Women in Surf Therapy | The Wave Alliance
4 min read
Words & Images courtesy of the Wave Alliance
There is a wind pushing a rising swell, the force of which reaches far beyond the shore: women-led, women-held oceanic safe spaces, promoting wellbeing and health in coastal communities through surf.
Maira, founder of surf therapy service Olas del Alma (based in Argentina, launched in 2016) began surfing around the time her mother fell ill, and the ocean - which she always had a close connection with, growing up in a small coastal town - became her haven. “What grew in me was a unique and very special relationship with the sea. It is still my safe place to be myself in all my facets, where I feel at peace, and a part of the big ocean. Since then, my life is 100% about the sea.”
Alice (the first female surfer and surf coach in Harper, Liberia) originally had a very different relationship with the sea to Maira’s, and yet she also found a source of healing and safety in it. Alice rode her first wave in Cape Town, South Africa, while attending a workshop on introducing surf therapy to her community. “Before travelling to South Africa, I had two deaths in my family and received a call from home that had me stressed up. The day I rode my first wave, I felt I could conquer any situation and achieve anything. Before that visit to Waves for Change, water and the ocean were a no-go zone for me. Now, here I am, a surf therapy coach.” Since her trip in 2017, Alice has helped grow the local surf population in Harper, Liberia from none to over 100 surfers–most of whom are under the age of 25 and all of whom Alice has mentored.
For both Maira and Alice, a self-awareness about the positive impact surfing had on their lives, and the desire to share that impact with their communities, directed their journey from surfer to surf therapy mentor. “It was when I rode that wave that I realized the impact of surfing” shares Alice. “You know, when you surf, all you think of is how to catch and enjoy riding a wave. With each wave, I feel like an overcomer.” For Alice, surfing opened a new way to act on a passion for community upliftment and female empowerment.
The desire to spread the stoke seems instinctive in surfers who–alongside a love for the sport—have generosity, empathy, and equality at their core. “My manager introduced me to surfing when she chose me to join her on the Wave Alliance course in 2020,” says Max. “When I rode my first wave, I just smiled. How it feels to surf is… indescribable. It’s something you must do yourself to experience.”
Max is a professional rugby player and coach for the Grootbos Foundation and like Alice, after that first wave, she knew she needed to share that feeling with girls in her hometown of Gaansbaai. She now leads the first girls-only surf therapy programme (affectionately called the “Shewana” group - as in, “She wanna surf!”) in the Overberg region (in South Africa) - serving weekly doses of stoke and inspiration to girls from three local communities.
These surf therapy coaches are showing their surfers–and their communities–different definitions and options for what being a surfer, and being a woman, means.
“Being a surf coach in my community is venturing into the unexpected,” explains Alice. “It is entering a world that belongs only to men. You’re riding on a boat full of men where you are the only female on board. People just can’t imagine a female being a surf coach. They see it as something difficult, and so something that men only can do.”
And yet, these girls can and do. Thanks to their work as caring coaches and a conscious understanding of both the negative impact adversity has on their girls and the core ingredients of a surf therapy programme which will support their mental, emotional, and physical development, Max, Maira, and Alice are all seeing an impact that ripples beyond the beach and into the community. “As a caring coach in this up and down life, surf therapy is so good for our community. Because we use all the values and skills we practice in surfing in our community: how to respect yourself, self-discipline, how to be calm in stressful situations… What we are sharing with them, they are taking it and independently translating it into other spaces.”
Maira agrees that the impact of surfing lasts much longer than the length of a riding a wave. “What excites me most about the program is seeing dreams awaken, seeing values of love, compassion, and helping others grow. My community is a very quiet coastal town. There is not much on offer for youth, which can often generate a sedentary lifestyle that can lead to depression and low self-esteem. Our community program is necessary because there are many children and adolescents who need attention, to experience mastering new skills and to learn tools to live a healthier life.”
After just a few months, Max is already noticing a mental shift in the girls. “I think because of our programme, our girls decided to stop living by the norm. Our community has many challenges which are “normal” for them: teenage pregnancy, alcoholism, HIV/AIDS… and yet our girls are so disciplined, directed, and dedicated. I know they outshine the negativity. And hopefully, they will pass this shine on to the next generation, and we can stop some of these negative challenges in the community.”
Max, Maira, and Alice are all part of programmes working in partnership with Waves for Change’s Wave Alliance initiative, expanding access to surf therapy services in coastal communities around the world.