SURF // 01 DEC 2022
MEET THE FIRST PROFESSIONAL BLACK SURFER FROM THE STATES
“There’s been a lot more attention on me in the past three years than ever before in my life. It’s wonderful, but at the same time it’s extremely stressful because I am struggling to make a living,” explained the first professional Black surfer from the United States, Sharon Schaffer. “For a lot of people in my position everything’s fine, but it’s not like that for older female athletes, especially if you don’t fit the surfer mold. We’re the last to be sponsored and taken care of. So I live with that dichotomy of being this icon, but yet, I’m the poorest icon ever.”
Born and raised in Los Angeles, the venerable surfer was instilled with the maxim of Black excellence from a young age. “I have four sisters and we were four little Black girls in America, where opportunity was not coming for us,” she explained. “My father was revolutionary in his thinking. [He thought] that [his] little girls were going to have to be the most educated, the smartest, the most determined, and they were going to have to excel at something besides running track and playing basketball, which is what was expected of us. He knew that, and so he provided all these different types of sporting opportunities that the average middle class Black family [didn’t have].”
An active child, Schaffer was more than happy to try anything once, from English horse riding lessons to riding a unicycle down her block. “Everyone else looked at [the unicycle] like, what the?” laughed Schaffer. “And I took that thing out, and I rode that thing every day for a month until I learned.”
However, the primary activity of the Schaffer sisters growing up was swimming. Their family, along with one other athlete, were the only Black swimmers in the whole of the Amateur Athletic Union along the Southern Californian coast. “When five little Black girls walk into an all White stadium, I mean, you could hear a pin drop,” recalled Schaffer. “That’s when I started learning about racism. I started learning about discrimination. But, I was still a little girl. We were being exposed, but I still had the naivete of a little girl.”
It was through her sister’s success in competitive swimming that Schaffer took her first trip to Hawaii. Twelve years old and still the kid who wanted to try anything and everything, Schaffer jumped at the opportunity to give surfing a shot when a longboard was handed to her. Strong and persistent, she caught her first wave. But Schaffer was a swimmer, so surfing fell to the side as something she’d done once, her connection to the sport was yet to form.
Entering young adulthood, Schaffer’s father passed away, flipping her entire world upside-down. Soon after the loss, she started college and her struggles with grief and changes at home took a toll on her mentally. “I was a troubled teen flunking out of college and majoring in mushrooms and cocaine instead of studying,” she laughed. “At that time, therapy was so taboo. None of us got the help that we really needed to sort out this big change that had happened to us and the traumas we had just survived. We didn’t get that support that we really needed. There’s still stigma attached to [going to therapy], but imagine 50 years ago, and being Black, right? People of color are more stigmatized to these things than others.”
So, Schaffer flunked out of college and landed into the world of Hollywood stunts. During her time on the swim team, one of the parents, a pioneering stunt man, would laud the young athlete. “He would sit me on his lap and tell me how pretty I was and how successful I was going to be and how I was going to be such a successful actor,” she smiled. “And [I could] do stunts too, if I wanted.” Years later, Schaffer carried this memory with her and made her way over to the same stunt man’s gym. “It was a safe place for me to go and express myself and learn some different things. [It just] so happened that I was a very physically capable and eclectically talented young woman.”
“I was one of the first Black stunt women in Hollywood. I was maybe the third one,” she continued. “So when Black stuntmen heard there was a new cute little girl in town, boy, they came running over to that gym! Next thing I knew, I was being hand carried over to Universal Studios for my very first job to double Debbie Allen in a T.V. movie of the week. I just thought, this is the best thing ever! They’re gonna pay me to run down a field and a helicopter’s chasing us down, and wow, I’m in the movies! And I got a paycheck. I think at the time it was $275, I’d never seen that much money in one check before for a day’s work ever. So I was in.”
Fully committed to her career as an actor and stuntwoman, Schaffer picked up where she left off as a child, learning new skills that would make her viable for more roles. Knowing her strength in the water, surfing seemed a natural addition to her repertoire. “I had no idea what I was doing. I just went to a surf shop and bought myself a board,” she laughed. “I bought it for its color, so I bought a high performance board, really too short to learn on, but because I was such a strong swimmer and such an ocean person I was able to teach myself. I learned by the school of hard knocks, and I was surfing just the way I learned to ride that unicycle. That’s how I learned to surf. Initially I thought learning to surf would set me apart from every other Black actress in the industry.”
Surfing soon became a habitual practice in Schaffer’s daily life, a way for her to recenter and reconnect mind and body in the water. Ten years after picking up the sport, Schaffer was paddling out into the Puerto Escondido lineup, aka “Mex Pipe”, in Mexico, when she caught the eye of some local photographers, writers, and sponsors. Wanting to market their products on a global scale, they encouraged Schaffer to bring her surfing to the competitive level. Thus, she became the first Black American to join the Association of Surfing Professionals, now World Surf League, World Qualifying Series.
