Black Girls Surf is Trailblazing to the Olympics
Rhonda Rokki Harper is taking matters into her own hands when it comes to diversifying the lineup, and she doesn’t intend to stop anywhere short of the Olympics.
With fifteen years of experience as a contest judge under her belt, Rhonda has the expertise to navigate the complex and sometimes pugnacious world of professional surfing. This background lends itself well to her organization, Black Girls Surf, which trains, supports, and represents professional athletes from around the world. Their first trainee is one of the only known women surfers from Senegal, twenty-two year old Khadjou Sambe, who eagerly boarded a plane to California this summer. Professional surfing is her dream, and Black Girls Surf provides the resources to help her achieve it.
“First of all, she’s amazing. That’s number one,” says Rhonda, who has introduced Khadjou to the freezing waters of Santa Cruz. “Second of all, if she has this kind of talent, there’s talent out there that has not even been tapped. It’s just the beginning.”
The two communicate using iTranslate as Khadjou picks up English, which will be her third language. They travel together between the Bay Area and San Diego, observing surf contests, mastering the rules of the sport, fine-tuning diet and exercise routines, and catching waves. She’s quickly learned to navigate advanced breaks like Steamer Lane, a Santa Cruz spot notorious for rogue waves and localism. When someone crosses her, she doesn’t back down. “She stayed timid for maybe two, three waves…then that fourth wave, forget it. She goes for it. She told me her nickname in Senegal is ‘Droppers,’ and now I get it.”
That confidence is precisely the attitude you need to get from the Qualifying Series circuit, where Khadjou is currently competing, to the Championship Tour and the 2020 Olympics. This elite level of surfing is highly competitive. There are hundreds of girls in Khadjou’s division vying for seventeen coveted spots on the CT, and the odds of making it to the Olympics are even slimmer. “[In] any normal olympic sport, you’ve got a whole bunch of amateurs that are not professional — athletes that are not on the circuit,” Rhonda explained. In the unusual case of surfing, which will make its Olympic debut in Japan, eighteen spots have been reserved for CT players. “So you’ve got twelve left, for, what, the entire world? It’s gonna be interesting to see who goes.”
Though surfing’s inclusion in the Olympics has sparked a contentious debate in the surfing community as a whole, career surfers have embraced it. The top athletes want to bask in Olympic glory and reach for gold on the world stage. As professional surfers fixate on this goal, it has indeed been interesting to observe the strategies they use in order to increase their chances of qualifying. Some are willing to use drastic means to achieve this – even pronouncing changes in nationality.
One such example of shifting identities is Tatiana Weston-Webb, current ranking World No. 3 on the championship circuit, who announced a change in affiliation from Hawaii to Brazil following the news of Olympic surfing’s dawn. She was born in Brazil, but has lived in Hawaii since infancy. “Brasil owns a huge part of my heart. I am beyond proud to represent such an amazing country with so much passion and dedication for our sport,” she said in a press release. “While this change gives me the opportunity to represent Brasil in 2020, all spots have to be earned and I'll be trying my best to qualify as one of the few surfers able to represent their countries in the Olympics.” Rhonda is not amused with this transparent career move. “There’s a whole Brazilian team down there, so does that mean that she bumped somebody else? There are kids now already up at five o’clock in the morning trying to practice so that they can qualify; are you gonna bump one of them out because you didn’t want to be from Hawaii this time? It’s almost criminal.”
The top ten men and eight women from the CT will go to the Olympics, but only two from each country per division. The only Brazilian currently on the women’s CT is Silvana Lima, who ranks World No. 11. To get a spot on the U.S. team, Weston-Webb would have to compete against the entire U.S./Hawaii CT contingent, including the likes of three-time world champion Carissa Moore and rising star Lakey Peterson. By representing Brazil, Weston-Webb is circumventing competition. “That’s the thing that I’m watching. I’m watching how this is actually playing out when you use all these countries of color to qualify for the Olympics. Let’s see how color-filled the Olympics actually are.”
Just days after we discussed this issue, Rhonda and Khadjou received some unwelcome news from the Senegalese Surfing Federation, the organization responsible for compiling the national team. In preparation for the ISA World Games in Japan, an important first step in qualifying for the Olympics, they’ve elected to support a white surfer with ties to Senegal. This athlete, Margot Chevance, was born in France, and states in her athlete profile on the ISA website: “I really hope my participation will help Senegalese girls to live their passion of surfing out loud. We are less than 10 Senegalese girls in the water today.” She said that she doesn’t know why Khadjou didn’t get to participate; there are three spots after all. Rhonda says it’s because the Federation dropped the ball. Black Girls Surf had just completed a successful fundraising campaign to cover Khadjou’s travel to the games.
The FSS (Fédération Sénégalaise de Surf) is on the defensive as they’re met with an outpouring of rage from BGS supporters. Souleye Mbengue, the Secretary of FSS, was eager to provide answers to some of my shoddily-translated questions. “First, we do not even know if Senegal will have representatives at the Olympics. Look on the site of ISA [and] you will know that there are very few places for nations. We sincerely hope to have representatives. And at this moment no athlete, man or woman, can be designated to say that he will represent Senegal. ISA has set the teams to three at most – three men and three women. So no one has taken the place of anyone.” He did not offer an explanation for their lack of support for Khadjou’s participation in the ISA world games.
In the struggle to make it to the first ever Olympics, Rhonda observes a troublesome pattern of redistributing top athletes to countries where surfing is less developed. What’s the point of having national teams in the Olympics if people can represent countries in which their “roots” are questionable? Mbengue pointed to the fact that no one knows if Senegal will even make it to the 2020 Olympics – but if they’re not going to be represented by African surfers, they’ve given up already in the eyes of their own surfing community.
For BGS, this setback is nothing but a bump in the road. Khadjou doesn’t need Team Senegal; surfing is, after all, an individual sport. She’s already moving forward and preparing for an upcoming QS event in Costa Rica. They plan to keep training, competing, fighting, and fundraising their way up the WSL ranks. Rhonda has several more African athletes lined up to come to California, who will train under her as Khadjou moves on to learn from other BGS coaches in California and around the world. The Olympics could still be in reach.
Fundraising is a key part of this scheme. The pro surfing lifestyle comes with onerous costs – international travel, contest fees, equipment – and athlete rankings are based on the points system, so the more events Khadjou competes in, the larger her chances of making it to the top. "If she was sponsored to go to every single event, she'd qualify for the CT by 2019," Rhonda says. In addition to crowdfunding, Rhonda designs and sells hats and t-shirts to support her athletes. Apparel is the heart of the surfing business, and the success of many surfers, especially women, can be attributed to modeling contracts with large companies that bankroll their participation in events. “Every time you get a champion, that company starts promoting their hats and t-shirts. As soon as they win, they pop on a hat, before they even do the interview. I have to do the same thing for these girls.”
Even if Khadjou doesn’t make it through to the 2020 Olympics, BGS has already achieved enormous progress. They’re setting a precedent and sending a loud and clear message: Black Girls Surf. Despite the challenges they’ve faced, Rhonda is optimistic about the future of inclusion and equality in surfing and beyond. "It’s been a patriarchy for so long, that now that the girls are finally speaking up, the girls of color, everybody’s starting to say, 'Let’s start over from scratch. Let’s go forward.' It’s a refresher. It wasn’t always like this, so I’m glad we can see the light at the end of the tunnel now." There are no limits to what a team like hers can accomplish.