This time last year, Paige Alms made history, as the first to win the first-ever WSL women's big-wave event, the inaugural Pe'ahi Women's Challenge. And last week, the Maui local did it yet again, winning the 2017 Women's Pe'ahi Challenge for the second year running.
For fans of big-wave surfing, the second event was a confirmation that, yes, women are on their way in the professional realm of this sport. It's still early days, sure, but Saturday further established a comforting precedent for the future. For Alms, the day was pure magic: the conditions, the context and, of course, the win.
"I got out there Saturday morning on the ski, on our way up, it was absolutely gorgeous," she recalled. "There were no clouds in the sky, and we pulled up, and I was like, ‘Holy shit, it is firing.' It was really fun to watch the men's Semis, and Semi 2 was one of the best heats in surfing. In big-wave surfing, but also in surfing, ever."
That Semifinal, in case you missed it, featured eventual men's winner Ian Walsh scoring the wave of his life -- and what will surely be the wave of the winter, if not the decade. "After the men's Final, we were up, and as I was paddling over, I thought this is a monumental experience to be out here in conditions like this with just a few friends," Alms said. "I felt really grateful, and I told all of my friends [in the lineup].
"If that was just a Saturday, there'd probably be 70 people in the water, and just a few of us women in there," she said. "It doesn't happen very often that there are conditions like that in the water. So to have just a few other people out in the lineup and be able to position yourself where you want to sit and have the opportunity to catch any wave you want is just insane, and I feel privileged to have had that opportunity.
"Having [the waves] really clean allowed everyone to find their spot and their comfort level, and just send it. It wasn't as death-defying as when it's really windy. Everyone sent it on a legit bomb, and all the girls were killing it. I actually had no idea I won until the very end. They said, ‘We need you for an interview,' and I was like, 'Cool.' It was fun seeing everyone charging."
For Alms, along with the profound magic of an open playing field in perfect Maui conditions, her win was also the culmination of years of hard work. Not only has she done the requisite hard yards that it takes to become a professional athlete, but she's also hammered, sanded and sawed her way to financial survival. Odd jobs like house painting, construction and ding repair were all part of the picture to fund her surf career.
That discipline, combined with focus and goal-setting, have been keys to Alms' success. "It's been my dream to be a prof surfer my entire life, and I feel like I'm living the dream that I imagined as a kid," she said. "With that being said, a lot of hard work went into that. It was years of working my ass off, and I finally feel like everything is paying off. I've been doing a lot of physical training the past couple of years, too."
It doesn't hurt that Alms' gym -- Deep Relief Peak Performance is within walking distance from her house. That access, combined with a program that's tailored to the big-wave season, were perhaps the x-factor in bumping her fitness to a level that could not only handle heavy Pe'ahi, but tame it at its most fierce. Under the guidance of trainer Samantha Campbell, Alms (and Walsh, among other athletes), sweat for six weeks straight leading up to the Pe'ahi Challenge in an annual program that's designed to prep athletes for winter's big-wave season.
"It was six days a week, with everything from strength to agility," said Alms. "We did high-elevation training up to Haleakala once a week. Plus rock-running, breath holds. A little bit of everything. In that, there were three or four days at the gym and two or three days out. I feel like it really paid off. It gives you a really good base to build off of and push yourself to another level."
Which is not to say that it was all smooth sailing. "Some of the things we were doing, like the high-elevation running at 10,000 feet, was probably one of the hardest things I've ever done," she said. "I was literally dying.
"The last week, right before the event, I did a three-mile run with a friend. The goal was to not stop. Basically, we drove up to the top and then clocked down in my truck, three miles exactly. She's been running a lot, so she made it OK. But I had to take multiple breaks. I was walking, where your heart rate is still up. It's one of the hardest things mentally, where your head is just pounding. At that elevation you feel like your head is in a vice grip.
"The idea is to create more red blood cells in your system and blast oxygen throughout. It's pretty cool, because in the days after it, doing any sort of workout, everything felt really easy."
Needless to say, there is no easy path to success in big-wave surfing -- even if it feels that way for a few, hemoglobin-boosted days. But two years running of women's big-wave events isn't such a bad start. And Alms is optimistic. "Eventually, in the next few years, it would be great to have a full tour, like the men's," she said. "That is a path that the WSL is laying the groundwork for now, having a few events.
"But I have no doubt that in the future it will be a full-blown tour, and women will be on the same level as men, maybe even competing against the men, there might not be two separate divisions. The more opportunities there are to do events like and to have empty lineups --- it is a battle when you're only one or two women out there with 70 guys, it is kind of hard to get waves. I think the more opportunities we have like that, the better we're all going to get, the level of the sport is going to improve, and, hopefully inspire more girls to get out there and start charging."
For now, though, Alms is continuing to enjoy her victory weeks, and ready for what she hopes will be a winter with more perfect conditions. Plus, she has a strong support crew to surf with, train with, and enjoy, with or without big waves. She and her boyfriend, shaper Sean Ordonez, have been together for 11 years and are partners on land and in the lineup.
"He's there every single session that I get out there," Alms said. "When you have your best friend there to share every moment with, especially, too because he designs my equipment, it makes me a little more confident. And all my friends and the people in my circle are supportive of one another. So you feed off of that when you're in a really positive environment. Especially because I have a whole family group that trains together at the gym. It's like having your family as your backbone, win or lose."