In our constant search for diversity in the surfing world, we are glad to spotlight one of the many talented female athletes on Maui. Certainly no stranger to the limelight, Nancy Emerson has been featured on ESPN, ABC, CBS, National Geographic Explorer, numerous motion pictures and Maui Time Magazine!
Mark D’Antonio: What brought you to Maui?
Nancy Emerson: I came to Hawaii with my family in 1961 and learned how to surf at Waikiki from Nappy Napolean. I received a full scholarship to the Art Center in Los Angeles, but decided to pursue an education at Mauna Olu here on Maui because of my love of the place. It’s not just the ocean and the environment, it’s the aloha, the ohana and the family. I began traveling and competing in surf contests at 14, and I remember that regardless of the color of my skin, I was treated with respect, and everybody was very supportive of my surfing.
D’Antonio: It seems that living on Maui is a special relationship. Maui has to allow you to stay here.
Emerson: Oh yes, people get tossed out all the time! You can’t really come here with an attitude. The few people that do stay usually can associate with the relaxed, sharing atmosphere; it’s not for everyone, it’s a few. One of the most important things we teach students at my surf school is to relax, and that’s good advice for everything in life as well.
D’Antonio: Tell me about your surf schools.
Emerson: I’ve been teaching for 25 years, with schools in Japan, Malibu, Honolulu and Maui, as well as clinics and training in the Dominican Republic, Fiji and Australia.
D’Antonio: Do you still surf competitions?
Emerson: Not really. I like to surf in Ole’s longboard contest, but after decades of competing, I really prefer soul surfing, and the uncrowded spots.
D’Antonio: What advice would you give other women who surf for the love of it, but also want to enter the competitive arena?
Emerson: I would say that it’s really important, I think, for a young women to get some coaching, and to get someone who is very seasoned and very polished to give direction. You can learn so much about what to do at competitions. There’s so much involved in that 20 minutes of surfing. Coaching is a springboard to progress in one’s ability, as well as gaining the insight in what to look for, what to be aware of, and the necessary mental preparation. It really comes down to the passion, and the drive to learn. To get a good foundation in surfing, like any sport, is invaluable.
D’Antonio: How have women’s roles in surfing grown since you’ve been in the sport?
Emerson: Back in the ’60s, it seemed that there was more competition than there is now. In the 1967 Makaha International, there were 80-plus women in an event: women from Australia, the West Coast, the East Coast and Hawaii. Women’s purses, which have been held back for years, are not equal to men’s, even though both sexes travel, train and share the same expenses. A key thing is endorsement. Sponsorships are where the money for training, travel and competitions hopefully comes from. Once again, coaching and management are an integral part to a professional surfing career because they also help with that sponsorship process.
D’Antonio: So the business side of surfing can use a coach’s guidance as well?
Emerson: Absolutely. When you are competing, 98 percent of it is mental, and the other two percent is luck. You already have to be good at surfing. I’ve seen men and women who were incredible surfers lose because they weren’t strong mentally, they didn’t have a coach or the right people to guide them. I think people forget the importance of guidance and help because surfing is such an individual sport.
D’Antonio: Who are some of the people you look up to, then and now?
Emerson: So many people. I’d say guys like Jock Sutherland, Micky Dora, Nat Young, Donald Takayama, big wave pioneers Wally Froiseth and George Downing, and meeting Duke Kahanamoku was an unforgettable experience. Surfing with Anna Tomos, Nat Helm, the Paia Twins, Matt Kinoshita, Gerry Lopez and teaching Sunny Garcia how to surf at seven years old out at Kawela Bay on Oahu. He’s incredible, such passion, and the biggest heart. I remember surfing Laguna with Laird’s father, Billy Hamilton, and Mike Waltze teaching me to windsurf. There’s so many people that I’ve been lucky enough to meet through my travels, they are an enhancement to my life, being able to share and learn from each other.
D’Antonio: You’ve been on the Valley Isle for many years now. What does Maui Time mean to you?
Emerson: Maui Time is a nurturing time to take things at my own pace, where things happen when they happen. Even though there might be a deadline, you’re always in the right place at the right time.
This story originally ran in MauiTime’s November 25, 1997 issue.
Photos: Karen Nicola, Liysa King, Cavatio and Steve Bingham