Paige Alms is carving a new path for women in big-wave surfing

Paige Alms picked up big-wave surfing about a decade ago, and now she is the top female surfer in the world for the second year in a row. Erik Aeder

In some ways, it was almost inevitable that Paige Alms would become one of the best female big-wave surfers in the world. When she lines up at the world famous Mavericks contest when it's called this winter outside of San Francisco, Alms will be one of six women included for the first time ever in the event.

Getting a women's heat at Mavericks took a long time and a lot of work, but for Alms, reaching this point has been a matter of just riding one wave after another.

The 29-year-old moved to Maui when she was 9 -- after spending 10 months traveling with her mom around Australia -- and hit the ocean almost immediately. "I've always loved the water," she says.

At first, her mom made her stick to body boarding for her own safety. Then her aunt and uncle bought her a surfboard and she took it right to the beach. Every single day after school, she was out on the water practicing. She had one beginner surf lesson, but after that, learning to surf was just trial and error, over and over again. "I basically taught myself how to surf," she jokes, recalling a process that required a lot of falling down and getting back up.

There was something about being on the board and the waves, though. Something she loved. After a year or two she began competing locally. At 13, she won a United States Surfing Federation national title.

If you grow up surfing on Maui, Jaws is always there waiting for you. Big-wave surfers from around the world are drawn to this spot on the north shore of the island known for its massive break and waves up to 60 feet high.

At 17, Alms was first towed in (pulled into a wave using the momentum from a Jet Ski) to surf at Jaws. She's been back many times since. A few years ago, she became the first woman -- and is still the only woman -- to get barreled at Jaws. (Meaning she rode through the hollow part of the giant wave as it crashed.)

Tow surfing was popular when Alms was a teen, and over the years, friends kept inviting her to go out. "Big waves always kind of excited me," says Alms. She would have fun, but big-wave surfing wasn't really a professional circuit yet. So Alms stayed focused on competitive surfing in smaller waves, flying around the world and spending her money trying to get podium spots, but usually having one run in prelims or semifinals and not making it through to finals. She thought if she wanted to make it as a professional surfer, then that was what she needed to do. But it was frustrating.

"I wanted to showcase my surfing in a different way," Alms says.

Big-wave surfing turned out to be that different way, a sport to showcase what she could do. About nine years ago she finally started dedicating herself to the big waves -- usually classified as any over 20 feet, but often reaching 50 or 60 feet depending on the conditions. Now, she's the best in the world, winning the inaugural World Surf League women's big-wave tour in 2016 and again in 2017.

But even being the best doesn't mean it's easy to make a living. Alms surfs almost every day, sometimes twice if the waves are good. She does another 15 to 20 hours a week of strength training and conditioning, doing exercises like breath-holding while carrying rocks underwater so she'll be better prepared for her next wipeout. Besides training and surfing, she still works two days per week at a seafood restaurant in town, and helps out at her boyfriend's surfboard business. For years, she picked up all kinds of odd jobs: construction, food server, handyman work, "pretty much any job that didn't have me locked down."

Big-wave surfing as a profession, even men's big-wave surfing, is in its infancy. People have always ridden big waves, but as a sport it's a challenge to attract money and sponsors. Competitions are generally called at the last minute -- and surfers typically have 72 hours' notice to fly out once the weather lines up for a big swell. Sometimes the weather never lines up and the event doesn't even happen. It's hard to commercialize the sport, too; surfers are far from shore, often making it hard to watch the competition. Women's big-wave surfing has had an even tougher time finding its footing, with very few women riding big-wave events until only recently.

Alms was one of a group of women who pushed the former organizers of the famous Mavericks competition to include women in the event. The women also crowdfunded their own video series to showcase their surfing. Since the World Surf League took over Mavericks last year, the event is now included in the handful of competitions on the women's big-wave tour. But because Mavericks wasn't held last year, this year will be the first chance women have to compete in the high-profile event. The competition is now in its holding period, meaning organizers are waiting for the weather to line up so the event can be staged.

As women have gotten out on the big waves, there has been concern that they're not ready or good enough -- that they'll get hurt. This was, in fact, one of the reasons cited for years to exclude women from Mavericks.

Alms has no patience for these concerns. The guys wipe out while surfing, too. "Pretty much every session you wipe out," she says, adding the women just need to be given a chance to show what they can do.

Yes, she says, she gets scared. She has dislocated a shoulder in a wipeout and been held under the crashing wave, unable to surface when she wanted to.

"It's good to listen to the fear," says Alms, but there's nothing like conquering it and coming out the other side. One of the scariest things, in fact, is just sitting there in the lineup looking down the massive wave coming at you. And in order to get into position to ride this giant beast of a wave, you have to paddle yourself into the most dangerous spot and know that you will get caught by it.

"There's nothing you can do except surrender to Mother Nature."