Just as 17-year-old Rachel Presti and 18-year-old Eva Woodland launched their professional surfing careers, they faced a different kind of wave: the tsunami of the COVID-19 pandemic. For both young women, who grew up in the sleepy town of Melbourne Beach, Florida, the virus separated them from family, friends — and surf.

“I feel like I have nothing to do throughout the day,” Presti said. “I’m trying to figure out ways to keep myself busy.”

Presti, who was competing in Queensland, Australia, when the outbreak turned toward catastrophe, remains stranded there, across the globe from her mother and sister. Woodland, whose entire extended family is from Costa Rica and who competes on that country’s behalf, is stuck in Florida; she misses the Costa Rican waves, which, she says, are infinitely better than Florida’s.

Finding success

The rise to the top of their competitive ranks by both Presti and Woodland, who grew up in a town with a population of only 3,288 and relatively underwhelming waves, appears extraordinary and comes at a particularly important time. Just last year, the World Surf League required that cash prizes for men and women be equal. With increasing awareness of sexual objectification in the sport, women surfers are demanding to be acknowledged for their athletic skill and not exploited for sexual appeal. And, of course, surfing is coming to the Olympics, where the number of women competitors is now approaching 50% of total athletes, according to Olympic Games statistics.

But then came COVID-19.

On Mar. 24, the International Olympics Committee and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe postponed the 2020 Tokyo Olympics until summer 2021. Presti planned to compete in a women’s qualifying event in May. Now, she doesn’t know how long she will have to wait. Woodland said if it wasn’t for COVID-19, she would be in Costa Rica right now, training for another qualifying event.

“Having so many expectations for how the year is going to go and then having this happen, at first, it was a really hard adjustment to make and like a smack in the face,” Woodland said. “It’s like, ‘You’re stuck here, and out of all places, you’re in Florida.’”

Humble beginnings

Nine years ago, also in Florida, Presti picked up a surfboard for the first time at age 8.

She said Florida’s small waves made learning to surf easy. Presti entered her first competition just six months later, at nine years old. She recalls a video of herself on competition day, surfboard in her (tiny) hands, walking to the beach: “Where are you going?” her mom asks. “I’m going to my first surf contest!” she yells, a wide grin consuming her face.

Eight years later, at 17, Presti grinned that same way when she won the International Surfing Association’s World Junior Surfing Championship, beating around 160 girls from 44 different countries. So far, in the 2020 Women’s Qualifying Series, Presti ranks 33rd in the world.

Working for it

For Presti, the next step is obvious — the Olympics. Although born in the U.S., Presti, whose mom immigrated from Germany, plans to compete for Germany, offering Presti a better chance to qualify. “Everybody thinks surfing is this super chill, relaxed sport,” Presti said. “A lot of people don’t see the actual training that comes in behind it. You have to work for it.”

Woodland also grew up spending long hours in the water. She picked up the sport from her father, starting at 11. Since then, Woodland just wanted to surf. She entered her first competition about a year later. She recalls her first trip to Puerto Rico when she was 14 years old. Woodland spent three hours straight catching waves by herself, with her dad watching from the beach. There, surrounded by fish and sea turtles, Woodland said she felt the bliss of “comfortable solitude.”

“Even if you’re from Kentucky or the middle of Russia, being able to see someone surf is so cool because I think it’s one of the only sports where nature controls everything,” Woodland said.

Sexism in surfing

Woodland placed 17th at the recent Ron Jon Roxy Junior Pro. As she trains for 2021, Woodland applauds the World Surf League’s decision to allot equal pay to male and female surfers. But, she says, sexism in professional surfing continues. Woodland, recounts a man who posted a photo inappropriately zoomed in on her body on his Instagram; when asked to remove the photo, the man claimed it was meant to be “a joke.”

Still, times are changing. In 2017, blogger Karen Knowlton publicly shamed Billabong, a surf company, and clothing retailer, for its sexist surfing advertisements. Today, Woodland urges younger women surfers to stand their ground and never let a man tell you what to wear in the water. As a woman in professional surfing, Woodland’s uniform is a bikini. It’s wrong for men to make you uncomfortable in your own uniform, she says, just like any other athlete.

“You should never feel uncomfortable in your body while you’re surfing,” Woodland said. “The ocean is supposed to be a safe place.”

“Better than curling” 

Despite COVID-19, Woodland believes the ocean will continue to offer a sanctuary for surfers. Both Woodland and Presti say that the Olympic postponement actually allows for more training time — which, they say, can never hurt.

Besides, as of now, the Olympics are postponed, not canceled. Although the pandemic will delay Presti and Woodland’s potential historic Olympic debuts, it will not erase them completely.“It’s honestly surreal,” Woodland said in anticipation of her possible qualification. “It’s always something I’ve hoped for, being a kid and watching the Olympics. ‘Why isn’t surfing in it?’” Woodland would ask. “Surfing is so much better than curling.”

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