To excel as a competitive surfer, you need to have thick skin. Not just because of the damage you can physically do to your body during wipeouts, but to beat the competition to paddle for the best waves. It’s a notion Malia Ward has embodied to earn her stripes in the lineup.
“Since I was a little kid, I would dream about surfing,” remembers Malia. “In my sleep, I’d visualize dropping into a wave. As I’d fall into a dream, I’d surf and feel so free.”
Malia is the daughter of Chris Ward — a pro surfer known for his wild behavior in and out of the surf. Both in their late teens when she was born, Malia was raised by young parents and learned big life lessons from some of her dad’s mistakes. Malia remembers that the pair would often surf in tandem at San Onofre for her birthdays growing up. With surfing in the blood, Malia dedicated herself to competitive surfing from the age of 11.
“My identity as a surfer started super young,” adds Malia. “I really started coming into my own, when I was surfing Lowers, my home break in San Clemente.”
Lower Trestles, located a few miles from San Clemente, is an iconic break that is set to be the 2022 Ripcurl WSL Finals location this September. It’s described as one of the most high-performance waves in the world and is known for reliably handling both storm and wind swells.
Lower Trestles is often referred to as the surfing jewel of San Clemente, attracting a crowded lineup of world-class surfers hoping to catch the ride of their lives. Naturally, the environment can become competitive, with only so few waves and an overflow of surfing talent desperate to ride them. That’s where surfing etiquette goes out of the window, and only the strongest don’t get their waves snaked.
“I’d be surfing with all guys and I would get paddled around and like taken advantage of just because I’m a girl,” recalls Malia. “At Lowers, everyone’s aggressively trying to get their waves. You have to be selfish out there in order to get waves but that’s not how I wanted to take surfing. I didn’t want to have to be selfish. I want to let the waves come to me and be friendly with everyone. But I realized that being friendly, I kind of got paddled around and ran over.”
“That’s when it started a fire in my heart that has always been there. Instead of whining or complaining about it, I started fighting for my waves and became a more strong, confident surfer. I don’t let that stereotype of women’s surfing get the best of me. I became a wave hog, and guys started asking me for waves, so I started to realize who I was.”
Malia Ward made her mark by literally protecting her waves
Malia isn’t afraid to take ownership of her waves. At age 16, she gained media attention when she pushed Gabriel Medina, the Brazilian, three-time WSL World Champion, off a wave when he dropped in on her at Lowers.
“I was splitting a wave with another surfer — a legend. He was gonna go left and I was going right. It had already been established. Then Medina just comes out of nowhere down the side, just trying to cut us both off and take the wave then go left. I didn’t see him until the last second as I popped up. I didn’t want him to run into me. So as a reflex, I put my hands up and he kind of went into me and it worked out perfectly.”
The YouTube video that captures the push Malia made with ease and grace set the tone for her appearance on the first and only season of ABC’s the Ultimate Surfer, where she was described by TV critics as a ‘savage,’ for her ruthless behavior at Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch in Central California, arguably the most famous wave pool in the world.
“Kelly Slater’s wave is a lot faster than just a regular wave in the ocean, so it’s almost like there’s more pressure to just perform and make it happen,” says Malia. “But the ocean requires a lot more patience. You have to wait for the right swell, the right wind conditions, and plenty of variables that come into the ocean that make you have to be more patient. That’s why it’s so special when it’s good, because it’s not good all the time.”
Before the show began, Malia had an ongoing rivalry with her fellow castmate, Tia Blanco, from their teenage years surfing in San Clemente. This was only further exacerbated by the events of the show, which played out their lengthy feud for the benefit of network ratings. But in Malia developing a competitive nature, she has also learned to be unapologetically herself. In developing a resilience strong enough to fight off even world-class surfers from snaking her in the lineup, Malia has been able to focus on maintaining her love for wave riding, and not taking herself too seriously.
“We’ve got one life and I don’t intend on wasting it not being myself, and neither should you. People surf nowadays like they are sitting in traffic. It’s all about the mindset. When you paddle out and know the traffic is already gonna be there, you can either choose to hate it and have a miserable time, or you can choose to enjoy it and make it fun in your own way.”
“Now, when I surf, I don’t hold back my emotions or anything. If I want to be weird and for example wear dramatic colored wetsuits, kimonos, and cowboy hats while surfing, or try a different stance and go switch, I can. I surf the way that makes me happy. I love creating and doing different things to make surfing fun in new ways. I get into a flow state being myself, which is when good things happen.”
As surfing has grown exponentially in recent years, so too has the number of women in the lineup. A new concept for OG surfers, like Malia.
“I’m not used to seeing other women in the water,” says Malia. “But it’s really cool to see more women surfing. Women might be competitive with each other, but we want our rivals to win, too. It’s so important to be happy when other women win, and be happy when they succeed. Because it will flow back to you. You’ll succeed and other people will be happy for you.”
Since completing the first and only season of the Ultimate Surfer, Malia has been working on different projects, including creating content for her YouTube channel, producing music, making art that she hopes to present in a gallery in the near future, and has recently partnered with JOLYN on their new surfwear line.
“I surf-tested their new surf collection in Hawaii. I wore this really pretty orange floral swimsuit for one of my favorite surf sessions that I’ve ever had, dropping in on some really big waves. Their pieces are made of sea flex fabric which is made from fishing nets and discarded nylon, so they are responsibly made. The water is still kind of cold in California, so I’m still in a wetsuit at my home break.”
But Malia’s main focus for the future is on using her platform and passion for surfing as a force for good.
“I’m realizing more and more that I have this skill and passion that I’m pretty good at and I’m established. So what’s the next step? I’ve been working on my own to figure that out. But I think my mission is to help other people. Because I’ve taught people how to surf and loved seeing the smile on their faces. It makes me so happy.”
“I use surfing to help me with pain, whether it be physical or mental. Surfing has always healed me, and I think the ocean is really naturally healing. I’m working on a few projects, and they have to do with women empowerment, fitness and healing through the ocean. So watch this space.”
“It’s important to do what you love, so don’t forget to smile. Smiles go a long way. They are like the waves themselves in a way, across the ocean.”