Sarah Gerhardt will have some tough acts to follow when she takes the stage in the wake of the S.B. International Film Festival. Santa Barbara has been regaled by the likes of James Franco, an electrifying actor (he takes audiences to the brink of death in 127 Hours) who is pursuing graduate studies in literature and art at Yale. He strode into the Arlington Theatre to a chorus of “I love you!”
Gerhardt’s accomplishments are no less inspirational, maybe even more so to young women who aspire to achieve their potential. She has appeared on the screen, too—not as an actor, but as herself, in death-defying circumstances. She is a big-wave surfer. She also has earned a PhD in physical chemistry at UC Santa Cruz, where she teaches and does post-doctoral research. She will be the keynote speaker on Monday, February 7, at the Women and Girls in Sports Luncheon, presented by the Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table.
Ever since she paddled out on her first Al Merrick model surfboard as a Pismo Beach teenager, Sarah has had a passion for riding the waves. It took her to Hawai’i, where she faced the huge North Shore swells during breaks from her chemistry studies at Cal Poly. When she settled in Santa Cruz, married to her surfing mentor Mike Gerhardt, she ventured to Mavericks, the reef south of San Francisco that produces waves so monstrous that they can induce terror even in pictures. No woman had ever been known to surf Mavericks standing up until Sarah Gerhardt did it in February of 1999.
At age 36, she is still surfing Mavericks, now as the wise woman of the waves. Just how dangerous it can be was underscored two weeks ago. Gerhardt paddled out early the morning of January 22, and she had company on the first wave she rode, a young man named Jacob Trette. “He was really stoked on the wave and was beaming,” Gerhardt said. “I hadn’t seen him at Mavericks before, and it turns out that the day before was his first day out.”
Shortly later, Gerhardt related, “I saw a set on the horizon that looked bigger than the average size that day and started paddling outside.” Trette did not follow, and he was caught under the first big wave. Tons of water crashed down on him, and several other waves delivered follow-up blows. Trette had nearly drowned when he was rescued by the shore. At last report, he had emerged from a coma at the Stanford Medical Center and is expected to recover.
Reflecting on the incident in an email, Gerhardt said she is reminded “to be in top physical and mental shape when surfing in big waves. It’s also important to have tons of experience and know where to sit in the lineup, when to paddle for waves and away from waves and to know when to bail!”
When she started surfing, Gerhardt said, “I had no peer support and was actually considered an outsider.” At home, she was a caretaker for her mother, a quadriplegic from muscular dystrophy. “She couldn’t surf with me or go in the ocean,” Gerhardt said. “She did watch me from the Pismo pier, however, and hoot for me.”
Gerhardt had to assert herself in the male-dominated sport. “I liked surfing so much that I just ignored the bad attitude of the guys,” she said. “What drew me to big waves was the fact that they were challenging in all ways, and the cool thing was that there were fewer crowds and the surfers were actually nicer when the waves were bigger!”
She has responsibilities now as a wife and the mother of two. Faith and reason sustain her. “I attempt balance in my life by praying, prioritizing, and planning,” Gerhardt said. “I believe that there is a special personal plan for each of us that will fulfill our innermost desires. For me that is exploring the world with surfing and science.”
The public is invited to Monday’s luncheon at 11:30 a.m. at the Earl Warren Showgrounds. Reservations can be made by calling 705-4949. Gerhardt will also deliver the 12th Annual Distinguished Women in Sports Lecture at 7 p.m. Monday at UCSB’s Loma Pelona Center. That event, sponsored by the UCSB Women’s Center, is free to the public. For more info, call 893-3778.
GAMES OF THE WEEK: The Pro Bowl ended last week with a glimpse of Alex Mack’s (a graduate of San Marcos High and Cal) butt crack as the Cleveland Browns center leapt into the end zone. Small wonder nobody from the NFC team, leading 55-34, wanted to tackle the churning 311-pound Mack during his 40-yard dash after receiving a lateral. On Super Sunday, it will be rather more serious. Prediction: Packers, 23; Steelers, 20. … Both of UCSB’s basketball home games this week will be televised—Gauchos versus Pacific tonight (Thu., Feb. 3) at 8:30 p.m. (ESPNU); and versus UC Davis on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. (Fox Prime).