Play, believe, achieve shaped life of big-wave surfer Gerhardt


Like the good teacher that she is, Sarah Gerhardt described riding the giant waves at the renown surf break Mavericks in a way everyone could understand.

Gerhardt, the first woman to surf Mavericks, was the keynote speaker Monday at the Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table’s Women in Sports Luncheon at the Earl Warren Showgrounds.

Round Table President Catharine Manset Morreale, left, with Women in Sports Luncheon keynote speaker Sarah Gerhardt.

She explained that surfing a huge wave is like going on one of those scary, stomach-churning roller-coasters at Magic Mountain.

“It’s like going on that ride that thrills you, that ride you have a love-hate relationship with,” she said.

“Paddling, the swells are about 20 feet high, these big, kind of fat swells. And then the bottom drops out completely, and all of sudden you’re looking over a cornice. It’s like your sitting at the top of that ride.


“You get to the top and you go straight down, that’s what it’s like, dropping in,” she continued. “But I don’t have a little car that I’m strapped into, right. I’m on my feet.

“Oh, ohhhh … yea! It’s milliseconds, then all of sudden … Wow! I’m dropping in … I’m dropping in … I’m still dropping in … I can’t believe I’m still dropping in!

“It’s amazing.”

Gerhardt had an audience of close to 500 female student-athletes from the eight local high schools, UCSB, Westmont and SBCC entertained and inspired.

Congresswoman Lois Capps also spoke at the luncheon about how participating in sports plays an important role in developing leaders.

Gerhardt was introduced by Elizabeth Pepin, one of the filmmakers who did a documentary (One Winter Story) on the big-wave surfer-scientist-teacher-mother.

Gerhardt told of her successes and wipeouts surfing 30- to 40-foot waves at Mavericks, near Half Moon Bay, and in Hawaii. On one wipeout at Sunset Beach on the North Shore of Hawaii, she smashed her face so hard on her board that she crushed the fiberglass. She suffered a concussion, broke a tooth and severely split her lip, which required several stitches.

She described another bad wipeout on a do-or-die, treacherous day in Morro Bay, when she fell from the top of a 15-foot plus wave and the wave broke on her and slammed her body on the bottom.

“I just tore everything, my neck and back.” she said.

She could barely walk.

That incident was the beginning of the low point in her adult life. Her mother, the inspiration in her life, was stricken with breast cancer for the second time. It would eventually take her life.

“I really wanted to give up,” she said. “I didn’t want to be part of this life any longer. What could I do?”

She was pulled out of the depths of depression by her strong faith and her drive.

“I believe in an incredible god and I believe that the sun would shine again,” she said. “I believed in my hopes for the future.”

In a message to the student-athletes, she said challenges in life don’t last forever.

“You’ll make it through; there will be sun on the other side. You’’ll be stronger for it.”

She noted that being passionate about playing sports can help in overcoming challenges.

“Playing your sport can allow you to be open to possibilities. You can develop your individuality. You can rise above it.”

She said the journey to her accomplishments in life followed the theme of the day: “Play, Believe, Achieve.”

“Through all I have done in my life, looking back, it fits this theme of play, believe, achieve,” she said. “Through play I found my passions and found confidence and developed individuality.

“It was through playing that allowed me to believe and take as fact that I can do my dreams and was open to the impossible possibilities that allowed me to achieve what I’ve accomplished so far.”

And she has accomplished plenty. She earned a PhD in physical chemistry, she became a mother, she teaches, and she is doing post-doctorate work in bio-chemistry and molecular biology at UC Santa Cruz.

“I am just thrilled. I get to do some amazing research and I get to work with some really amazing people on the cutting edge of science. I’m just blown away with the opportunity I have because what was built into my life.”


  1. Sarah’s message is very inspirational. She’s a girl with a big heart. Her description of surfing Mavericks made my stomach lurch, but I’m not a surfer I’m an ocean chicken.