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Paige Alms: ‘It’s a pretty interesting time in our sport’

The 2017 Women's Pe'ahi Challenge winner on her Jaws victory and the future of women's big-wave surfing

Paige Alms works as a server at the Paia Fish Market in Maui a few nights each week. She serves fish tacos and sandwiches to tourists and locals and collects those cash tips, thank you very much. When she isn’t behind the cash register or prepping 5-gallon buckets of tartar sauce before shifts, she’s busy progressing the level of women’s surfing — like she did last weekend at Jaws.

The 2017 Pe’ahi Challenge is one that will go down in competitive big-wave infamy. The contest saw arguably the best top-to-bottom surfing that has ever gone down at a big-wave venue. The waves were XXL, the conditions were beautiful, monster barrels were threaded in Semifinal No.2, and the lines drawn were incomparable to those of any prior big-wave event.

Alms, who wisely got all her shifts covered at the Paia Fish Market last week, charged her way to a well-deserved win on the women’s side–her second straight victory at Jaws. As the clock ticked down in the final minutes of the women’s heat and it looked like Alms would walk away the victor, two things became very clear: 1) Alms is completely in her element sitting under the lip and flying down a massive wall of water; 2) what she’s doing out there is not only pushing the current generation of female big-wave surfers, but she’s also paving a clear path for future chargers. Yesterday, we called Alms to hear more about her win and what she hopes for the future of women’s big-wave surfing.

First of all, congrats on your win! What was going through your head in the dying minutes of the heat, and you realized you had earned back-to-back wins?

I actually didn't even know I won [Laughs]. The horn blew and we were all like, ‘Should we stay out? It's firing.’ I was staying out to catch one more wave and they were like, 'Paige, we need you on the ski. You won!’ I knew Bianca got a really good one and I knew Keala had a couple good ones, but I had no idea what was going on. When you're out the back, you’re able to see someone's takeoff, but you don't always get to see the rest of the wave. When I got on the back of the ski and found out, I just screamed. Last year I didn't show how stoked I was, so this year I was super excited and let it all out. In that split moment, I was super happy for Maui. When you win something here, you feel like you win it for everyone else on the island, since it’s such a small island and a small surf community.

How do you think the event compared to last year on both the men's and women's side?

Oh my god, it was some of the best surfing for the men's and the women’s that I've ever seen. The first day was gnarly Jaws. Then during the second semi-final where Ian, Hippo, Kai, and Albee were getting barrels–they were putting on a show. It was some of the best big-wave surfing I've ever seen.

It was the same with our heat—–all of the girls caught really good waves. It was easily one of the best contests ever. To have conditions like that was absolutely ideal. Last year, it was windy and mainly about survival. Besides the one barrel Billy got, I think it was just kind of a blur compared to this year. It was like night and day.

How do you think the women's event this year fits into the evolution of women's big-wave surfing?

Every year it's getting better. For myself, on every wave I catch, I learn something from it, and I feel like it's that way for all the girls who were in the contest. It's a pretty interesting time in our sport. We went from having absolutely no events and having to fight to be at the Maverick’s event to the WSL last year asking us to be a part of it. Now we have four events this year [2 WSL sanctioned events, plus an event at Waimea and another at Nelscott Reef], and that growth is pretty monumental. We were out at dinner last night and Sachi [Cunningham, big-wave photographer] said to me, “Isn't it going to be cool when we look back in a few years and we'll say, ‘Remember when there were only 6 girls invited to the Jaws contest?’"

Like you said, the women are included in the Maverick’s contest now that the WSL is running the event. Do you have much experience out at Mavs?

Not a lot. I've been there a few times, but I definitely have room for improvement. The last time I was there, it was super crowded, but I guess it always is. I only caught one wave, and it wasn't the greatest, but you learn something from every session. The more time you put in the water, you learn the wave and the lineup better. I want to go over and have a few sessions before the event. It's just so tricky there because it's such a zoo.

