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 bizarre, overwhelmingly white, and somewhat corrupt 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 during the summer of 2018. 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 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 communicated using iTranslate as Khadjou practiced English, which is her third language. They travelled 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 needed to ascend from the Qualifying Series circuit, where Khadjou is currently competing, to the Championship Tour and the 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 at the 2020 Games 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, some have employed creative strategies to increase their chances of qualifying – including changing the country they’ll represent.
One such example of shifting identities is Tatiana Weston-Webb, a top surfer on championship circuit, who announced a change in affiliation from Hawaii to Brazil following the news of surfing’s inclusion in the Olympics. She was born in Brazil and speaks the language, but has lived in Hawaii since infancy.
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,” says Rhonda. “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 frustration 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 the lack of support shown to Khadjou.
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 surfers can change their nationalities? Souleye 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 was 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 Qualifying Series events. 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.