Fierce Female Interview No. 18: Rhonda Harper – Fierce Surf Coach Training the Next Generation of Surfers
• • • After many years of hard work and consistency, Rhonda Harper’s community, Black Girls Surf, is getting the recognition it deserves. But this is just the beginning. From surf coaching foster children at her local break, to working with Olympic 2020 hopefuls, Coach Rho has changed the landscape in surfing and is breaking down barriers for good.
Hi Rhonda, it’s so great to connect with you. Tell me about how you felt when you surfed your first wave?
My first wave. It was chaotically beautiful. I was watching surfers on a concrete beach at the Turtle Bay Hilton. At that time, Magnum P.I. was filming at the hotel. One of the guys noticed me sitting there for hours and walked up while I was daydreaming and kicked my Flojo.
He asked if I wanted to try surfing and of course, I said yes. When I moved to Hawaii, the only things I brought with me were a green trunk full of surf magazines,
journals and graffiti art books. As we walked to the shore, which by the way was sand and sharp lava rock, he told me how this lesson was going to go down. He said we were going tandem. He further explained that I was to get in the front of the surfboard, and he would paddle from behind. He said that as soon as he commanded to jump up when he tugged my bikini bottoms. No problem, I thought. We finally caught a wave and I’m sure my eyes were wide with excitement.
He yelled “up” and grabbed my bottoms. I may have stood up for two seconds before we both fell off the board. As I rose up to the surface, I realized I had no top. Embarrassed, I immediately grabbed and headed for shore. After that day, I bought a used board from a classmate and taught myself when no one I knew was around.
Can you tell me a little bit more about Black Girls Surf and the impact it has had on you and the community surrounding it? It seems to have gone from strength to strength, and it’s so awesome to see this kind of grassroots movement…
I never expected Black Girls Surf to take off the way that did. It’s a beautiful surprise. I’ve been a fitness instructor since I was 15 years old. I taught aerobics at Kaiser after school. We started BGS when it became clear that we couldn’t recruit female surfers in West Africa in 2014.
Originally, our IG page was just a collection of photos of Pan-Afro female surfers. When the numbers started to increase we held our first “Board Meeting” in Santa Monica with Surf Bus Foundation. Again, the numbers of fillers increased and it was time to do something within the surf industry to bolster more participants.
As part of your mission to encourage and inspire young women of colour within the surfing community, I understand you’re now running BGS surf camps? Can you tell me a little more about these?
Ultimately, we became a training camp for women and girls wanting to pursue professional surfing. I am a certified ISA judge, fitness trainer and surfer, so the natural transition for me to be a surf coach. There are three levels of our sessions. The first is the intro to competition.
We expect that each trainee comes to us with prior surfing experience. We go through the rules contest rules and regulations (classwork) and basic water safety.
We advise our trainees on what is needed to improve their skills. Trainees are core fitness trained two days a week. Video review and photos are included.
Session two, a trainee is now running basic heat structure in the water and the gym program is elevated. Session three, a trainee is now ready for local contests which is at our costs. We tested the women’s program for two sessions and eventually dropped it by June as the adult program drew resources needed from the girl’s program. It will be back in full force in 2020.
I hear you’re also working with the WSL and will be joining the WSL Africa tour in 2020. How did this come about? Tell me more about these exciting plans?
I was invited by an intern prospect, Francine Owolabi, who was pitching BGS as an example of diversity ideas. She was eventually hired by the WSL. Before she spoke, I guess they had researched my work within the surf community because I was asked about my experiences which go back 15 years with the ASP as a journalist.
I was eventually brought back for another meeting with the executives. It was at this time, I was able to elucidate the importance of inclusion and diversity. As luck would have it, I was able to work on two projects on their Transformed series. There’s more in store for us in the near future.
The WSL African Tour BGS invite came from the Africa Headquarters Director, Colin Fitch via our IG page. We’ll take the invites however we can. This was a great honor to us being recognized by the WSL. Khadjou will debut at next years Senegal Pro.
Following the success of BGS, tell me about some key milestones and inspirational moments that you’ll never forget?
First, my mother, was my inspiration. I remember finally before she passed away in March saying to me that she was proud of what I was doing for Black women.
Secondly, I think for me being able to assist advertising agencies, film makers, small businesses and television series in recruiting stunt doubles (Diggstown BC & an unnamed project), print models and numerous documentaries. But mostly, training Khadjou Sambe from Senegal. Khadjou came to the US to train with no money in her pocket. Her dream was to become a pro surfer and now she’s that and more. That’s the most inspirational thing I’ve ever witnessed.
Who do you think amongst the WOC surfing community inspires you and is really standing out?
Without hesitation, it would be watching the growth of surfing organizations for WOC. Where once there was none has now become an international presence.
What’s next for you and BGS? Are there any plans on the horizon you’d like to share?
Films. I’m going to get behind the camera and start telling our stories. My late friend and business partner, Erich Hicks left me with a film project unfinished called Soul On A Wave I’m going to finish that in honor of him and my mother.
If you could pass on any advice to the future generation of young female surfers, what would you say to them?
Never ever give up. There will be rough days. Days that will make you cry. Days that will make you happier than you’ve ever been. Hold on and stay focused. Your time will come.
We’re truly inspired to see how Rhonda is changing the narrative of surfing and raising up a whole new generation of women of colour surfers. We know that so much more is to come. • • •