By Nelson Rice
September 17, 2014

Paddling out into the shimmering emerald waters at San Onofre State Beach in San Clemente, Calif., Courtney Conlogue felt her adrenaline surge. The swells stacked on the horizon like corduroy and rolled toward her. Which wave should she choose?

“I had to chill out a little bit,” said Conlogue, a 22-year old with sandy blonde hair and a California drawl. “Each wave you see it’s like, ‘Aw that one’s so good,’ but you have to wait for the absolute best ones.”

Yet for Conlogue and the other 16 professional surfers on the ASP Women’s World Championship Tour (WCT), selecting which flawless waves to ride in a 30-minute heat is a welcome dilemma.  The 2014 Swatch Women’s Pro marks the first time the Women’s WCT has held a contest at Lower Trestles in San Clemente—the mecca of progressive surfing.

“It felt a bit surreal,” said 10th- ranked Coco Ho, of Oahu, who won the first-round heat just before Conlogue’s on the initial day of the event. 

Sally Fitzgibbons at the Swatch Women's Pro
M Fitzgibbons

A few years ago the idea of a women’s event at Lowers, let alone one run in conjunction with the Men’s tour, seemed like little more than a dream. Amid the economic downturn and loss of sponsorship support in 2008, the women’s tour had only six events, compared to 11 for the men, and a fraction of the prize money.

The tide began to turn on this imbalance when the private company ZoSea Media Holdings acquired surfing’s governing body, the Association of Professional Surfers, and set out to reinvigorate the world tour. One of the top priorities was placing greater emphasis on the women’s events.

Thanks to this unified support and influx of money, in 2014, for the first time ever, the men’s and women’s tours have an equal amount of total available prize money. The ASP also announced at the beginning of the year that the women’s tour would add three events at world-class surf locales: Tavarua, Figi, Honolua Bay, Maui and….?

It was a no brainer. 

ASP Surfers Roundtable: Talking climate change and ocean health

“I didn’t have to think twice,” said Jessi Miley-Dyer, the women’s tour commissioner, when asked by ASP CEO Paul Speaker to suggest the best break for the tour’s newest event. “Lowers is one of the most amazing waves in the world and the obvious choice to showcase women’s surfing.”

The news was met with unanimous praise amongst the Top 17.

“It’s always been a wave we’ve wanted on tour,” said Ho, who has competed on the WCT since 2009. “Every year we would watch the men’s contest at Lowers and were just itching to get our turn out there.”

“Lowers is definitely in my top five favorite waves,” said Conlogue, who grew up only minutes away in Santa Ana and first surfed Lowers when she was six.

But then she paused and added, “Except without the crowds.”

Take the long walk through the San Onofre state park and down to the cobblestone break on a summer afternoon and this caveat is soon obvious. When the conditions are prime at Lowers, it’s common to have more than 100 surfers battling for one of those emerald swells. The result? The masses can turn the dreamlike waves into surfing’s version of a busy intersection.

“It's kind of carnage out there during free surfs,” said Sally Fitzgibbons, 23, from Gerroa, Australia. “You have to be really on your game to dodge people and not get hit.”

Having the contest with heats of only two or three surfers eliminates the traffic and puts the spotlight on how the women are pushing the limits of their sport. 

“It’s almost like, ‘If you build it they will come,’” says Dave Prodan, the vice president of communications for the Association of Surfing Professionals. “If you give the women a quality platform to perform on, you’re going to see them break every barrier.”

As if to prove the point, Lakey Peterson, a 19-year-old from Santa Barbara, put on a show-stopping performance in the fourth round. Surfing against Carissa Moore, the reigning world champion, Peterson took off on a head-high right-peeling wave and raced down the line. She launched above the lip, whipped the back of her board around spinning 180 degrees and grab— a move known as a tail-high air reverse.

Sally Fitzgibbons at the Swatch Women's Pro
M Fitzgibbons

She stuck it, and the 7.50 out of 10 she earned helped send the champ home. 

“I had nothing to lose so I just went for it,” said Peterson, who will square off against Ho in the quarterfinals when the contest resumes on Thursday. 

Given the current evolution of the sport and the chances to have contests at waves like those at Trestles, aerials like Peterson’s may become the norm instead of an anomaly.  “I know a lot of women can do moves like that in a free surf,” said Conlogue. “We push one another, and it’s just a matter of time before we are all doing them in events.”

With the current swell forecast it seems as if there will be plenty of opportunities. “Everyone is really excited because it looks like we’re going to get some epic waves for the end of the event,” Miley-Dyer said.

And best yet, the women will have them all to themselves.