At the Women’s March on Maui on Saturday, Jan. 21, Paige Alms was moving through the crowd of thousands gathered to speak up for women’s rights and equality and against the authoritarianism of Donald Trump when she saw herself. It was a large photo of her surfing Jaws, posted on a sign with the words “Action is Power.” Alms went up to the woman holding the sign and asked if she could take picture with her.
“Suuuuure…” the woman told her, clearly not recognizing her.
“You have me on your sign,” Alms responded. “No big deal.”
The story is surprising, given Alms’ superstar status in the surfing world, but also not surprising. Though famous around the world for her big wave surfing skills, she’s also an authentic, down-to-earth Maui girl.
She’s Paige Alms, and whether she believes it or not, she’s a very big deal.
Last November, with all of Maui at her back and the wind in her face, Paige Alms paddled her way into giant waves and a historic moment. For the first time, women were invited to compete at the Peahi Challenge held at the famous big-wave surf spot Jaws on Maui’s north shore. Alms was one of a dozen female competitors. With crowds lining the cliffs and her team cheering her on, Alms secured the win, becoming the first ever big-wave women’s world champion.
It was especially sweet for the Haiku surfer, who won the contest in her own backyard. It was an extraordinary accomplishment for the young woman. Alms is one of the first of her kind, women among men proving that they have what it takes to compete in waves that tower several stories high. There are only a handful of women (indeed, people) in the world able to do what she is doing, and that day, she marked herself as the best.
Though Alms has been well-known around Maui for over a decade, growing from a talented grom into a fixture in the local surf community, it wasn’t until last year that she went viral in the larger surfing world, when she caught everyone’s attention with a huge barrel she snagged at Jaws. Since then, she’s gathered a list of unique and solid accomplishments, including taking home the Women’s Best Overall Performance Award at the 2015 WSL Big Wave Awards and being the subject of a film about her life, The Wave I Ride, which premiered at the Maui Film Festival.
It was early in her career that she strayed from the traditional path of the pro-surfer. After trying out the pro tour, which she found expensive and unsatisfying, Alms tried a different track. As a teen, she began pursuing big-wave surfing, including paddling into Jaws.
Despite her accomplishments in the water, she’s still genuine, and her attitude has earned her the respect of the surf and Maui community. I know this because I’m a part of that community; Alms and I both went to Haiku School, and I’m one of those who’ve watched her grow from a firecracker grom and ace soccer player into the young woman with focus and heart that she is today.
On a sunny afternoon in Haiku town, after the dust had settled from her win and the holidays, we sat down at the taco stand to talk about her journey and the state of women’s big wave surfing. Friendly and funny, she’s easy to talk to about a wide range of subjects. Over fish tacos, we talked about equity in women’s surfing, her thoughts on the future of her sport and the turtle-seeking tourist problem at Ho‘okipa. We ranted a bit about our love of travel, the insanity of Donald Trump and her love for ABC’s Scandal. We also found time to reminisce about when we were kids, a simple time when fish tacos were $3 and the lineup at Ho‘okipa wasn’t crowded.
It was a typical Haiku scene, with a toddler and a dog tangling around our feet, a dubious looking man wearing patchwork bell-bottoms hanging around and, somewhat confusingly, hookah smoke floating by. Alms was fresh from a workout at Deep Relief Peak Performance, where she works out four to five days a week with her trainer and friend, Samantha.
Though Alms possess an obviously rare physical talent, even among advanced surfers, she also trains hard. “I think everyone in professional surfing has gotten more serious about training over the last 20 years,” she said. The physical preparation she does in endurance, strength and breath-holding is key to making her faster, better and safer in the water. “It’s always scary,” she says of dropping into mountain-sized waves. “The older I get, the more fearful I’ve become, because I realize what could happen.”
Injury is an almost unavoidable peril of surfing big waves. Alms has enduring shoulder and hamstring injuries that sidelined her for months. “I take more calculated risks, where before I would be like, I got this,” she said. But she has a mature attitude toward surfing critically large waves: “I’m not trying to catch the biggest wave of the day; that’s not my personal goal. I want to ride them, not just survive them.”
