.O’Neill Cold Water Classic Returns with a Focus on Equality

The historic surf contest’s sponsor is taking steps to ensure fair prize payouts to all genders

Santa Cruz’s hallowed surf contest at Steamer Lane got underway on Tuesday for its 35th iteration under the moniker of the Cold Water Classic.

Back for the first time since 2015, the event returns as a World Surf League (WSL) Qualifying Series (QS) 1000 competition. And it not only features a women’s division, but the female competitors will also get the same pay as their male colleagues.

The top nine men and top six women from the QS in North America will make the jump to the Challenger Series, which is the final step before a surfer can qualify for a spot on the coveted Championship Tour.

“The Cold Water Classic shows that competitive surfing is alive and well in Santa Cruz,” says O’Neill Team Rider and Events Manager Shaun Burns, also surfing in the contest.

Burns recalls some childhood memories, watching locals like Peter Mel (who won the event in 1997) and Adam Repogle (who won it in 2002) surf against the other best pros of the time.

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“There are so many good surfers in Santa Cruz, and it continues to put our town on the map for competitive surfing,” he adds. 

Look out for locals like Nat Young, Esme Brigham, John Mel, Autumn Hays, Sam Coffey and Keanna Miller. These surfers (minus Young, already on the World Surf League’s Championship Tour) are vying for a spot on the World Surf League’s Challenger Series (CS). On the men’s side, Mel sits at No. 12, while Coffey holds down No. 20. On the women’s side, Hays sits at No. 9, Miller sits at No. 19 and Brigham at No. 22.

The locals, in addition to other California Championship Tour pros like Kolohe Andino (No. 20) and Griffin Colapinto (No. 7), will battle it out for the grand prize of $2,500, which the respective winners for the men’s and women’s will receive for their performances.

“It’s an amazing opportunity for the local groms (youth surfers) to witness professional surfers surfing their home break. In Northern California, the youth don’t really get to experience [professional surfing] compared to Southern California, which hosts annual events at Huntington Beach,” says Burns. 

Winning the Cold Water Classic could be a local’s big break that puts them on the map. This was the case for Young, who became the event’s youngest winner at 17 in 2008. Now a season CT surfer, Young is ranked No. 17 worldwide, heading into the 2023 WSL CT season.

A lot has changed in the surfing world since the O’Neill Cold Water Classic last ran. A perfect storm of grassroots movements, corporate payouts and big-time decisions have taken great strides to close the pay gap between men and women. 

It all started coming to a head in Northern California in 2016. San Franciscan big-wave female surfer Bianca Valenti, other pro surfers, and San Mateo County Harbor District Commissioner Sabrina Brennan helped form the Committee for Equal Pay in Women’s Surfing (CEWS).

The CEWS battled for women to not only get the chance to surf in the notorious big-wave event held at Maverick’s in Half Moon Bay but also for equal pay. Around the same time, a photo of two pro junior surfers holding their prize checks sparked some controversy on social media. People began to call out the pay gaps on social media because the photo showed the young man holding a check worth twice as much prize money as the winner of the women’s division.

Amid the surging movement, the WSL made an announcement: Starting in 2019, it would award equal prize money to male and female athletes for every WSL-controlled event. 

Shortly after that, California Gov. Gavin Newson signed in Assembly Bill 467. Also known as “Equal Pay for Equal Play,” the measure “requires equal prize compensation for all athletes, regardless of gender, as a condition for approving a lease or permit request for any sporting event held on state lands.”

But the progress made by the WSL and the state took time to ripple out to local events.

Last October, O’Neill hosted the Freak Show Pro, a local contest featuring a women’s division, but the prize money was initially set for $10,000 for the men and only $1,000 for the women. 

“[O’Neill] owned up and made it equal pay,” says Burns, after the prize money situation gained traction on social media, bringing into question Assembly Bill 467. 

John Mel and Hays went on to win the event, earning $2,500 each for their performances.

“They’ve always been there for me as a female athlete and supported my dream of traveling around the world to compete,” Hays says of O’Neill. 

While the prize money situation for the Freak Show Pro unfolded awkwardly, Burns notes that O’Neill is the company that puts on the pro events in town and has to iron out the kinks as the industry changes.

They now consider the equal prize money for the Cold Water Classic a step in the right direction.

The Cold Water Classic runs through Saturday, Nov. 19, 7am-6pm. Steamer Lane at West Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz. cityofsantacruz.com.

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