The unrelenting issue for Hilo-side surfers whose dreams of someday emerging on a professional circuit, traveling the world for waves, is the simple fact of geography.
This is no news at all to the more ambitious members of the surfing community here, who have heard it all before, more than they care to recall.
When the sponsors go searching for new talent to support in this state, they head to Oahu, for the obvious reasons of greater population and globally known prime surf areas. Sometimes they take a peek at Kona-area talent, but if they think of Hilo at all, it’s an afterthought, which is why Pahoa’s Ulu Napeahi is such a rare treasure, one of the few who achieved tour status from this side of the Big Island.
It’s not impossible to be seen and taken seriously, it’s just very rare, which is why there’s been some enthusiasm about Hilo’s 12-year-old Diesel Butts possibly emerging as the next one to crack through the big wave barrier.
But he’s not the only one here envisioning a career on a board. If you heard there was a Rumor of another one on the verge of breaking through, be advised it is no Rumor.
Next up just might be Rumor Star Butts, the 15-year-old sister of Diesel, who happens to be rated the No. 1 women’s surfer on the Big Island, with a string of top finishes and championships that makes you wonder why she hasn’t already been signed to major sponsor.
Yes, some of it has to do with sexism, even in this sport that is generally considered to be more open-minded and accepting of all who can win, regardless where they come from.
Still, women surfers don’t get the same attention as their male counterparts, and the half-dozen or so older Big Island women who have been on tour end up spending more money traveling to get to the same spots other women surfers live and train.
Alessa Quizon, an Oahu tour veteran from Makaha, is one of those that Rumor would like to emulate someday.
“She’s just good,” Butts said the other day at Honoli’i, “I admire her and I’d like to get on (the World Surf League) tour someday.”
She’s been annually certified as a Junior Lifeguard, so there will always be a fallback position for her, but there’s no denying her intent.
Rumor Butts is in the water today, tomorrow, and the day after that. She was asked how often she surfs and almost seemed confused by the question. For her, surfing is what is done on a daily basis.
If there was a day she missed the last couple of years, she can’t recall it.
She has competitions coming up the next two weeks, she attacks her training daily, looking to “get vertical” and complete those rides down the crest of the wave, then, instead of getting away gradually by turning sideways and riding it out, she scoots back up and makes something happen in the air.
Her style might best be described as attention-getting. If she were a basketball player, she’d be a point guard, no-look passes, surprising crossover steps, startling leaping ability.
Here we have a young woman power surfer making an aggressive approach to the sport, working at it every bit as much if not more than some of the athletes she walks the halls with at Hilo High School. She doesn’t work in surfing around her schedule, she works her schedule around surfing.
It’s all the more impressive in that Rumor Butts didn’t grow up in a surfing family, per se. Yes, her father, Quinton, used to surf, and so did her grandfather, but Rumor and Diesel didn’t know that life as adolescents.
“Really, we were more a mountain-type family,” said Quinton. “We worked the taro fields, it was an everyday thing, and we hunted, we found our work, our livelihood, you could say, away from the water. We were focused on that taro.”
One day, Quinton’s father pulled him aside.
“He told me we should remember what we did as kids, he said, ‘It’s not good that all they do is work the taro,’” Quinton said. “It was like a light came on.”
He got a couple long boards, took the two young ones to Hakalau, and over four days in a row the father taught the children the basics of surfing.
On the first day they were standing up on the board by themselves, riding waves like real surfers. Quinton didn’t wait to introduce the short boards.
“It took them about a week to make a complete transition (from long to short boards),” he said, “but really, they were both naturals, they took to it right away and they learned a lot on their own. They just kept going.”
And just like that Rumor Butts and her younger brother realized an important life lesson — they weren’t built to be pulling weeds in a taro patch, they were built to surf.
“It was really exciting to get started,” Rumor said, “because I always liked the surfing groups I would see, it looked like fun.”
Since then, she began entering competitions and finished third in the open category in the first contest she entered, a week after she first got up on a short board.
Yeah, this was her game.
There are other women’s surfers from the Big Island, but there isn’t one who was discovered early, given solid sponsorship support and quickly matured into a top-ranked professional.
“I want to be the first,” she said, “but I realize it might take a few years.”
Not a lot of 15 year-olds being paid to fly around the world in major surf competitions, but by the time she’s 20?
“I think I will have a chance,” she said.
Her mother, Laura, is arguably her biggest supporter.
“There are a lot of things that haven’t been done until somebody did them,” she said, with irrefutable logic of the daughter she named after Demi Moore’s daughter. “I just want to be supportive, it starts with getting out there everyday and improving your skills. I think she can do it.”
Quinton is enthused about the prospect of two native Hawaiians making the pro tour at some point.
“That would mean a lot to me and to a lot of other people,” he said.
Basic Image has helped with some sponsorship, Body Glove provides some supplies, but traveling to the bigger competitions in California, or even Oahu, gets costly, in a hurry. A major sponsor would solve that issue and give her a true opportunity to earn her way.
“Just a chance,” she said when asked what it will take to get to the tour, and she’s probably right. She works on her aerials every day, she’s better this month than she was last month, but there’s still that gender ceiling that makes it more difficult for women than for men.
Sometimes, work is the answer, and when the work is your love, the chances of success can go up like those air game stunts above a wave at Honoli’i.
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