As a young girl on the small island of Ilhabela, Brazil approximately 150 miles (240k) down the coast from the thriving metropolis of Rio de Janeiro, Andrea Moller found everything she needed to make herself happy in the ocean. The water was equal parts playground, refuge and competitive arena upon which Andrea demonstrated her aptitude to excel from an early age as a competitive swimmer and windsurfer within Brazil’s water sports community. In pursuit of her dream to become a professional ocean athlete, Andrea moved to Maui in 1998 and took up outrigger canoeing, both in the OC-1 and OC-6, where it was not long before she established herself as a widely respected top paddler – particularly in long distance events and channel crossings.
Beginning of the Big Waves
Andrea Moller’s passion for the ocean has never been far below the surface in her life. A year after her daughter Keala was born, she longed for an avenue to manage her schedule and still get in time on the water close to home. Already known for her exceptionalism, Andrea pursued tow-in big wave surfing. “I was 23 or 24 and my daughter was one year old,” she told me with a bit of a chuckle. “The surf was too big and everywhere was closing out and I didn’t have enough time to drive to the other side of the island to catch the wrap-around. So I wanted to just get on the jet ski and go tow-in and do fun stuff for two hours and then come back to my kid.”
The time was around 2004-2005 and Andrea partnered with her good friend Maria Souza, Laird Hamilton’s ex-wife, and began training in earnest to become a big wave surfer. They each felt that if Laird could do it, then they could too, but were always met head on by the glass ceiling of the gender barrier in extreme sports. Not long after, Andrea became the first woman to successfully paddle in at Maui’s infamous big wave known simply as Jaws.
Andrea Moller Leads the Stand Up Revolution
“I was around at the beginning of stand up paddling when stand up paddling didn’t really exist,” said Andrea as she reminisced about the sport’s contemporary beginnings in Hawaii during the first years of the 21st century. Maria had a tandem surf board and had started stand up paddling with it. Laird had already begun practicing the sport and together her tow-in surf partner, Andrea decided she wanted to cross the Ka’iwi Channel in 2005 during the annual Molokai to Oahu Paddleboard Race “because nobody had done it”. There was one major obstacle, however. The equipment to do so simply did not exist. All they had was a tandem surf board that they could stand on.
Undeterred, Andrea and Maria enlisted Jimmy Lewis to build them a stand up paddleboard. He was not immediately sold on the idea and took some convincing. Jimmy Lewis finally relented on the condition that Andrea and Maria would spend the time with him in the shaping bay to help make what became one of the first purpose-built stand up paddleboards. “We made a 13 ft board,” Andrea told me. The length is not noteworthy in today’s era of unlimited SUPs regularly exceeding 17 ft, but for the time, 13 ft was considered to be massive.
The board was so long it did not fit in the shaping room. Foam blanks were much shorter back then and the trio had to hold two pieces of foam together so they could be glued to create the board.
“I remember back then when we made that board, or we were kind of telling people secretly, because people would make fun of us,” said Andrea. “‘Why are you doing this?’ ‘What are you trying to prove?’ people would ask us. It’s kind of funny to see how big the sport grew and the fever that it is today compared to the response that we were getting back then.”
Already a respected outrigger canoe paddler, Andrea approached the Molokai to Oahu organizers and asked them for permission to enter the event as a stand up paddling relay. The organizers agreed and in doing so, breathed life into what may have been the first formal SUP race in modern times. Andrea and Maria were joined on the start line by a few men’s relay teams, including one headed up by renown Hawaiian lifeguard Archie Kalepa. The small cadre of stand up paddlers formed an unusual sight at the start line. “We looked like the goofiest thing, I was almost embarrassed,” said Andrea. All the other athletes were laying down looking at them with wondering eyes asking, “What are you trying to do on a stand up?”
Andrea and Maria left their mark in the history books as the first women’s relay to ever cross the channel on a stand up paddleboard. Later as the equipment began to progress, Andrea successfully crossed the channel as a solo stand up paddler, winning the women’s solo race with back to back victories in 2010 and 2011.
Benefits of Practicing Multiple Water Sports
For most recreational stand up paddlers, SUP has been their first water sport. Many are content to simply glide around their local marina, enjoy their time outdoors and take in some light, low impact exercise. For others, particularly those coming to the sport from another water sport discipline, stand up paddling represents something different. SUP is a common ground where athletes are known to come together and form a broader, all-encompassing paddling community.
“I started seeing a mix of athletes turning up,” Andrea told me. “It was either the [prone] paddleboarder who was tired of laying down and wanted to try and liked it. Or it was the outrigger guy who tried it and liked it, or the triathlete who was tired of triathlons. It was finally mixing all those sports.”
Prior to SUP, outrigger paddlers hung out with other outrigger paddlers and “did outrigger things”. Prone paddlers during that era were very individualistic and didn’t have a cohesive community. There were also the surfers, bikers, windsurfers and others – all united in the common community of stand up paddling. “Stand up somehow kind of brought all those people together,” she said. Due in large part to its newness, the first generation of top stand up paddle athletes all came from another discipline.
