Steffi Kerson, Pro Surfer
WORDS BY : LIZ RAISS | INTERVIEW BY : RANA TOOFANIAN | PHOTOS BY : JAMES BAILEY
If you feel like watching something gnarly on your lunch break, here’s one of 2015’s nominees for XXL’s Wipeout of the Year. It’s a ballsy step off at Teahupo’o, the legendary home of enormous, glossy Tahitian waves, followed by a splintering short board and stomach-churning thrashing. It was also pro surfer Steffi Kerson’s first big wave attempt, and what you don’t see are the six waves she chased afterwards, once she got done nearly dying.
A member of USA Surf Team and Hurley, Kerson takes on new challenges exactly like that monstrous wave: without hesitation or fear. She started surfing late, at eleven, but had made the USA Surf Team by fourteen. She passed on further education in order to continue competing, though her ambitions extend beyond the sport and all the way into streetwear. Kerson mixes up her Hurley gear with Supreme and Louis Vuitton, which she models with natural ease on her massively popular IG.
Rana Toofanian grabs Kerson at a rare moment between chasing waves, out walking her new German Shepherd puppy in Malibu, to talk about what embarking on a career in women’s surfing means in 2018, where she’s been, and what’s up next.
How did you get into surfing?
I started when I was 11, which is really late compared to other girls. My dad worked at Oakley and was a big surfer and my brother was really into it and I just wanted to copy everything my older brother did.
I was homeschooled so I would surf all day everyday and then go to homeschool at night. My parents built this home in Nicaragua on this world class wave called Colorados so I moved down there and surfed nonstop for three months. The USA Surf Team had these invite-only contests called the USA Primes and me and my dad would go to every contest and sign me up as an alternate just in case some of the girls didn’t show up.
After that they invited me to be on the USA Surf Team. I think just like every sport you need a bit of natural talent, but it’s more than just that. It’s hard work and putting time in the water or on the field or wherever it is.
Who were the surfers you looked up to and admired while you were growing up?
My friend Tia Blanca. She was sponsored by Volcom at a young age. She was the it girl, who could do all the turns.
Any big pro surfers you looked up to?
I was always obsessed with Mick Fanning, who actually just retired. He’s the best. I had a crush on Julian Wilson, he was really cute. For surfing, JohnJohn Florence was my favorite. And Carissa Moore, she is my favorite female surfer. She’s sick.
If you could have someone’s signature move, what would it be?
Andy Irons would do this backside barrel where he wouldn’t grab the rail and he would do a lay back into the barrel and come out of it. Since I was a little kid it has been my all time favorite thing and every time I try I get sucked over and get water in my nose. I’ve seen my brother do it once actually. I’m so jealous.
Does your brother surf in competitions?
No, he does it just for fun. He is an amazing surfer, I look up to him so much for barrels and errors. He went the college route, he doesn’t have one competitive bone in his body. He just went to Berkeley actually, and got a degree in economics.
But you started doing surf competitions, you decided not to go to college.
Well, I actually took a year off and did big wave surfing.
Really? Ok, biggest big wave?
Honestly, like 35 or 40 foot.
So you did a year of big wave surfing. How did you find that different?
Contests are great but it can really take the fun out of surfing sometimes. I went to Tahiti because my dad’s friend lives down there and I was on a boat with this kid Mateo, just watching all the boys out there and it was terrifying, all these massive tsunamis.
He looked at me and all I had on me was my short board and was like, “Do you want to go try?” The swell was picking up and we tried to do a step off, but the swells there have so much power and energy so it takes like 30 minutes for them to come. And the ocean was flat and my heart was racing so hard and I felt like I was going to throw up. He basically told me, “You have the talent to do this, it’s all mental right now,” – I had never done anything that big in my life.
He said it was all mental and you got in and wiped out?
He’s driving on top of the wave and it’s like 30 or 35 feet straight down like a mountain. I jumped off and stood up and my shortboard started shattering at the base. I looked down and saw a boogie boarder and we both had that look of ‘we’re both going to die right now.’ And I fall and we both get sucked over and there’s a video of it. It was nominated at the XXL awards for the biggest men’s wipe out of the year because there’s no women’s division.
I looked down and saw a boogie boarder and we both had that look of ‘we’re both going to die right now.'
When you got out, how did you get motivated to go back in?
I can hold my breath for like 2 minutes and I knew I was under for more than that. But I knew that the biggest rule was to stay calm or else you’re going to waste all your energy and oxygen so I just went like completely limp and I just like let it throw me around. I kind of drowned there, everything was going black but Ray Mona, my dad’s friend, pulled me up by the leash.
He asked if I was ready to do it again and I was bawling because I basically drowned and he was like “no this is a sign, we have to do it today.” So he put the life jacket on me and we caught like 6 more waves that day. It was so much fun.
You just have to do your best to adapt to it and if you freak out it’s not going to help anything, it will make it worse.
What do you think is the biggest lesson you’ve learned through surfing?
I think one lesson I have learned competing is that life really just throws anything at you and you never know what’s going to come. You just have to do your best to adapt to it and if you freak out it’s not going to help anything, it will make it worse. That’s helped me so much in life. Nothing ever goes the way you plan it to, but it always works out.
Do you feel pressure for wanting to be great and surf the best waves because the lifespan of women’s surfing is seen to be shorter than men’s?
I think that a lot of the female surfers have gone to work for the brands they were sponsored by. Like Lisa Anderson, she won world titles and now she’s like the team manager and creative director of Roxy. You’re surfing for this company and they become like family to you. I feel like female surfers haven’t branched out yet, like the way skaters have with streetwear.
So let’s talk about that. You probably have edgier style then any other female surfer. You’re actually into fashion, not just like swimwear or within your category.
I’m very into streetwear, probably way too much. I love mixing it with surfing. For some reason surfers haven’t crossed over into streetwear, but it’s working for me because that’s the direction Hurley wants to take their brand.
A goal for me would be surfing big wave contests, but I also want to have more of a presence in streetwear. I want to be the first surfer to cross over into streetwear. The new Hurley women’s stuff is so cool, and I like to mix that with Supreme and Louis Vuitton. I really think it brings that edge you know. I’m not just another model girl.
What are your experiences on tour with others girls? Do you feel like you missed out on a normal high school experience?
I don’t feel like I missed out. I was texting my friends on prom night, saying I wish I could be there, but they were like, ‘you’re in Barbados!’ I’ve had the opportunity to travel to places and interact with cultures I never would have otherwise.
What is being sponsored and touring with a bunch of other girls like?
As a kid my dream was to be sponsored by Hurley and do trips with them and thinking I’m just going to surf the whole time. We’re waking up at five for photo shoots. And naturally I just want to go surf, I don’t want this stuff on my face, I don’t want my hair curled.
I think it’s really different for the girls. For the guys they are just expected to surf and you’re expected to be so much more well rounded. But the guys just surf. It’s really unfair.
And then there’s a lot of the bikini modeling stuff. Selling women’s clothing is so different than men’s. Girls are definitely expected to do more and then they get paid less, but that’s every industry…