Checking in with the high-flying Santa Barbaran just past the halfway point of the 2014 pro surfing season – and what drives her towards winning her first world title
ON ANY GIVEN DAY AT LOWER TRESTLES, a point break in San Clemente, California, depending on the tide, a wave with a typical height of four-to-five feet roils out from the Pacific and heads towards shore every few seconds, rippling into the reefy cobblestone peak of San Onofre State Beach in north San Diego County with spoiling consistency, perfect corduroy on repeat.
On June 28, 2009, Lakey Peterson launched her surfing career off the face of one of those waves.
Peterson, then 14-years old and barely three years into surfing seriously, much less into her career, dropped into a peeling right and took off down the line. Already possessing a pro’s skill for any number of a slew of moves, from cutbacks to powerful snaps, even the sweeping, majestic backhand of her family friend and idol, Tom Curren. Next came the unexpected, at least to anyone other than Peterson. Charging down the face of the wave, she launched into the air and landed the first aerial maneuver in a women’s surfing competition – at any level – thus stamping her introduction as the face of the women’s modern surfing progression.
Her two wave score of 16.75 gave her the NSSA National Women’s Open title – the top event in amateur women’s surfing – beating fellow Californian and event favorite Courtney Conlogue and a pair of Hawaiians, Malia Manuel and Nage Melamed, in the final.
The last five years have been a whirlwind for Peterson, which includes winning arguably the biggest surf contest in the world in 2012, the US Open of Surfing, making an acclaimed documentary, as well as keeping a steady place in the top ten of women’s surfing. All the while continuing to add moves to her arsenal she crafted as a child on the Santa Barbara point breaks from El Capitan to Rincon as well as at Lowers, one of Peterson’s favorite spots on tour. Last year the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) announced both the men’s and women’s pro tours were returning to the wave which set Peterson’s career in motion.
“Yeah, I’m so excited for Trestles,” says Peterson, 19, over Skype last week from her home in Santa Barbara, the Southern California seaside mecca that such surfing luminaries such as world champions Curren, Kelly Slater, and Shaun Thomson as well as the surf troubadour Jack Johnson have called home. Next week she travels close to three hours south to San Clemente for stop Number Seven on the 2014 ASP Women’s World Championship Tour (WCT) at the Swatch Women’s Pro Trestles.
“The last time I surfed it in a contest, was 14 for Nationals,” she continues. “Everyone says this, but it’s the pinnacle of high performance surfing – that wave. It brings out really the best surfers, it’s not wave-catching contests, it’s not just a barrel. There’s so much variety you can do with the wave, so I get excited because if you have swell, and it’s consistent, it really showcases the level of surfing, and for me, that’s what I’m about.
Radiant and relaxed as she is fiercely competitive, Peterson is again ready for the spotlight at her old stomping grounds.
“What I want to show is my surfing, and for all the girls, I’m excited to see everyone surf. I think it’s going to be one of the best contests for women’s surfing ever, this one. Yeah, I’ve been putting a ton of time in, [Lowers] is obviously a really special place for me, it’s been a big place for turning points in my career…yeah, I would love to take it out,” she admits, smiling wide, laughing.
Since turning pro in 2011 at the age of 16, Peterson continues her steep ascension in the sport she dabbled with as a youngster growing up in Montecito. That year, she finished runner-up in the 2011 US Open of Surfing after entering as a wildcard – going on to win the contest the following year. She is now at the forefront of the modern women’s surfing movement.
She is currently the 6th ranked female surfer in the world, recently coming off a fifth-place result at the U.S. Open of Surfing in July at Huntington Beach. At the age of three she took to the waves for the first time, riding atop a longboard with a friend of her mother’s. Two years later, while on a three-month stop in Manly Beach, Australia during a yearlong trip around the world with her family, Peterson began surfing.
It would be another six years before she rediscovered the sport with the same determination.
Born into a family of athletes, Peterson’s mother Sue was an Olympic swimmer who held the world record in the 50-meter freestyle and her father David was a triathlete. Her older sister Whitney played tennis at the University of Southern California and brother Parker starred for Pepperdine’s water polo team. As a child Lakey showed she was a natural athlete, playing soccer, water polo and developing into a rising tennis talent. While surfing was an interest early on in her life, it was a hobby compared to the sports she played competitively growing up. Around the age of eleven, when most of her soon-to-be competition had been active in the sport from the time they could walk, Lakey Peterson was ready to give surfing her best shot.
“I always loved surfing,” Peterson says. “I never strayed away from it…I never didn’t do it, but I was really, really into tennis and the direction I was going was going to be a tennis player. I guess when I was eleven, I kind of circled back to it.
