Delusional, not good enough, you don’t belong.
These are voices Polly Ralda has heard plenty of times in her 11 year big-wave surfing career. Standing at 4’11”, she knows everyone will have an opinion on her place in the most dangerous and prestigious big wave lineups around the world.
But voices, Ralda has learned, only have the volume you give them.
The first time Ralda saw big wave surfing she was 13, watching a re-air of the XXL Awards, a show that highlights the biggest waves of the year, and the surfers who rode them. The group she was with watched the show unfold incredulously, asking each other, ‘would you do that?’
“I said ‘yes!’” Ralda remembers. “I said it, and I meant it. So in my mind, I was a big wave surfer by heart, I just needed to find a big wave.”
Never mind the fact that Ralda had only recently learned to surf at all, or the small detail that finding a wave that qualifies as ‘big wave’ (20+ feet) in her home country of Guatemala was extremely unlikely.
“People would think, ‘oh my goodness, she’s delusional,’” Ralda said with a laugh. “I probably was.”
Delusional or not, Ralda had fallen in love with surfing on her first wave, and no outside voice was going to deter her.
At 20, that dream took her to Hawaii, why?
“Because that’s where the big waves are.”
Certainly, the Aloha State and surfing go hand-in-hand, with breaks like high consequence Pipeline, and the famed Waimea Bay on Oahu’s North Shore, to Pe’ahi, also known as Jaws, on Maui, plus countless Outer Reef breaks that are as tricky to ride as they are hard to find unless you know what you’re looking for. Hawaii has no shortage of monstrous waves.
Ralda’s first Hawaiian surf session though, was at none of these spots. With limited internet in Guatemala, she had researched what she could, but found herself paddling out in Waikiki, to a local longboarding break. A five-foot wave here was considered a ‘big’ day.
“Everyone’s like, ‘what are you doing here,’” Ralda remembers from her first few sessions. “I was like, ‘I’m training for big wave surfing.’ And everyone was like, ‘wrong place chick, this is like Waikiki, one foot!’”
Again though, that’s not the voice Ralda listened to. Instead she kept sharing her story, her certainty, that she was a big wave surfer who just needed to find a big wave.
A few months later, after losing a surf competition, she told another competitor she lost because the waves were too small.
“He said, ‘oh you surf big waves?’ I said ‘no, but I wish.’
“He said, ‘I’ll take you surfing for big waves, do you want to surf Waimea Bay? I said, ‘of course I want to surf Waimea Bay! Would you take me?’
“He said, ‘yeah, I even have the board for you.’ So he told me he would call me in three months when summer’s over for the first big swell, you just have to be ready.”
It was all Ralda needed. She trained all summer, everything geared towards finally proving the voice of her 13-year-old self right.
Sure enough, the first big swell of the winter, her phone rang and she headed out for her first official big wave session. Her wave was about 10 feet, not technically big enough to qualify it as a true big wave, but for the 4’11” Ralda, it was bigger than she’d ever surfed and the only thing she needed to keep her hooked.
“I was like, ‘oh my goodness I surfed Waimea Bay!’” Ralda said. “I surfed my first big wave, on my knees, all the way to the sand. I grabbed my super huge board, that was this guy’s, that I didn’t know how to carry and I was like, ‘I’m a big wave surfer, yay!’”
The thing about claiming the title of ‘big wave surfer’ though, Ralda has since learned, is riding your first wave isn’t what makes you one – it’s continuing to paddle out when voices tell you, you’re not always welcome.
Ralda is an exuberant, vivacious personality, in and out of the water, but, she insists, that never translates to unsafe surfing. Even the most considerate, experienced surfers have a hard time breaking into many of the line-ups Ralda started to frequent as she trained. She was no exception.
To an extent, it’s part of the culture of surfing. While things are changing rapidly and women are being welcomed and encouraged into waves at the best breaks in the world, historically, that has been far from the case. Most breaks are still dominated by male surfers, and the phrase ‘locals only’ is one that has been hurled at many a newbie as they try to find their place in a new line-up.
