Bianca Valenti started her professional surfing career in the mortal-sized waves of Dana Point, Calif., where she grew up. But it wasn't until later, when she moved to the state's Bay Area, that she developed a taste for the heavier stuff. During a session at San Francisco's notoriously punishing Ocean Beach, she took a pounding that would change her life. Instead of relegating her back to the safe confines of the beach, Valenti wanted more.
These days, she's a regular at Mavericks, the area's big-wave spot at Half Moon Bay, and an increasingly familiar face in big-wave circles. She was also an invitee to the first-ever WSL women's big-wave contest last year, the Pe'ahi Women's Challenge. And she was there again this year, too, for the second installment. Like last year, Maui local Paige Alms swept the field and won the event. But unlike last year, the contest was one heat, an hour-long Final (verus three), and conditions at the (in)famously windswept break were absolutely perfect.
Just a few days after the event ended, Valenti was nursing a massively swollen knee (ironically, suffered in two-foot waves, but on a foil), and reflecting on how it all went. Here's what she had to say.
World Surf League: This was your second year competing at the Women's Pe'ahi Challenge. What was the experience like?
Bianca Valenti: It was super-awesome as always -- and to get a chance to surf Jaws [Pe'ahi] like that with five other women, who are also awesome, doesn't happen often enough. Those moments are really special. I would have loved to have another hour out there, although it was fun watching the men -- especially Semifinal 2. Being out at Jaws, it's a magical place. The water was a deep blue, you can't see a single house, and when the wave breaks it sounds like thunder.
I thought everyone surfed really well. I personally was unsure of certain waves to take while I was out there, and right when I felt like I was getting warmed up, it was over. The more time out there the better you get.
For a lot of fans, the women's event had symbolic power. Did you feel that way?
I think I had 140 texts afterward -- and I didn't even win. So the support is so awesome and tremendous. We love it, but to have that support makes it more inspiring to keep playing bigger.
It was just impressive. Everybody was just going for it, hucking themselves over these big, moving walls of water. Everyone surfed really, really well. Even in the channel, the guys were sitting in the channel, and when we'd be paddling back out would be cheering for us. So to have that encouragement is awesome.
Your local break is Mavericks, while Alms and Andrea Moller live in Maui. How does local knowledge impact performance in a contest?
Luckily I do have some experience at Jaws, but hadn't surfed out there since last year during the contest. So you get yourself out there, in one hour you're re-familiarizing yourself with the lineup, and which waves look good or not so good. It took me the hour. And an hour goes by fast. I don't like to take off if I'm not sure, but at the same time, I think I passed up some good ones.
I think one more hour, you could have seen some progression. Paige [Alms] could have gotten barrel, Keala [Kennelly] could have gotten a barrel -- more time would have resulted in better surfing. [For me personally] I still need more time out there to get to that next level of comfort. I need practice choosing waves.
What did it feel like to be out there? It's something most people will never experience.
It's always exciting because it's a beautiful wave and perfect -- my ultimate life goal is to get a barrel at Jaws. And then I ask Paige what it feels like to have achieved my ultimate life goal [laughter]. But it's intense energy. And the water is a deep blue, and as the wave comes it comes out of this deep canyon, it wedges up. It's this open ocean, raw, so a lot of water is moving. You can be moved the length of a football field in the snap of a finger -- it's a big playing field. Which is cool, because it spread us all out, but it took me some time, [to position myself].
Last year, there was a real sense of history being made, because it was the first WSL-sanctioned women's big-wave event. With the women's competitive side still in its infancy and the weight that that might carry, do you feel a need to prove anything when you go out there?
I love surfing big waves. And I love all the surfers who are out in the lineup. And it's wanting the opportunity to do that, so when we have an hour with just women, it gives us that. That's the cool part of contests. It's six [women] now, but maybe in the future it will be 12, and you'll see the women throwing down big barrel rides, as the men did. Because all of these women are incredible athletes.
Before the 2017 contest got started, you told me how great it was to even be at the athlete meeting, because it felt like a gathering of the tribe. What is the benefit of that togetherness?
You're coming together with these amazing people, and we all share love for the same thing. We're all different, but it's so powerful, the collective energy of the group. And to be there with those guys, to watch them surf, was amazing, and to be a part of the event with the other ladies was so fun. It was an awesome day for surfing.
What do you think should be the next step for women's professional big-wave surfing to continue to advance the sport?
More time together, to train together. To share big-wave sessions together. If you read Frosty [Hesson's] memoir [Making Mavericks], he started mentoring [now-deceased surfer] Jay Moriarty at 12. We've had none of had those role models to show us the ropes. We get them eventually, by showing how dedicated we are and our skills. [But with our generation now competing] I think you're going to see an explosion of talent in the next 10 years.
Paddle into more on women's big-wave talent with the 2017 Women's Pe'ahi Challenge event page.