“The first time it was – my neighbor started taking us out – he has a son about my age – we would always play and the dad would surf a ton, so the dad started taking us out, like ‘Oh, let’s go surf, we live right by the beach.’ So, when I was eleven it was the time when I really wasn’t on a soft top – it was the first time I really started surfing, looking back on it – little bit bigger waves, and a shorter board.”
That winter, Santa Barbara was getting consistent swell, and Peterson took full advantage of the waves being offered her way. “I think it was just that first time I got the true sensation and feeling of surfing a wave fully,” she recalls of that winter. “And because I got to surf more, I started to kind of progress a little in that one winter time frame, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh,’ as I’m getting better and ‘I’m liking this more.’ I got to a point where I could really start trying new things – I could see the progression – and it wasn’t just riding a Doyle straight, you know, it was more than that, so I think that’s what hooked me. ‘Oh man, I’m outta tennis,’ she says, laughing. ‘This is so much better!’”
With a family to support her drive and determination, Lakey began entering – and winning – amateur surf competitions throughout Southern California and soon to follow, around the world.
“Yeah, my family’s been really supportive, and like you said, everyone’s pretty active. [My mom] was always a really big force and kinda knew what it took. My dad’s really athletic and my brother and sister as well. I think, just growing up with an atmosphere of people who understand what you have to do to be successful in, at least, athletics, and in life…I just feel like I got really blessed with my family situation – the people that were behind me and just driving me. My mom and I used to, not anymore, but used to be like, pretty head bumping,” she grins, bumping her fists together. “‘I don’t want to surf much, Mom, I don’t want to go today!’ She was definitely the driving force for a little while there. Looking back, I’m so glad she made me continue to pursue it.”
Along with her parents’ early support, Peterson spent plenty of time in her youth hitting the point breaks around Santa Barbara with Tom Curren and his sons Nathan and Pat. When your neighbor happens to be a three-time world champion and an icon of the sport, surfing is an offer you can’t refuse. Legendary Channel Islands shaper Al Merrick – also a Santa Barbara resident – is a friend of the family. Peterson says both have been inspirational to her in different ways coming up through surfing’s ranks.
“Yeah, its crazy…the amount of surfing legends, or icons of surfing, that comes out of Santa Barbara, for such a small town,” she says. “The waves are really good when they’re good, but its not like its Australia. Because its a tight-knit town and its so small, growing up with people like the Currens – you know, Tom has two sons, and I would surf with them every single day, and Tom would just kinda drag us to the beach and throw sunscreen on us…we would just surf all day long. He would come in and change our fins, and I don’t know what he would do to our boards,” she remembers, laughing.
Peterson admits her mother surfs a lot these days but growing up she wasn’t born into a surfing family familiar with the culture. “So I think being around people like the Merricks and Tom, who obviously were at the pinnacle of the surf culture, sort of really helped me in my career. To understand surfing a bit better and understand the vibe of it, because its not like other sports. Its a lot more, I guess, the feeling of stuff…you can’t force it, and I think in like a lot of other sports, you can force it…Yeah, I think it just brought a good balance for me, and it helped me understand the culture a bit better.”
In every sport, each new generation brings a torchbearer to move the sport forward, and for women’s surfing it appears Peterson is the one. I ask Peterson about her mindset and feelings on competitively pursuing the sport at such a later age than most pros and if she thought she would progress the sport as much as she has done so far.
“Yeah, well…I’ve always been super-competitive, just by nature, in everything, and I still am. If I’m playing ping-pong or something, I’m so into it, and all about it,” she laughs heartily. “So I think, for me, when I kinda came back around to surfing, got more into it when I was 11 or 12.
“I felt like there was so much that could be achieved that girls didn’t think they could achieve, if that makes sense. I felt there’s this roadblock on women’s surfing, like, ‘No, girls can’t do that.’ Maybe this was a blessing in disguise that I didn’t know much about the culture, because maybe growing up in it, I’d think the same thing. I came from a perspective of tennis, where its ‘Why not?’ and ‘Why? If guys are doing it…’ You know, whatever, we’ll progress it…
“I just came from this place with a lot of enthusiasm, a fresh mind and outlook on surfing, I wasn’t burned out – a lot of kids by the time they’re eleven, they’ve been doing it for 11 years by the time they’re eleven,” she laughs. “So I think I just had the perspective and that was the big driving force. Just work really hard and have a lot of dedication, because it was all so new to me.”
