A 13-year-old girl on the west coast holds her surfboard, staring at the giant wave breaking in front of her. She wonders if she’ll be good enough to become a professional surfer one day. From a distance, she hears a woman who once stood where she was, encouraging her to get in the water.
The World Surf League created Rising Tides meet-ups at every Championship Tour competition, which allow up-and-coming surfers to meet and surf with their heroes. The program often clears the lineups to allow participants to have the usually crowded and competitive waves to themselves, with the professionals cheering them on and giving them tips in the water.
“[The program] is a cornerstone of WSL’s purpose values, providing young surfers access to the world’s best surfers and a platform to explore and learn from their heroes about pursuing their dreams in and out of the water,” Jessi Miley-Dyer, chief of sports at WSL, states. “Our intention for Rising Tides is to inspire the pathway to become a professional.”
Lack of self-confidence begins in girls as young as eight years old. Sports plays a critical role in building it back up. When tween, or pre-teen, females see other women supporting one another, it boosts their drive and desire to achieve greatness. Before the country rallied behind the National Women’s Soccer League protesting for equal pay, the WSL established equal prize money for its men and women surfers.
It takes more than a progressive mindset to advance gender equality. Organizations holding themselves accountable are the institutions making the most significant impact.
Miley-Dyer, alongside the League’s leadership, advocated for gender equality within professional surfing. After four years of negotiations, policy and procedures, and operational planning, the WSL announced in 2018 that it would award equal prize money. As a former professional surfer, she understood the importance of the landmark decision four years before the Women’s National Soccer Team made waves.
“One of the hardest things during the process of implementing equal prize money was getting some of the younger women to believe they really deserved it,” she explains. “They had been told all their lives that they weren’t as good of an athlete. It was a big shift in sport, but also the mindset of our surfers.”
Growing up on the waves, Miley-Dyer competed on the championship tour for six years as a professional surfer. She became the surfer’s representative for the women while she toured. She advocated for female surfers, ensuring there were combined events for men and women.
Unlike many athletes, she listened to her body and feelings when it was time to retire. She didn’t qualify on her last tour, and instead of being sad or upset, she felt it was time to find a new direction in life. The day after not qualifying, WSL’s then-CEO, Dirk Ziff, asked Miley-Dyer if she would work for the League and continue advocating for female athletes. Under WSL’s new leadership, it remained dedicated to advancing the women’s platform, which included equal prize money.
“Suddenly, we had this group of people who were very much like, ‘Yes, we’re going to do this,’” Miley-Dyer states. “For me, that’s been something that I’m more proud of than anything that I did as a competitive athlete because we suddenly had this long-term plan and the thought process about how we were going to have equal prize money for women.”
Caroline Marks, the first Women’s Championship Tour surfer to receive equal prize money, expressed her gratitude towards the League, “I’m grateful to be part of the movement. So many girls before me got into this spot, like Stephanie Gilmore, Lisa Anderson, Carissa Moore and Layne Beachley, but to be the first to ever accomplish that was really special; it was a beautiful moment.”
Miley-Dyer held positions in the League from tour manager to deputy commissioner to vice president to her current role overseeing the men’s and women’s championships and challenger series. As she transitioned in her roles, she focused on the following essential steps:
- Identify your transferable skills. Sometimes it can feel like you are so focused on output and specific expertise that you take for granted the foundational building blocks that create the best leaders: discipline, focus, teamwork and collaboration, communication and adaptability. Find the parallels in how you’ve overcome adversity in the past and apply those to the area you’re interested in shifting to now.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It is not weak to lean on others during a time of uncertainty or change. Everyone has gone through a pivot in their careers; no one has done it alone.
- Know that you are going to stumble at some point during the journey. Be flexible, resourceful, and ready to embrace failure as an option. How we react to failure is important; we shouldn’t fear it.
“I think about the things that mattered to me when I was a kid,” Miley-Dyer concludes. “I remember more than anything meeting Layne Beachley. I have this photo of myself with her that my mom took. I will never, ever forget it. Everyone who’s on tour has these photos of themselves and meeting a professional for the first time. One of my big secret desires with Rising Tides is that when one of the girls from the event wins a world title, I’m going to have that photo of them being there for the first time.”
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