It’s a moment we don’t often see in sports: a woman beating a man. But that’s exactly what was announced Thursday, when the World Surf League reported that the Brazilian big-wave surfer Maya Gabeira set a new world record. The 73.5-foot wave she surfed on February 11 in Nazaré, Portugal, was the largest wave surfed by anyone this year, earning Gabeira the WSL’s 2020 women’s XXL Biggest Wave Award. It also broke her own previous record, a 68-foot wave. By contrast, this year’s men’s XXL Biggest Wave Award winner, Kai Lenny, rode a 70-foot wave.
But Gabeira’s historic win was light on fanfare, with the news hampered by an uncharacteristically long delay (about four weeks after the men’s announcement), and also because her achievement was subject to a brand-new and completely different set of measuring criteria than was required for the men’s waves. The situation highlights a rare and missed opportunity to challenge widespread ideas about women’s athletic inferiority.
The WSL’s Big Wave Awards are like the Oscars of surfing, usually a live event in May where the men’s and women’s rides are acknowledged with categories such as Ride of the Year, Biggest Paddle, and even Wipeout of the Year. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, however, this year’s awards were given out weekly throughout the summer via social media. The XXL Biggest Wave Award honors the year’s biggest waves surfed, many reached via tow-in surfing as opposed to arm paddling. Both the men’s and women’s awards in this category were due to be doled out together on August 17—but on that date, while Lenny was announced as the winner via video, the WSL said the women’s race needed further judging and would be delayed.