Photo by Steve Gaffney

The Santa Monica High School surf team does not have an easy ride. 

As they are technically a club and not an official sport team, they lack privileges afforded to other Samohi teams or regional surf teams like a salaried coach or the ability to alter their class schedule for competitions or practice. They further are disadvantaged by the consistently poor waves available locally and, when compared to rival teams’ home cities of Manhattan Beach or Palos Verdes, the lack of a distinct surf culture to generate a wide talent pool of surfers.

In team members’ own words, it feels like the study body doesn’t know they exist.

Yet despite this, the Samohi Surf Team is producing powerhouse surfers, who are racking up competitive victories, including an impressive team win against the historically dominant Palos Verdes surf team. 

“It’s a big victory because there’s a bunch of schools with surf teams that have surfing as their first period. They’re from beach towns and all that and Santa Monica never really had that. This was kind of a breakthrough win for us,” said Ethan Foley, Senior Co-Captain.

The competition was a nail-biter and came down to the scoring in the final heat with Samohi clinching a 77-72 win against Palos Verdes High School.

The Samohi team is also blazing the way for women in surfing. It has the only female coach in the South Bay Scholastic Surfing Association and is the only team to put female surfers into boys heats.

Girls competing in boys heats is almost unheard of and only came into being through many years of persistent effort from Samohi coach Marion Clark, who has long been frustrated by the fewer competition spots open to female surfers. Although the Samohi competition team has a 50/50 gender split, competitions typically have three times as many boys heats as girls heats. 

“Any guy heat I participate in, if I get third or above, I’m stoked for that, because it shows like even though I am a woman and there’s so many things trying to exclude me in the top surfing world, when I’m matched up against guys it shows my skill level just as a surfer and it’s not relating to whether I’m a woman or whether I’m a dude,” said Junior Co-Captain Genevieve Nevius. 

Nevius like Clark is frustrated with the way that the women’s competitions are deprioritized by organizers. She once drove an hour to arrive at a competition at 7 a.m. only to be told that the first women’s heat wouldn’t run until 1 p.m. Not feeling up to waiting for six hours to surf in the windier and less optimal conditions, she simply turned around and went home.

According to Clark, the main reason competitions offer less spots for women is because there is a smaller pool of female competitive surfers, but she doesn’t think this is the way competitions have to be run. She spent years trying to get the Scholastic Surf Series to open more spaces for women, until ultimately giving up and forming her own Ohana Nalu local surf series. 

“Every year we would ask (the Scholastic Surf Series) can we get more spots for girls and every year they’d be like sure and nothing ever happened, and after five years of listening to this, it became clear that they were never going to do anything; they were never going to make a difference,” said Clark.

When her Samohi surfers were yearning to compete against surfers from a broader geographic area, she brought them into the South Bay Scholastic Surfing Association, but only on the condition that she could enter her team members into any heat regardless of their gender. To her shock, the association agreed. 

“I consider a team a team. I’m not really looking at gender. I’m putting team people in spots,” said Clark. “That’s how I think about surfing because the waves in the ocean have no idea if you’re advanced or beginner, if you’re really wealthy or if you’re not, where you live relative to the ocean or how you (gender) identify.”

There are several factors behind the underrepresentation of female surfers. Traditionally, it has been a male dominated sport, which can create an unwelcoming environment for girls to paddle out into. Advanced surfing also demands a high level of physical strength and bravery.

“I think that girls don’t get into surfing because it’s such a testosterone driven sport,” said Nevius. “A lot of girls from the beginning of when they’re even like born are steered away from any type of high level sport. It’s also just hard for us to be the only girl out there; like a lot of the times that I’m in the lineup I am one of the only girls.”

There is also a cultural factor as the sport is sometimes not considered appropriate for girls and parents won’t often encourage their girls to pursue it. 

“I’ll never forget there’s this father at Samo(hi)… I said is your daughter interested in surfing and being on the surf team?’ And he looked at me and said ‘you know, mamas don’t let their boys grow up to be cowboys and fathers shouldn’t let their daughters grow up to be surfers,” said Sarah Wauters, who is Genevieve Nevius’s mother.

Even while Wauters is incredibly proud of what Nevius has accomplished as a surfer, she said that there are challenges that come with her being a female in the sport. For example, as a mother, it is less than ideal to have her teenage daughter disappear for hours at a time on the weekends to go surf with her surf buddies in Orange County. Paulis noted that this lack of supervision would never be the norm in a sport like soccer or volleyball and added that there are some rough characters who surf.

“When I go to any spot it’s mainly just male dominated and I only kind of feel very comfortable when I’m surfing when I have a friend with me or like obviously when I’m with the team,” said Sofia White, who is Junior Co-Captain with Nevius.  “You kind of want to have a better community of girls so that you feel more secure and it doesn’t feel kind of like you’re just singled out.” 

The Samohi Surf Team is an anomaly in the league when it comes to its high rate of female participation. This is in no small part due to the leadership of Clark, who follows in the footsteps of her mother who helped establish the Women’s International Surfing Association, which has now merged with the World Surf League. 

“The main reason why my dad really pushed me to do it (join the team) is because Marion is a female coach and he really wanted me to be influenced by her because he knew how male dominated surfing is,” said White. 

White also said that Clark is an excellent coach for both boys and girls and has witnessed some less than ideal male coaching of female surfers at competitions, including a coach verbally berating a girl for lacking the strength to paddle out in rough conditions. 

Nevius and White have achieved remarkable feats under Clark’s coaching, including placing third and fourth respectively in the open women’s division at a recent South Bay Boardriders Club contest in El Porto. Samohi Senior Co-Captains Ethan Foley and Beau Werger also performed impressively, clinching second and fifth place respectively in the juniors division. 

“Marion is literally like my second mom,” said Nevius, adding that Clark has a long list of skills including excellent knowledge of how to maintain her team’s physical health and knowledge of every team members’ strengths and weaknesses in their respective surfing techniques. 

It is this skill set and level of care that has enabled Clark to bring her underdog team to notable victories. She also initiated away practices where she takes surfers to better breaks outside of Santa Monica.

“Santa Monica is not the best of waves when you want to learn how to do new things and get good waves, and so we started doing Saturday practices where we’d go to spots where the contest would be and I think that’s really helped out the team,” said Senior Co-Captain Beau Werger.

On top of this, Clark’s most determined surfers are putting in extra sessions as much as they can, traveling up and down the coast to sleuth out the best surf. 

“Anytime I have a chance to get a ride somewhere, I’m taking it; like any sacrifices on the weekend or whatever it has to be to go travel to better waves, because that’s really where the improvement comes from,” said Sophomore Captain Graham Slater.

The Samohi team is working to create a new reputation for Santa Monica, which is not known for producing competitive surfers. The team has also welcomed many new surfers and is working to train them to competition excellence. For example, freshman Arden Hittner has been a rising star at practice and competition and Graham Slater is already shredding on a shortboard after only starting surfing during the pandemic. 

“If you go out anywhere and you say you’re from Santa Monica that’s not the most respected place, because there hasn’t been generations of surfers there that raise each other,” said Slater.  “It’s kind of a new thing arising.”

Clara@smdp.com