With her dedication to surfing and life, Peterson has become an inspiration to many around the world, first overcoming an affliction with dyslexia during her childhood years, always thankful for those who helped her along the way and mindful of those who struggled as well as the lesser fortunate. Even in her early teens, Peterson became a spokeswoman for numerous nonprofit organizations, including Hands 4 Others (H40), the Student Conservation Association (SCA) and countless hospitals, giving back to benefit third world countries, conservation and many in need across the world. In 2013, she teamed up with filmmaker Aaron Lieber to make Zero to 100, a documentary detailing the highs and lows of Peterson’s inspiring journey to becoming a pro surfer. Lieber and Peterson met when Lieber was an editor on the 2011 Nike women’s surf film Leave A Message and Peterson was wearing the Swoosh – prior to the Nike to Hurley transition – and the two struck up a pairing based on similar visions.
“I think that…just kudos to the people that are sort of my team and my family around me, they always taught me how important it is to give back, whether you’re in a position like I’m in or whether you’re just living life like every other – I am like every other person, but I have sort of this platform that I can reach a lot of people and I have followers and this and that, so I can really voice my opinion and it speaks pretty loud, comparably speaking to any other average 19-year old.
“I think I’ve just always had it in my heart to want to give or be involved with stuff,” she admits, “so just knowing that all growing up and from a young age, it was not like this thing, ‘well you have to…now you have to help other people…you have to inspire other people’…that’s just what you do, and so, yeah, its been cool, because I have this unique platform that not everyone gets to have, so I just try and utilize that platform and use it to create awareness of things and be a positive influence in ways that are good, and also learn from it. Its a cool opportunity to meet people and learn from people who are running charities and organizations. Its been really cool to be involved.”
Peterson’s constant travel and commitments keep her away from home around eight months a year. With all that travel and time put into events, how does she maintain a balance with pro surfing for much of the year and spending time with family and friends?
“Yeah, that’s a good question,” she replies. “Its funny, I think a lot of people look at my life or a pro surfer’s life – and not to discredit them, because they’re absolutely right – but I think they just say, ‘Oh my gosh, you’ve got it so easy,’ in a way, and like, ‘life’s so good,’ …Yes, life is ridiculous,” she laughs, beaming a wide smile. “My life…being a professional surfer is just dreamy. Its stupid… But, so, I’m not saying that. What I think people don’t realize the work it takes, and traveling that much is really taxing and being away from your family and sleeping in a different bed every week and a half, its hard.
“You kind of just have to figure it out,” she admits. “Its really important to have a good team around you as well…I always have a family member come, or a good friend come, and Mike’s always there, so I’ve been lucky enough to create this good team of people with me, and it doesn’t get too lonely, or this or that…there’s definitely…you have breakdowns along the way,” she laughs. So its definitely taxing after a little while, but on the flip side, the positive outweighs the negative of it so much, getting to travel and see the cultures, and people and experience life, as I’ve gotten to, is so unique and special, so I don’t take that for granted. Its so much fun at the same time.”
Over the past two-and-a-half years, former pro and famed big-wave surfer Mike ‘Snips’ Parsons has been Peterson’s go-to guy for training and preparation, ensuring she’s ready and in the right mindset for every contest. Parsons has helped manage Peterson’s career, though this year she brought Parsons on as an exclusive, full-time coach, and he travels with her to every event on tour.
“Yeah, working with ‘Snips’ has been incredible. He’s always sort of been in my corner, but this year, I hired him to be my full-on, 100% coach and he comes everywhere, all my events…I’ve never done that with anyone – I’ve never had a full-on, hands-on coach, and he just coaches me.
“Its been so cool, to feel like I have direction now, if that makes sense,” she continues. “Before I did have direction – a few people were in my ear giving me bits and pieces, but now everything is so analyzed – all the boards, and every wave, all the footage review,” she says, smiling in wonder. “Having someone with that much knowledge and that can just be there to encourage you and also keep you level-headed, everything, he’s just really good to have, in my corner for a lot of different reasons. For my surfing, its been great, I just want to learn and progress, and I feel like he’s helping me do that. Its been awesome,” she laughs.
Another inspiring presence on tour for Lakey is her close friendship with five-time world champ and fellow world tour competitor, Stephanie Gilmore from Australia.
“I think you hit it on the head when you said Steph. I’m good friends with her, and she’s obviously mastered it, she’s won five world titles and she’s a little bit older than everyone else. I mean she’s not old by anything, she’s only 25…but I just think that she has a really good approach to not only surfing but life. I think she doesn’t let things overwhelm her…At least she doesn’t show those emotions that often, if they do.
