DOSSIER: Bianca Valenti, Big-Wave Maverick

by Julissa James

The best big-wave surfer on the U.S. mainland, San Francisco’s Bianca Valenti is the first to admit she’s competitive. “Mostly with myself,” she wrote in a blog post on her website in late January in response to a San Francisco Chronicle article that highlights the recent rivalry swelling among female big-wave surfers at Mavericks in Half Moon Bay. “I love the feeling of performing my best and beating someone at the top of their game who’s considered the best,” Valenti shares, referring to the competitor in question, French surfer Justine Dupont. This good-natured competition between women at the top of their game has caught the attention of power players in the big-wave arena. And that’s exactly the kind of recognition Valenti has been working toward with the organization she co-founded in 2016, the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing (CEWS).

But with canceled competitions worldwide thanks to the pandemic, Valenti commanded the attention of an audience close to home this winter, backdropped by some of the biggest waves Mavericks has seen in over a decade.

Baby on board. “I fell in love with surfing when I was 7 years old, and that same week I decided I wanted to become a champion,” Valenti shared from the stage at the Tory Burch Foundation’s Embrace Ambition Summit back in March of last year. She started off by surfing the waves in Dana Point, California, but didn’t acquire her taste for big waves until she was a student at UC Santa Barbara, where she earned her degree in global studies and sports management and was the captain of the surf team. One weekend she decided to visit her dad in San Francisco, where, for the first time, she surfed 20-foot waves at Ocean Beach and nearly drowned. “Even though I almost died, I thought, ‘I want to surf those waves again. I know I can do it if I put in the training and get the right equipment. That’s what I want to do now,’” she told Surfer magazine in 2019.

Illustration by Arthur Mount

Sommelier Valenti. Valenti knows a special wave — and wine — when she sees one. After graduating from college, Valenti studied with the Italian Sommelier Association (an organization founded by her grandfather Jean Valenti) and became an Italian Wine Specialist. She puts her skills to work at Valenti & Co. Ristorante Vinobar in Marin County, which she co-owns with her father, Duilio Valenti, who was born and raised in Lombardy, Italy, and his wife, Maria. “Need help finding a wine to suit your style (and budget) that pairs well with our food? Not sure about some of the wines on our list? Just ask Bianca!” encourages the restaurant’s website.

CEWS. “When I was in my teens, I realized that girls didn’t have the same opportunities as the boys and that, like, crushed me at the time,” Valenti shared at the Embrace Ambition Summit. She co-founded CEWS with fellow big-wave surfers Keala Kennelly, Paige Alms and Andrea Moller, along with San Mateo County Harbor Commissioner Sabrina Brennan and labor lawyer Karen Tynan, in hopes of gaining equal access and equal pay in World Surf League events. It sparked a movement and in 2018, CEWS won its fight: The WSL announced it would grant equal prize money for men and women surfers in its competitions.

High points. Valenti has surfed in infamous waters, including Peahi (“Jaws”) in Maui, and Puerto Escondido, where in 2018 she shredded the biggest local wave ever surfed by a woman, according to Surfer, and won first place in the Puerto Escondido Cup.

Going method. In a New York Times Magazine interview, Valenti says she follows the techniques of Dutch athlete Wim Hof (“The Iceman”) who champions breathing, cold therapy and commitment. She dives from 10-meter platforms to conquer long falls, and is guided by a personal sports psychologist and a Stanford neuroscientist, who advise her to “conjure spirit animals appropriate to specific surf conditions: killer bee, spider monkey. …”

San Francisco. In a mini-documentary for Great Big Story in 2017, Valenti describes the big-wave culture in the City: “The water in San Francisco is really, really cold. Sometimes there’s even ice on the sand in the morning. … You have to have a really thick skin and you have to be very driven, determined and motivated because this isn’t Hawaii. Mavericks is a surf spot where gigantic waves break. It’s been called the Mount Everest of surfing. … People have died surfing Mavericks. It is serious business. It’s for experts only. There’s excitement, there’s fear, adrenaline, nervousness, happiness. It’s really every emotion at once.”

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