“I didn’t know that what I was doing was a big deal,” shrugged Schaffer. “I was just doing my thing. I didn’t realize I was making history.”
On tour, Schaffer enjoyed her time in the water competing, but on land, she found that she wasn’t receiving the same level of support as her cohorts. Sponsors that were once eager to provide resources drifted further away, eventually abandoning Schaffer. “I had no mentor,” she explained. “I had no one to help me. [No one to tell me to] write a letter to this person, call this person. I didn’t know about branding. I didn’t understand it at all. I just knew for a short period of time people were giving me free shit. I still don’t understand one hundred percent, but I’m learning.”
After a whirlwind two years, Schaffer’s surfing returned to being a wholly spiritual practice as she as she pursued more jobs as an actor, leaving the stunt work industry behind. Although a key figure in surfing history, Schaffer’s career went largely unnoticed until summer of 2020. In the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020, Schaffer gave a heartfelt speech at the Inkwell Beach, Santa Monica paddle out that spread across the internet. “When I gave that speech, it just came out of me,” recalled Schaffer. “I don’t know where it came from. I mean, it’s one of those things where you go, well, that came from God. Because I don’t know. I don’t know what I just said or how I said it or why I said it. It felt like the divine coming in and out of me, like I was being used as a tool for good.”
Calling out racism in and out of the water, Schaffer preached the Black surfer’s right to not just catch a wave, but their right to exist. For Schaffer, the ocean is a place of unity for all people from all walks of life. It inspires the infectious joy she brings to every lineup. “The mother ocean, is the yin of the world, right? It’s the feminine. It’s the part that loves. It’s the part that understands. It’s the part that soothes. It’s the part that heals. It’s the part that embraces. So, for me, I want to be an extension of that mother,” said Schaffer, tears forming at the corners of her eyes. “My job is never to paddle out with a scowl on my face. My job is to paddle out, smile [and say], hey, what’s up? If I see a White dude struggling, I will help that guy. Because to me, that’s what I’ve been tasked with. It’s really important to me. Yes, terrible things happen. You know racism is out there. How do you combat racism and discrimination? By bringing Black excellence! That’s how you do it. You bring Black excellence, and you bring love, and you bring joy. Love can tamper down any kind of hate.”
In the last two years there have been numerous groups popping up in California and beyond centering around BIPOC surf communities and education. Happy to see more people of color in the water, Schaffer does worry about the strategies of some organizations. “I’m seeing this mad rush to just throw people in the water, whereas I feel like [surfing is] an extreme sport. People die doing it every single year. You need patience, time, lessons, and water safety,” explained Schaffer. “Folks are being thrown into the water with not enough experience, not enough training, not enough education, and they are encountering toxicity. Learn the ethics and the do’s and don’ts. It’s like a freeway, there’s rules, there’s laws. You can’t just [paddle out to the lineup] and do any old thing. When you bring excellence and you bring joy, nobody can be mad at you for that.”
Nevertheless, Schaffer is happy to see more diversity in the surf community and takes immense pride in her place in the sport’s history. “I can go to my grave knowing that I did something that made the world a better place and made people happy at the same time,” she smiled.
Out in the water, Schaffer still rips. Back on her board after a seven month knee injury recovery, her decades of experience are apparent with every wave she catches, smiling the entire time. Still, even with the focus on BIPOC athletes from companies after the BLM movement, Schaffer still struggles with inadequate support and resources. “When I approach sponsors, I’m still getting passed over,” explained Schaffer. “Because I hate to say it, but not much has changed. I’m not in the demographic they want to pay for.”
Schaffer laughed as she said, “I’m the poorest icon you’re ever going to meet.”
Undeterred, Schaffer dreams of the greatness still to come in her future. “I’m desirous of getting an authentic big wave,” she grinned. “I would be the first Black woman to do that as well. And I want to do it this year, this season, this week, I want to do it. I’m gathering the support that I need.”
Grateful for everything her body has given her over the years, Schaffer plans to continue her surfing as long as possible, “squeezing in every moment of mother ocean’s love this body can muster”. Along with surfing and acting, Schaffer writes poetry, is working toward publishing a children’s book, and dreams of singing on Broadway. Most importantly, she intends to continue her activism. Lending her voice and her experience to the Black surf community and beyond. Never giving up her hunt for sponsors, she hopes to continue to inspire young Black girls that dream of catching waves. “If I keep on doing good work and I keep on trying to make the world a better place and trying to lift up people, then [the rest will come],” she smiled.
Where society placed barriers, Schaffer has just seen a new challenge to surmount, never questioning her capabilities. Always pushing forward to achieve her next level of excellence. She explained, “[I want to be] the person that overcomes their age, overcomes their ethnicity, overcomes their gender, just says no, I’m not keeping those chains. They’re not binding me. I’m going to do that shit.”