Kennelly’s win another victory for women’s big-wave scene

In a conversation with Reef McIntosh prior to The Eddie running this year, we spoke briefly about women’s roles in big-wave surfing and how it’s certainly a matter of when, not if a woman will be invited to participate in the world’s most iconic big-wave event.

“It’ll be a game changer,” he said about that eventuality.

What could be a nudge towards making that change a bit sooner was Keala Kennelly’s win for 2016 Barrel of the Year at last week’s WSL Big Wave Awards. Kennelly became the first woman to ever pick up a win in that category. She’s no stranger to the Big Wave hardware, having gone home with awards in the past for her charging in the women’s categories.

But this wasn’t a gender-specific victory. This was recognition for what was simply deemed the year’s best barrel by any human being.

But Kennelly brought up some interesting points in an open letter she penned in March for The Intertia. She’s not interested in some ceremonial invitation that’s simply window dressing or appearance based. Her preference wouldn’t even be to compete against the men, but to have full women’s big-wave events at their own sites.

Maybe we have been thinking about this incorrectly. Introducing women into men’s big-wave contests seems like the next step, but Kennelly’s comments might be more in line with what the women’s surf community wants than what those of us on the outside may assume.

The crux of her statement seemed to be that we shouldn’t so much still be saying, “Let’s see if women can do this.” But we should be saying, “Let’s see them do this against each other.”

There’s been something of a renaissance recently in women’s wrestling. (Yes, pro wrestling. Yes, I know it’s staged. Yes, it’s a show. But the current generation are amazing athletes and performers.) The women’s championship match at the most recent WrestleMania may have been the best match of the night. Three women competing against each other got far better fan reaction than the night’s Main Event.

But it wasn’t a novelty. It was separate and judged on its own merits.

A women’s big-wave scene would probably be tough to market at first, partly because there aren’t many well-known women and partly because of the unpredictability of the elements that effects any big-wave location. It’s much harder to get casual fans when times and dates are always up in the air. That’s already an issue for current men’s big-wave events.

But the women’s World Championship Tour has certainly found its footing over the past few years, sometimes upstaging the men and creating compelling rivalries and story lines. It’s only going to get better from here with the growth of talent we’ve seen during last year and this season.

So if there were to be exclusively women’s big-wave contests, there might be initial obstacles but nothing that any other new athletic organization wouldn’t face. Kennelly is right in the sense that true equality won’t come from adding one or two women to a male-dominant event. It will come when there is a roster of women — some famous, some little-known, most somewhere in between — showing up at sites of their own.

There are different ideas on how we’ll arrive there, but Kennelly’s performances and visibility are certain to play a role if and when we do.

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David Simon can be reached at dsimon@thegardenisland.com.

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