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Breaking Down Barriers

Rochelle Ballard debunks stereotypes and inspires young surfers

July 25, 2003|Pete Thomas | Times Staff Writer

SUNSET BEACH, Hawaii — Rochelle Ballard once opened a semifinal heat at Burleigh Heads in Queensland, Australia, with a tube ride that left her covered for an astonishing 50 yards. The judges rewarded her with only the second perfect 10 given in women's pro surfing competition.

She then took off on another large wave, which quickly grew steeper and pitched. She air-dropped briefly, then regained her balance and tucked even deeper into another grinding tube, from which she emerged in a spray of mist.

Ballard had made surfing history by becoming the only woman to have registered consecutive perfect 10s.

That was six years ago, but it's worth revisiting because on that sunny day Down Under, when she advanced to the final and beat superstar Lisa Andersen, the petite blond surfer who was born in Montebello but grew up on the turbulent shores of Kauai had emphatically proved what her peers already had begun to realize.

There was no better barrel rider in a bikini.

Ballard, who stands a mere 5 feet 1 and weighs only 105 pounds, had ventured into what had long been a man's realm and shot out with her arms raised high, as if to show that a little courage and determination, along with considerable talent, can accomplish great things.

"I would always dream of just getting the best barrels possible and seeing myself there and wanting it so bad," Ballard says. "It was what drove me because I just love barrels so much. It's an amazing feeling and it's the most challenging thing in surfing."

Today, at 32, Ballard is much more than simply the premier tube-rider in women's surfing. She's setting an example for future generations, inspiring others wanting to shake long-held stereotypes; she's proof that women can do the same things men can do -- "in a feminine way," she says -- if they put their hearts and minds to it.

"I've watched her progress from an amateur to a pro and she has the total deal," says Brian Keaulana, a resident of nearby Makaha and a legendary figure in surfing circles for his exploits as a lifeguard and big-wave surfer. "I see some girls and they have this feminine side when it comes to danger, and they're all, 'Eek, eek!' " He laughs.

"But with her," he says, "and I don't mean this in a bad way, because she's all woman and all girl, I see a lot more confidence and skill. She can ride barrels and put guys to shame."

Keaulana, 42, helped prepare Ballard, Keala Kennelly, Megan Abubo and Kate Skarratt for their various roles -- as stand-ins, stunt doubles or as themselves -- in the 2002 movie "Blue Crush," in which the star and her friends tackle the wickedly hollow waves at the Banzai Pipeline.

In reality, it should be pointed out, Pipeline remains very much a man's world, a fiercely competitive arena in which a powerful hierarchy exists.

Even the more accomplished male surfers have to prove themselves before they're allowed passage to the sweet spots of the lineup. Nobody, when the waves are at their biggest and best, simply paddles out and starts taking the best waves.

The waves also do a good job of weeding out those who don't belong.

However, Ballard points out, more women are being seen on the fringes of those sweet spots, which means they have taken the first step. And she envisions a time when a women's contest is held at Pipeline -- thus removing the male element and opening the door wider.

"Pipeline is still a place where very few women will take that challenge up and overcome that challenge and have it become a regular place where they'll surf at," she acknowledges. "But I definitely think there will be more."

Men may scoff at such a statement. But given the tremendous strides women already have made, thanks to examples set by people such as Ballard, she's probably right.

*

These are the lazy days of summer on Oahu's North Shore. There are no big swells rolling in as they do during the winter. Sunset Beach, Pipeline and Waimea Bay are as flat as lakes. There are no hordes of surfers scrambling around town. It's a peaceful time in a setting best described as idyllic.

Ballard, an O'Neill Clothing-sponsored pro and one of the featured surfers in the Honda Element U.S. Open of Surfing, scheduled for Monday through Aug. 3 at Huntington Beach Pier, is relaxing at home before her trip to California.

Her husband, surf video producer Bill Ballard, is away. But her dogs, a golden retriever named Kuma and a black Lab named Coal, are keeping her company, demanding her attention.

That Ballard can own such a place, a large, two-story home with a big yard surrounded by dense tropical jungle, is testament to how far she and her sport have come.

Sitting on the outside deck of the upper floor, she recalls a time in the late 1980s, when she was competing as an amateur and conducting her first interview with a newspaper reporter, who asked what her goals were.

One, she responded, was to someday win a world title. It was an admirable goal, realistic enough.

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