‘My red badge of courage’: when female big-wave surfers wipeout – and get back in

The media adulation and peer group deference to heroic big-wave surfers like Paige Alms, Keala Kennelly and Maya Gabeira belies the potentially lethal damage that collision with multiple stories of collapsing water can mete out on the human body.

Surfing’s biggest threat has always been the danger of injury – nearly 70 times more common than fatalities. In the rarified world of truly big waves, the bigger the wave the more danger involved. When it comes to surfing, size really does matter. Since fellow surfers increase the risk factor, respect and caution usually keeps any blatantly risky behavior out of the picture when surfing the biggest (and most dangerous) waves. But not always.

For Jenny Useldinger there seemed little doubt that some fairly classic alpha-male behavior contributed to her worst wipeout at Mavericks one big day in the winter of 2006.

“They were hassling me,” she explained, about a few aggressive guys, “and put me in a sketchier position than I would have liked.” A rogue wave came steaming right at her. She paddled up the face, but it started to pitch out and over before she got to the top. She punched her way through the back and actually caught a glimpse of sunlight, other surfers, and the world beyond before the wave flicked out a tongue and sucked her back in. She was dragged backward over the falls and given the laundering of her life. She made it back to shore but was out of the water for the next seven months with an injured knee – and her favorite nine-foot four-fin big-wave gun was smashed to pieces. Perhaps it is no surprise that her sponsors expanded from Roxy and Ocean & Earth to CTI Knee Braces and Try-Star Medical.

In 2013, Gabeira nearly drowned at Nazaré in Portugal in one of the most devastating wipeouts ever witnessed. Attempting to claim the record for biggest wave surfed by a woman, she was eaten up at the bottom of an estimated 84ft beast, breaking her ankle on impact on the third massive bump while still on her board. Trapped under a set of waves, she lost consciousness.

“I lost her,” her Brazilian tow partner, big-wave rider Carlos Burlé said in an interview with Stab magazine. “She was gone for about five minutes. I finally saw her floating face-down in the shorebreak. I jumped off the Jet ski, grabbed her in an armlock, and we got to the beach that way. I don’t know how. They administered CPR immediately, and she started breathing.” CPR saved her life, but she had snapped her right fibula and herniated a disk in her lower back.

Kennelly would experience a similar skin-of-your-teeth catastrophe in Tahiti. Three days after riding the biggest, most treacherous barrels of the decade at Teahupoo, she surfed a memorial heat in honor of her good friend, world champion Andy Irons. Exiting from a critically dangerous tube she face-slammed on Teahupoo’s notoriously shallow reef. The gash in her face was “my red badge of courage,” she joked later. “I didn’t get awarded the medal for a purple heart,” she laughed, “but the one I do have almost stopped.” She nonetheless required reconstructive surgery and was inches from a smashed skull and snapped spinal cord.

Yet both these intrepid spirits were barely recovered when they returned to the field of carnage.

Gabeira’s recovery is an inspiring story of resilience. Two years later, she returned to Nazaré to face the same monsters that almost killed her – continuing to push the limits of female big-wave surfing in quest of the ultimate prize.

On 18 January 2018, Gabeira successfully surfed a 68ft wave at Nazaré becoming the first female big-wave surfer recognized with a Guinness World Record.

Kennelly appeared to treat her accident’s brutal damage almost disdainfully. “When KK was still in the IC unit the first thing she said was ‘When can I get back out there?’” Bianca Valenti told me in April 2020. “It was like she wanted to slap that wave right back.”

“Keala and Maya are so dedicated, so committed,” Valenti continued. “Both of them could have died from their accidents. Or just quit. Instead they rose up and totally conquered their fears. And triumphed.”