Slaying Dragons

Sarah Gerhardt on Surfing and the Mind-Body Connection

Originally published in Santa Cruz Waves Magazine.

Rather than sitting down for an interview, Sarah Gerhardt asks if we can go for a walk along West Cliff Drive. “My natural state of existence is very anxious,” she admits. Well known in the surf community as the first woman to ride the giant waves of Mavericks, the 47-year-old grew up with a bipolar father and a quadriplegic mother. As young children, Gerhardt and her sister often found themselves homeless, and they served as primary caregivers for their wheelchair-bound mother.

“It’s very well proven that people who experience adverse childhood events just kind of get stuck in this fight-or-flight with a really high level of cortisol at all times,” Gerhardt says.

We walk past the reef at Swift Street, where Gerhardt and her husband Mike, who is also an accomplished surfer, pray together before paddling out on big days. “We both like to set an intention before surfing,” she explains. “My intention is, ‘I want to be kind.’”

Gerhardt, who is Christian, often finds a connection between surfing and faith. “I think that surfers can recognize that feeling,” she says. “You’re still in your body, you’re still in your mind, but you have this experience that puts you in touch with something beyond yourself.”

Gerhardt learned to surf in Pismo Beach, venturing to the waves every morning after dressing and feeding her mother. Intuition and opportunity led Gerhardt toward bigger waves and eventually Mavericks, but she didn’t catch any waves the first two times she paddled out.

“I felt disappointed,” she recalls. “It was so much heavier than I imagined. The pictures don’t do it justice.”

Richard “Frosty” Hesson — part of the original crew to surf Mavericks — remembers Gerhardt sitting in the channel, studying the waves during one of her early sessions. Noting her calm, confident demeanor and analytical approach, he saw the writing on the wall and predicted that she would be the first woman to slay a dragon of a wave at Mavericks.

“Sarah and the Big Wave,” a children’s book memorializing Gerhardt’s first wave at Mavericks, came out earlier this year. On a clear afternoon in November, children eagerly line up for autographed copies of the book at Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz. Gerhardt answers their questions and offers words of encouragement.

“She doesn’t surf for competition or accolades or attention,” says the author, Bonnie Tsui. “I have a wonderful sense of her as a person who really knows who she is — surfing is an integral part of that, but so is being a chemistry instructor, a wife, a mother, and a devoted member of her community.”

Noah, 16, and Naomi, 15, complete the Gerhardt family. According to Gerhardt, she caught one of her best waves at Mavericks while pregnant with Naomi, though she didn’t know it yet. The 2020-21 season was the first one since her pregnancy with Noah that Gerhardt didn’t surf Mavericks. With Mike laid up due to shoulder surgery and both kids learning from home due to the pandemic, Gerhardt couldn’t risk a head injury.

“My desire for surfing has not changed, but my priorities have changed,” she says. Whether it’s surfing Steamer Lane for 30 minutes or going for a paddle at Cowell Beach on a flat day, she still gets in the water as often as possible. “I’m very much in tune with how I’m feeling physically and emotionally and will choose where I surf based on that.”

It doesn’t always have to be giant mavericks for Sarah to find her happy place. Photo: Charlie Witmer

Gerhardt uses a self-built health tracker to keep the dragons of anxiety and depression in check, rating different components of physical, mental, and spiritual health on a scale of 1-5. She also maintains a daily practice of writing in a journal, and she makes a point to do something outside every day. Still, there is no replacement for surfing.

“There’s nothing like it in my life,” she says. “Nothing else provides me that mirror into who I am, how I am, how I can relate with people better.”

A pioneer in the sport of surfing and someone who has overcome adversity to build a successful career and loving family, Gerhardt is an exceptional role model. At a time when women are raising the bar not only in surfing but also in a plethora of sports, she is an especially valuable example.

“Our culture, our society, is still after all these years very male-centric, and the power dynamic around that … is going to take a really long time to change,” Gerhardt says. “I don’t think society and corporate structures are going to catch up as fast as women are excelling.”

The end of “Sarah and the Big Wave” features a list of milestones in the history of women and surfing, which acknowledges many of the people and organizations that have furthered gender equality in the sport.

“All of us need someone outside of our direct circle to validate, support and acknowledge that we’re capable: ‘I believe in you,’” says “Frosty” Hesson. “That was my message to Sarah, and that is her message to young girls.”

“Sarah and the Big Wave” is available for purchase at Bookshop Santa Cruz. To learn more about Sarah Gerhardt, watch her documentary, “One Winter Story,” by Sally Lundburg and Elizabeth Pepin.

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