“She really just loves surfing and embraces everything about it, and I think that a lot of times, you can get strayed from the path a little bit, and I think Steph is really good at looking at the big picture and enjoying it all – taking it all for what its worth – and obviously an amazing surfer and competitor. But she’s not sharing her secrets,” Peterson confesses, laughing. “But, yeah, I really enjoy spending time with her and I look up to her a lot.”
Peterson is again working with Lieber on a performance section, filming a section between her stops due to be released around the same time the women’s tour heads to Snapper Rocks on Australia’s Gold Coast. “Really short, probably [long enough for] one song, so whatever a song is, three and a half minutes or so, I’m basically working on releasing the best surfing that I can possibly do, in three minutes, so…between trips, and there’s a lot of different art angles we want to take with it, make it a little bit different than just surfing. We want to do a few other cool stuff with it. So yeah, I’m working on that right now, and trying to get as much footage and what not for it, so it should be cool.”
At the Swatch Women’s Pro at Lowers, in the opening round of competition, Peterson faced South African Bianca Buitendag and Frenchwoman Johanne Defay, finishing a close second to Buitendag. Moving to the second round, Peterson dispatched Paige Hareb of New Zealand by almost four points. Round three saw her with a third place finish against her friend Gilmore and France’s Pauline Ado.
In Round 4, an elimination round, Peterson squares off against reigning world champ and current world number one Carissa Moore – trading waves early in the heat, with Peterson finding the better of the two surfers. A section rolls in, and she takes to the sky, landing an air reverse to take a 7.50, followed by a ripping 8.17 to finish with a 15.67 to Moore’s 12.76. Moore is dethroned, making way for Australian ripper Sally Fitzgibbons to take the current Number One ranking. The victory is reminiscent of when Peterson upset Moore in the semifinals of the 2011 US Open of Surfing, her first year on tour at the largest surf contest in the world. Peterson would lose to Fitzgibbons in the final, yet captured the Junior Women’s final the day before and started making a name for herself on the world stage.
“You have to surf the best you can to beat her,” Peterson tells the ASP in a post-heat interview, after defeating Moore, the defending world champ. Peterson now moves onto the quarterfinals, where she will face Hawaiian Coco Ho. With three events remaining on the tour calendar this season, the title race is still open and should Peterson not contend by year’s end, expect her to begin the 2015 season with a focus second to none.
Since her rookie year on the World Tour, despite the ups and downs, the victories and struggles, Lakey continues her relentless dedication to becoming a world champ. Of the six events, Peterson has four top 5 finishes, twice placing a disappointing thirteenth. At times her results in contests doesn’t show the time and effort she puts into learning the wave or the maneuvers, something Peterson is aware of and constantly working to improve, as well as her consistency. Being familiar with winning on the largest of stages, what does she feel she needs to take her revolutionary surfing to even another level?
“Good question,” she replies, thinking for a moment. “Gosh, there’s so much I need to work on, and I’m always learning. Its always a never-ending journey of learning and improving, but I think a big thing recently is getting my consistency up, especially in heats. I find that a lot of times…its really weird if you go back and look at my history, of my track record of contests, I’ll have, like the highest score of the day – a lot of times I’d get like a 9, and then, I’ll have like a 4 or a 5…so its getting the consistency. I know I can get the 9s, because generally I get the highest heat total.
“I’ll have one super, super good heat…so its just finding the consistency where I can do that almost every time – which obviously you’re going to have bad heats – but just knowing…I know I can get those scores, so how do I apply that to each heat and be really smart about it? I’m still a bit up and down, I think, so that consistency level and then there’s a lot of ways I want to improve my surfing, but continue to be stronger in bigger surf, that’s a really big one for me right now. I’ll spend a lot of time in Hawaii this winter, and going back to Fiji, so get consistent in that…There’s always just wanting to progress the sport to do bigger and better.”
We talk a few moments about her preparation for Lower Trestles. When she was fourteen she spent just short of forty hours in the week leading up to the contest preparing for and mastering the wave, ready for the moment when she needed to shine.
And as for her return to Lowers, I ask her about landing another air this year. The always-sunny Santa Barbaran laughs at the thought of what would eventually happen in her thrilling heat against Moore. “I hope so! Hopefully you’ll see quite a few of them. The wave is so picture-perfect for doing airs and progressive [maneuvers] like blow tails and stuff like that, so yeah, I would love to stomp a few, and I’m sure a couple of the girls will be stomping a few as well.”
And then, as if she is speaking of her own meteoric-and-still-rising career at the pinnacle of women’s surfing, Lakey Peterson offers a final note on the event which has taken her career to new heights.
“Its going to be fun to watch.”