There are only a few more weeks in the waiting period of the Red Bull Queen of the Bay event at Waimea–the first exclusively-women’s big-wave surf event. Do you think they'll run the contest before the holding period ends?

I hope so. They [the event organizers] were talking about running it this last weekend, but they pulled the plug on it because I guess they want something bigger. I think there's something to do with the county permits; I think if they're going to run an event there, they really want it to be a certain size. I really hope they do have a chance to run it this year. I know the holding period is short, but I think they're trying to talk to the county about possibly extending the permit since it sounds like the Eddie isn’t going to happen. But I know the permitting process takes a long time. It took Betty [Depolito] 6 years to get a window that's actually during the winter. We're down to three weeks now, so hopefully we get a swell. I'd be stoked to get over there.

Does it feel like you guys are doing less fighting to be included in events?

We all voiced our opinions, but I never felt like we had to really fight with the WSL. They came up with the Jaws event—we all said something and poked a few people, but for the Mavs event, we had to fight for it. It was a little different feeling. I really think that the people behind the WSL–the owners and the new CEO–they really want to see the level of the sport progress on the men's and women's side equally. The level of performance has changed dramatically compared to 10 or 20 years ago. Now you're seeing the best surfing that has ever been done [on the women’s side]. I think the WSL is super supportive of us. I know in talking with them that they want to have more events. They just want to see more girls charging it, and they're happy to run more contests.

I know in the past we’ve had conversations about how it can be hard to fit big-wave surfing into the strict confines of a time-limited competitive format—–do you still feel that way?

For sure. I mean, it’s still hard, because I'm on both sides of it. I really feel like its more of my passion rather than my competitive desire to win contests. I do it because I enjoy it. But on the other hand, when I’m freesurfing, it's not like someone clears the lineup and goes, ‘Okay, the girls get an hour now.’ On a normal day out at Jaws, there would have been 60, 70 people out, and only two or three women out. With contests, we get these amazing opportunities to have empty lineups and sit where we want to sit and not be pushed around or put in positions where we just have to go on whatever comes to us. I think you’ll see the progression of the sport happen in competitions, because that’s where the best surfers will be put in the best waves at the best times.

How do you prepare yourself physically for an event like this?

Every winter starting in September, I do a six-week "winter prep" program, training 6 days a week—gym training, elevation running, rock running, swim/breath training. I do that sort of thing year around—whenever I'm home, I'm training 5 days a week. But it was unique timing rolling straight into the Jaws contest after the training camp, because I'm probably in the best shape I've ever been in. My mental state was at an all-time high because I have been pushing myself so hard on land.

You mentioned in your post-heat interview that fear will always be present when you paddle out at Jaws and everyone has at least some level of fear out there. Do you feel those nerves even more at big-wave breaks that aren't in your backyard, at places like Mavs and Waimea?

Mavs, for sure, just because it’s so foreign and I don’t know the break as well. But I have a different type of fear there than here [at Jaws] because I know the wave, it’s warm, it’s home, and I can sleep in my own bed. But I also have so much respect for Jaws and I know how heavy it is. There's always some sort of fear—–it’s just deciphering what kind of fear it is.

How do you deal with the fear out in the lineup if it’s always present?

The nerves can feel like the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other. It's yourself creating that fear. Acknowledging fear is important, because it’s there for a reason. I usually feel more comfortable when I'm in the water and intuition takes over. It’s mind over matter when I trust my abilities and my strengths, and I know what I'm capable of. Once you get that first wave, some of that fear disappears. Once you push through that, it's empowering, and that feeling can be addicting — that you defeated what you were once terrified of.

Is that what you told yourself before the event this weekend?

For sure. At first, I was a little nervous, but I just kept telling myself I could do it, and that I was comfortable with whatever was going to happen––whether that was winning or not. Because it's not about the contest. Winning is super fun and is an awesome achievement and something that will be remembered. But for me, the most meaningful moment is just being able to do this with my friends. It's not special unless you get to share it with people.