Andrea Moller quickly moved into the SUP arena and it was not long before she became known as one of the top female paddlers – particularly in rough open water and downwind conditions from which she could draw upon her experience to enhance her performance in the new sport. “Maybe it is part of my personality, but I always have a hard time giving up on something,” said Andrea. This has challenged her relationships at times, particularly when it was perceived she was “adding” another sport to her repertoire. “It was never like I’m tired of this, I want a new group of friends, I’m going to join this canoe club and start paddling. It was like, ‘there goes Andrea adding something else to her agenda’”.
Part of her drive to continue pursuing new sports has been enabled by Hawaii’s seasons and weather patterns. Summers are known for their wind – hence the timing of the SUP downwind season, whereas the swells typically arrive during the winter months. These changes have allowed multi-sport athletes like Andrea to compartmentalize their pursuits to match the time of year.
“You carry your experience on outrigger or surfing or my experience windsurfing. The more you spend time in the ocean and you read the ocean and you can read the waves and the motion – you carry that knowledge with you into the new sport.”
The knowledge and lessons Andrea has learned from a lifetime as an ocean athlete have helped propel her to the top of the downwind racing scene. “My other sports have helped me a ton on stand up…especially when it comes to big waves or big windy conditions, the gnarlier the better for me I think,” she said without a hint of boasting.
“It goes down to what you love and I wasn’t ready to give it up,” added Andrea.
Outrigger – Big Wave Surfing – Stand Up Paddling
Windsurfing held a prominent place earlier in her life, but for the last decade outrigger canoeing, big wave surfing and stand up paddling have been Andrea’s top three pursuits. In an earlier time, OC-1 paddling took priority over OC-6, “I did a lot of channel crossings in an OC-1”, she said. Over time as the sponsorship opportunities in stand up paddling grew and surpassed those available to outrigger paddlers Andrea gradually began to spend more and more time on her SUP.
“Stand up has given me so much return. The sponsorships in stand up supported me so much more, which almost helped me love the sport more. Every time you dedicate so much to a sport you are ditching your friends and your family, you’re slacking on a little bit of work because you want to dedicate and stand up gave me a return.”
With expanded sponsorship Andrea was able to travel more and have a meaningful impact on the lives of others. In 2013 she formed a partnership with Imua Family Services and founded Imua Keiki o ke Kai as a way to provide special needs children with the opportunity to experience the ocean one-on-one with an ocean athlete in a safe environment.
The historic lack of a strong competitive field of women in surfing translated into a lack of sponsorship money for female athletes. “It was always an inner happiness, but it didn’t let me grow wings as much as stand up did,” said Andrea. Unlike some athletes, Andrea doesn’t have a clear-cut favorite sport. Her particular focus shifts with the seasons, yet she emphasized the prominence stand up paddling has played in her pursuit of her goals and ambitions.
Andrea’s accomplishments played a role in inspiring my own pursuits as a stand up paddler and have undoubtedly left their mark on countless others around the world through her victories and philanthropic endeavours. When I asked who she has drawn her own inspiration from throughout her journey Andrea named Maria Souza, her first tow-in surfing partner who helped her first get into stand up paddling. “She never really got to compete and become known, but she was a lady who showed me how much I can do. She had a kid and she had a job and a passion and she had morals and I really looked up to her. I think that part of who I am today is from looking at her and how she did things.”
Big Wave surfer Yuri Soledade has also served as a role model over the years for similar reasons, “He charges and also has a job and a family, he’s a good person,” said Andrea.
Perseverance Pays Off
Andrea has won the women’s division at Maui’s famed Olukai Ho‘olaule‘a for the past seven years, an accomplishment which has not been replicated on the men’s side. In 2016, however, she will be on the sidelines rehabilitating her hamstring after a severe accident big wave surfing earlier this year. The injury has given her a chance to pause and reflect on her accomplishments, yet missing the chance to compete for her eighth straight win at the fun, annual event is difficult.
The injury has set back her stand up paddling ambitions for the year, but all was not lost. Andrea was nominated for a WSL Big Wave Award for her performance during the epic 2015/2016 winter swell. It was the second time she had received a nomination for the prestigious industry award and this past weekend at the 2016 WSL Big Wave Awards in Anaheim, Andrea won the Women’s Best Performance Award after more than 10 long years of hard work and perseverance against challenging odds both on and off the water.
Not every sport provides equal recognition to female athletes compelling Andrea and those like her to channel their inner happiness in order to derive pleasure from the sport. Cautioning she did not want to sound cocky, Andrea spoke about the uphill battle she faced as a big wave surfer dedicating countless hours, money and equipment without any recognition or major sponsorship as a surfer to reach the pinnacle she now holds. “As a woman you still have to come home and be a mother, take your kid to school…I have a full-time job as a paramedic.” The larger competitive field among men directly translates into more competitions and sponsorship opportunities. “As a woman it was really about how much I wanted it, it wasn’t a case of who put me there,” said Andrea. There were always fewer high-fives and congratulatory pats on the back to provide feedback to her enjoyment – she did it for the pure passion of the sport.
Things are slowly changing as the WSL now provides a platform to recognize female athletes and more and more SUP events are beginning to offer equal gender prize money. Much of this is due to the efforts of Andrea and her generation. “To be a pioneer, it was definitely a struggle,” she said looking back over the years.