Ralda has experienced that plenty of times, from guys getting her confused with other female surfers and blaming her for mistakes she didn’t make, to getting her own waves dropped in on by guys who don’t feel the need to follow surfing etiquette when it’s a woman on the wave.
After one such instance of getting yelled at in a line-up when a surfer confused her with another female surfer, her friend came to her defense. Telling the aggressor if he has an issue, address it just with Ralda, don’t try to intimidate her in front of a line-up of forty surfers.
“It was then I realized I needed to start stepping up for myself, because there’s not going to be Danilo (her friend), here all the time,” said Ralda. “I created this personality that I was like really respectful, but never let yourself be intimidated because that’s not going to work.”
It’s that voice that she turns up in the line-up.
“I think that’s when a big wave surfer is actually born.”
Born out of adversity, and belief, that your own voice, is the only one worth turning up the volume on.
10 days after giving birth to her daughter Maxima, Ralda was back in the line-up and another voice threatened.
“Everybody thought I was crazy!”
“I was desperate to go back to myself though,” Ralda explained. “But the thing that was in my brain if before you did it recklessly, like I’m going to go party or go hop on a plane then go surf at night and all those things, right now you have to train triple as hard as you think is possible. You have to calculate everything because now you have to take care of somebody else.”
The result of those calculations include an extremely regimented physical training routine. Ralda writes down every workout she does, ensuring she doesn’t leave any muscle untrained that could make the difference between life and death on a wave. She focuses on mobility, so when she does have the wipe-outs, her body has the ability to absorb the blow without breaking. She free dives in the summer, to train her lung capacity, so she’s ready to be held under.
“People are like, you’re kind of obsessed,” said Ralda. “I have to be! Because I have to be on top of my game, this is everything for a moment of time. The time is now and the opportunity is finite.”
Perhaps the most important aspect of that training, is what she does with all those voices, the ones trying to tear her down, distract her focus, or make her question all that training.
“The voice in your head is what determines everything about your session,” said Ralda. “So you have to be on good terms with this voice.”
The voice, Ralda has named Polina, La Peior De Todas, which translates to “Polly, the Most Loser.”
Her sports psychologist encourages her to differentiate Polina, La Peior De Todas, from Polly Ralda, the one who has trained and is ready for this moment. So that’s exactly what Ralda does in her sessions when ‘the most loser’ threatens to drown out the voice that matters.
“I love you, but you’re not welcome here,” Ralda explained of what she says to this voice. “Next time she tries to come in, you greet her, you say ‘hi, how are you? You’re not welcome in my house, and especially not right now because I’m trying to do something really big and really important.”
For Ralda, naming the voice made of many doubters, has helped turn her volume down in sessions. She can give her a quick, “Ciao, bella” and clear her head for the only one that matters.
“I trained for 11 years, and now my mission is, don’t let this voice tell you anything other than, ‘turn, and go.’”
Ralda has turned and went on some of the biggest waves in the world, surfing everywhere from Nazare, Portugal to Waimea Bay and Jaws in Hawaii. This past winter she was named an alternate for one of the most prestigious big wave contests in the world, the Eddie Aikau, in honor of the North Shore’s first lifeguard. It’s a contest that isn’t called on unless the face of the wave is over 40 feet tall. She competed in Red Bull Magnitude, a women’s big wave competition in its third season, submitting waves up to 20 plus feet.
Through all the years, all the sessions, all the waves, it’s that relationship Ralda has developed with the voices in her head, encouraging and doubting, that has gotten her through it all. And she says the most important thing she carries with her now, is compassion.
“You have to have compassion,” Ralda explains. “Because it’s really hard on your body, on your family, on your brain, so if we’re going to do this, we’ve got to be a team. Me, myself, and I.”
And what a team it is.
Story by AJ McCord.
Our mission at Sensi Graves Swim is to empower women in watersports, share stories that inspire and strive to do better for our female athletes. We want to see equal pay, equal prize money, equal media coverage and equal representation for womxn in the water. Read more about our story here.