My Experience in an Unwinnable Battle

Olivia Roberts surfing a competitive heat in Huntington Beach during the 2022-2023 surf season. Photo credit to Hannah Stacy.

Steamer Lane, Santa Cruz. I throw my surfboard off a ledge on the side of the cliff and jump in after it, four guys in my heat. I take a deep breath to calm the pre-competition nerves and the ones that tell me this time will be like all the rest — unsuccessful. 

I start to paddle to the competition zone, a singular peak where all six of us will sit. I engage in a light conversation with one of the guys in my heat thinking, “Maybe he’ll go easy on me” — a thought I so ignorantly believed. 

The buzzer rings signaling the start of a 15-minute heat that felt grudgingly long and short all at the same time. 

Since the wave crashes against the cliff, I sit as close to it as possible, hoping to gain priority over the first wave. A wave comes and I start to paddle, but one of my competitors is quicker than me. He paddles around me and catches the wave. One missed opportunity. 

I sit next to the rock again and wait for the next wave. I paddled but once again was beat to the peak. This cycle continued until I paddled closer to the shore and caught an inside wave, one that didn’t have as much size and likely wouldn’t be scored as high as the waves I was battling for earlier on.

“Olivia Roberts’ last wave was a 1.2, which puts her in fifth and needing a 4.47 for advancement,” said the commentator over the speaker. 

I’ve never scored over a three in a competition since joining the National Scholastic Surfing Association (NSSA) college division — a reality I had to come to terms with after having a successful high school surfing career. Junior and senior year of high school I placed second in the women’s longboard division at league finals. However, for the past two years in college, I haven’t advanced from a single heat. Advancement requires placing third or above in a heat. 

The difference in results lies in the fact that the NSSA has no women’s longboard division. NSSA refers to this division as “college longboard,” meaning it is co-ed. Unfortunately for the women, the division is mostly made up of men because the majority of the teams are only granted one to three longboard representatives to put into competitions. This means that women wanting to be on the longboard team have to try out against the men for their spot on the roster. 

Back against the rock, I balance on my surfboard waiting for a wave that would give me the score I need to advance. 

I hear the announcer list off the names and scores of my competitors, wave after wave after wave. I still couldn’t catch one. As cliche as it sounds, at this point, it wasn’t only a battle against those in the water with me, but one in my head. I was beginning to feel the same feelings as I had felt in every competition prior. I was discouraged and felt the heat was over before the time was even up. 

I stood up on one last wave, gained another score in the 1’s and placed fifth out of six people. I paddle in and make it to the stairs that lead to where my teammates would be. I wasn’t all that shocked at the outcome; I had told people for weeks leading up that I knew I probably wouldn’t advance. Still, a part of me hoped this time might have ended differently.