The Case of Carissa’s Wildcard

Does the world's best female surfer have a place in men's events?

Carissa may be a champion among the ladies, but should that grant her a pass into men's events?

Before I even get started, it’s imperative that I get one thing clear: Carissa Moore is the best female surfer of all time. The best tuberider, the best aerialist, and the best at putting it on a rail. And she’s getting better every day. Her surfing has what the top women of yesteryear dreamed of having—flare that transcends gender. But she’s also the humble, perpetually smiling sweetheart of the surfing world, which is why I like her, why you probably like her, and why this is difficult to write.

No female surfer is more deserving of comparison to male counterparts, and I’ve personally witnessed Carissa laying hacks into overhead walls at Rocky Rights that left me feeling instantly and utterly emasculated. But—and this is a pretty big but—should her rising star in the world of women’s surfing outshine the ability of an entire field of lesser-known rippers in the men’s competitive surfing sphere? Should she have been granted a coveted wildcard into a men’s contest over a sea of aspiring and capable candidates? I am, of course, speaking of the golden ticket granted to her for the Haleiwa and Sunset Triple Crown events, and her subsequent showings at both.

I didn’t watch every heat of both events. The surf at Haleiwa looked less like the stuff of North Shore legend and more like an impersonation of the beachbreak down the street from my house when the swell is nil and the wind is like a kiteboarder’s wet dream. However, the surf at Sunset thus far has had enough size and scattered barrels to pique my interest. But strangely enough, while I occasionally dodged my ever-growing workload to watch heats, I was honestly biding my time, waiting for Carissa Moore to paddle out and face off against Alain Riou, Mitch Coleborn, and perhaps the most dangerous competitor at Sunset over the last two decades: Sunny Garcia. I don’t know why I was so giddy with anticipation, but that was the one heat I refused to miss that day. What happened was obviously anticlimactic if you, like me, wanted to see David (err…Daisy?) throw the proverbial bucket of spray at Goliath. How amazing would it be, I thought, if Carissa won that heat, and perhaps went on to win more? It would have been the upset to end all upsets. It would have been monumental for Carissa, and monumental for women’s surfing as a whole.

Unfortunately, the fairy tale unraveled in the shifty peaks, and the sobering waves of reality crashed onto the reef at Sunset. I began to believe what many already had—that throwing Carissa into the mix was a concept novel enough to give the event some extra attention. Controversial and with enough potential for massive upset that it would attract thousands of eyeballs to the webcast, including two of my own.

Gender aside, Carissa is an immensly talented surfer by any standards. Photo: Heff

But wait a second, she has won against the men before, right? As a junior, didn’t she take down the boys with frequency, and in a WQS event in San Miguel back in 2007, did she not post a 10-point ride to win her heat against seasoned male competitors? I pondered these things for a moment, and began to convince myself that she hadn’t been given a proper chance at Haleiwa and Sunset. That in the right waves, she would make heats against the men. But then the obvious dawned on me: Everyone is at the same disadvantage. That’s what being a well-rounded surfer is all about and why competitive surfing is so ripe for upsets in the first place. It can be awful for an entire heat, and a single perfect wave can line up in front of anyone, like a lump of golden fate ready to carry them into their next heat. Sunny, Mitch, and Alain all dealt with the same wonky rights, heaving seemingly at random before backing off into an unrideable dribble of foam.

By that logic, if the level of talent was equal, Carissa should have had an advantage given that local knowledge tends to pay off when conditions falter. But the field wasn’t equal. I’m not sexist, but I’ve also never seen the best WNBA team face off against an NBA team. Nor have I seen anything similar in skateboarding, snowboarding, tennis, soccer, baseball, or football (that one would be brutal). It happened once in 2003 when women’s golf superstar Annika Sorenstam played against the PGA men in the Bank of America Colonial, but that also ended in tears, quite literally.

So I ask, with respect for the Women’s World Champion, was giving Carissa the wildcard to a men’s event a sincere act, offering a worthy competitor a shot at earning a podium appearance? Or was it a novel one, aimed at grabbing our attention?