The cutting edge of women's surfing is not on the famed North Shore of Oahu or the reef breaks in Indonesia's Mentawai Islands. In this moment it is at Lakey Peterson's family home in Santa Barbara, California, where the 18-year-old executes a rodeo flip while seated in a tastefully upholstered white chair.
"It's essentially just a backflip," she says, holding an imaginary surfboard's rails. "So if I'm riding right, my back is facing the lip, and I just huck myself back toward the beach" — now she is bending over backward in the chair, flipping in her mind — "then you land backward, and spin out." And keep riding. She has yet to land a rodeo. No woman has in competition, and she wants to be the first. You shouldn't bet against her.
In her second season on the ASP (Association of Surfing Professionals) Tour, Peterson has earned a reputation as one of the most progressive female surfers in the world, who pushes the boundaries of her sport. She also pushes herself to help others, which includes providing clean drinking water to people around the world who don't have it. From surfing to humanitarian aid, Peterson is doing great things with water.
Riding the Wave
Although she had been on a board at various times throughout her childhood, Peterson didn't get serious about surfing until she was 11. She would head down to the beach near her house with her friends Frank and Pat Curren. Sometimes they were joined by Frank and Pat's dad — three-time world champion Tom Curren. "I didn't really think much of it at the time," says Peterson, "but later I realized how much I learned just watching him."
When Frank and Pat tried aerials, or airs, which was often, Peterson tried them, too. She didn't spend much time surfing with girls. "Girls didn't do airs," she recalls.
Peterson burst onto the national surfing scene at 14. At the National Scholastic Surfing Association national finals she was an afterthought, competing against older, more established stars. But in the final heat she and a competitor paddled into the same wave. Peterson took it to the right, and after a few of her powerful turns, she launched off the lip and went airborne.
After executing a frontside grab-rail, she landed back on the lip and kept riding. The crowd went berserk: This unknown surfer had just become the first female to land an aerial maneuver in competition. (A contest she won by the way.) It marked the beginning of her sudden rise in surfing, which has led to a U.S. Open title, a top 10 world ranking, and even a documentary about her ascendance, Zero To 100. Now that she's a star in her sport, she wants to use her celebrity to make a positive impact.
Around the world nearly one billion people don't have something we take for granted: clean drinking water. The lack of it can lead to illness and even death.
Peterson works with an organization called H4O, Hands4Others. It's devoted to installing wells and clean-water systems in parts of the world "that don't have access to clean water or water at all," she says. The group has a goal of providing safe water to two million people globally.
On a recent trip with H40 to Rote, Indonesia, one of the country's southernmost islands, Peterson helped install a clean-water system. "Our goal is to get the entire island clean water, which they've never had. [That goal] is really cool," Peterson says.
The volunteer work gives her perspective, says Peterson. "Obviously I want to do the best I can with my surfing, that's not going away," she says. "But at the same time, sometimes, in those really tough moments, it helps to step back and say, 'O.K., look at how much you have. Look at how blessed you are.'"
HOW YOU CAN HELP
You can help conserve our natural supply of water with small steps in your everyday life, like taking shorter showers and not running the faucet when you brush your teeth. On a larger scale, Hands4Others organizes trips to help install clean-water systems to a place in the world that doesn't have them, just like Lakey did. To find out more, visit its website hands4others.org.
PHOTO BY KOHJIROKINNO FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED; STEVE ROBERTSON/ASP (action photo)