understands that if I don't have that I am not myself and maybe not as happy as I could be. He opens the door for me. He knows, there's a swell coming and I won't see you for a few days. Having somebody that supports you is everything. I'm not talking financially - but they're OK. They are no games. And they know we are in men's sports, we are traveling with a bunch of surfers. You've got to have trust in the relationship.
I look back and wonder, maybe we got divorced because I wasn't the perfect wife that stays home all day.
AD: How would you describe the state of big-wave surfing overall? What's changed since you started in the sport?
Moller: When I started surfing big waves, I thought, ‘Wow, this could be a thing, You could get a sponsor for this and be successful.' And I never really pursued that. And then girls came, like Maya Gabeira, who is a successful woman who made that sport into a job. She gets big-time paid.
AD: In November, the California Coastal Commission voted to mandate the inclusion of women in future contests at Maverick's, which has spurred a lot of press. Some of the men in the sport have insisted that there just aren't enough women doing it, and at the proper level to run a contest. What's your perspective on that?
Moller: We need to start slow, and we need to start together. If the men would open a little window, like 30 minutes or an hour heat, and put all the girls that sign up in there. So then, if you're telling us we don't have enough girls to have our own competition, we don't need our own competition. Just open the window, let the girls paddle out in the lineup and fight for the waves.
Just open the window, let the girls paddle out in the lineup and fight for the waves.
I don't think separating ourselves and having our own women's competition is the right thing right now. Because it's like, why reinvent the wheel? They're already running the event. And two years go by, a one-hour heat and maybe we have 20 girls in the water, and now there's too many girls for one heat. So let's try three heats, or the next day is the girls' time. The thing is that spots for big-wave surfing, they don't want to close a wave for a contest, because then nobody else can surf. It's hard to say, ‘Let's not surf this swell because 10 girls want to close it and surf it all by themselves.'
AD: Even as a spectator, it seems like a lot is changing.
Moller: Even the Big Wave Awards are changing. Women now have a place in them, and there's more money. Things like that give us recognition and I appreciate that. Maybe we don't compete in a heat, but at the end of the year there is a stage for us. We don't need [a separate] WSL Big Wave Awards for women, on a whole different date. Let's join the same party. Let's join as one sport.