Alms also works hard outside of the gym and water. Unlike most professional surfers, who have a big-name sponsor that funds their travel, contest entry and gear, Alms has largely funded her own endeavors through manual labor. She currently works at the Paia Fish Market and repairs surfboards for a living. “I think when you have to work and be a professional athlete, you have to think in a lot of different ways,” Alms says of her hustle. She’s been creative in designing and financing her career in a way most pro surfers don’t have to.
She also largely funds her own travel, through a mix of work and sponsors and odd jobs, like lifeguarding at Tavarua. “People are always asking, doesn’t it suck that you don’t have a major sponsor?” she said. “Well, yeah, but I’m super grateful for the sponsors I do have that help me do what I’m doing. You have to look at it as a positive.”
In light of how crowded the Maui surf scene has gotten, she’s been traveling to more remote spots. “I’ve been trying to go on surf trips where no one is around,” she said, showing me a pictures of a secret island paradise with coral and water so bright and crystalline it looked fake.
Still, it’s not hard to notice the discrepancies between her situation and many of the male big names in surfing, who often secure big-name, big-money contracts. In fact, the disparity came to a head last year during controversy over whether women should be invited to another famous surf competition, the Titans of Maverick’s contest (it’s tagline is “Men Who Ride Mountains”).
The organizers did not want to invite women. Not everyone an ally to women’s big wave surfing, but Alms was quick to point out the many remarkable male big-wave surfers who are. A group of women, spearheaded by Alms’ friend and fellow big-wave professional Bianca Valenti, spoke up. Valenti helped form the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing, and they lobbied the California Coastal Commission, which issues permits for the contest. The Commission required the organizers to include women in order to get their permit, so they begrudgingly did. But the organizers didn’t comply with the request to make a long-term spot for women in the contest. In a petty, bullying retaliation, the organizers did not invite Valenti to compete (though after several invitees were injured in the Peahi contest, she is now invited). Alms, however, was offered a spot right away, but she views the honor with mixed feelings.
So while Alms’ win, and the invitation to Titans of Maverick’s, which will include a one-hour heat for six women, is clearly a step in the right direction, equity is a long way off.
“Yeah, I won $15,000, but it should have been a $150,000, and hopefully it will be in the next five to 10 years,” she said. ‘My goal is to help set that up.”
To be the best in the world at something, but not think wholly in terms of your own success, especially in an individual sport like surfing, is pretty remarkable. Alms is in good company; there’s a history of Maui surfers, like Ian Walsh and Kai Lenny, who give back to the community.
“To be the best big-wave surfer in the world? That’s cool, but that’s self-fulfilling,” said Alms. “It’s not looking at the bigger picture.” She and her friends are focused on leaving a solid trail behind for others. “That’s what we’re doing now, setting up events, speaking out, talking to the right people,” she said. “We’re setting it up for the next generation.” Having received mentorship from some of the top women surfers, including Keala Kennely, Alms is acting in kind.
Next weekend, Alms and a few of her friends are hosting an all-girls “learn to surf and SUP day” that they’ve done for four years. The girls are coming from the organizations Women Helping Women and Hawaii Family Services, “so they’re all girls that need to get in the water,” she said. It will be a quiet event without a lot of fanfare and advertising.
Not that she needs to advertise much. Already a well-known face among Maui people, Alms’ win has brought on a bit of recognition in her day-to-day life. People recognize her all the time. Last week, a Canadian woman stood in the long Fish Market line just to get her autograph. “People will come in and say, ‘I read in Surfer Magazine that you work here!’” she laughs. After her win, Maui residents were bursting with pride for her, and she couldn’t go to the grocery store without running into someone congratulating her. “I told my boyfriend, babe let’s go to the other side for a date!” she joked. “It’s fun, though people are nice.”
Alms’ journey, and her win, are symbolic and powerful and decisive. “I truly believe that winning that contest was for Maui, for women’s big wave surfing and for surfing in general,” she said.
She’s definitely a pretty big deal after all.
Cover design: Darris Hurst
Cover photo: Scott Winer
Photo of Alms jumping into the water: Jason Kenworthy