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As she breaks surfing’s gender and age barriers, 15-year-old Erin Brooks gets ready to take on the world at the Paris Olympics

Erin Brooks looks out from Velzyland Beach on the North Shore of Oahu in Hawaii. Born in Texas, she aims to compete for Canada at the 2024 Olympics in Paris.

Driving north across the Hawaiian island of Oahu from Honolulu can feel like a bit like journeying back through time. Far from Waikiki’s towering hotels, manicured beaches and Chanel outlets, the freeway suddenly ends, giving way to the sand-dusted Kamehameha Highway. The Kam wends along Oahu’s North Shore, a lush, laid-back place locals call “the country.”

Early one morning in December, barefoot kids carrying still-wet surfboards walked the serpentine road behind Ehukai Beach in a line. A woman cycled past on an e-bike, a golden retriever perched upright on her seat, the dog’s big, white paws draped over the handlebars.

This secluded, sometimes strange shore also happens to be the white-hot nexus of the surf universe – dubbed the Seven-Mile Miracle for the several dozen exquisite surf spots it boasts.

Starting in December, the North Shore’s epic winter swells lure surfers the way the Silicon Valley does coders, or Wall Street does quants.

When the waves are breaking just right at Ehukai Park’s Pipeline – the North Shore’s hallowed heart – the water heaves up higher than a two-story building. The lip curls so cleanly it creates the aquamarine tunnels that surfers charge through, a paradisiacal experience known as barrelling.

At Pipe that December morning, long before the blaze of sunrise, a couple dozen surfers were already bobbing in the water. Many of them would be familiar to surfers around the world.

There went Italian great Leo Fioravanti, shaking the water from his brown hair as he stepped ashore with a board shattered by a wave. Nearby, Hawaii’s Carissa Moore – arguably the best female surfer in history – was playing with her two small dogs in the sand. Soul surfer Mikey February was munching on a pastry from Ted’s Bakery.

In the thick of the boil sat Canada’s next superstar athlete, 15-year-old Erin Brooks – there to carve a space of her own among the world’s greats.

The Texas-born phenom with Quebec roots, also a talented skateboarder, is a medal contender at next year’s Paris Olympics, where she will surf for Canada.

“I just want to push women’s surfing. That’s all I wanna do,” Erin says. “Just try to be the best surfer that I can be. And show everyone that girls can do it better than guys.”

Erin surfs off the Mentawai Islands of Indonesia in 2022. At that year’s Padang Padang Cup in Bali, she competed in the men’s finals, the first female athlete to do so. Video by miniblanchard
In Hawaii, a stack of trophies sits on a shelf in her bedroom. Her father, Jeff Brooks, kisses her on the forehead after saying a prayer before she surfs on a dangerous beach.
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Erin's family has called Hawaii home for six years, but now she spends much of the year travelling for competitions in places like Tahiti, Indonesia and the Maldives. 'Will Erin look back and wish she had a normal childhood? At 15, she has a full-time job,' says her mother, Michelle.

Erin is seen as a transformative figure in the sport, both for her propensity to huck giant airs, and to surf waves that have traditionally been the preserve of men.

When, at 13, she landed a near-perfect 360-degree rotation in competition, Stab Mag, the iconic surfing rag, asked whether it was “The Best Air Ever Done by a Female Surfer?” The teen is already earning more than most of Canada’s top female athletes, thanks to lucrative sponsorship deals with brands such as Red Bull, Rip Curl and Dakine.

Last August, Erin made history at the invite-only Padang Padang Cup in Bali. She paddled out for the men’s competition, becoming was the first woman – and youngest person – to compete in the event.

She made the men’s finals, knocking off some of the world’s most eminent surfers, including her mentor, big-wave legend Shane Dorian.

After taking fourth place in the final round, Erin won the inaugural women’s competition, cementing her place as one of the world’s best barrel riders.

“Every time I go out there I just want to show everyone that I can do it even though I’m small. My Dad always says that little people can do big things.”

From the moment she first learned to surf, all Erin has ever wanted to do was “surf like a guy,” her dad, Jeff Brooks, explains. “She didn’t do tea parties and doll houses. She wanted to smash things and jump off things.”

The first time Brooks took her to a skate park she stayed for eight hours. “She was black and blue by the end. She just has no give up. If she sees a boy do something, she thinks: I can too.”

“I see crazy potential in her,” Dorian told The Globe and Mail from his living room in Pupukea, a short walk from Pipeline, where he was nursing a back injury. “I think she could take women’s surfing to a totally different place, and spearhead a new and exciting chapter in the sport.”

He explains: “There hasn’t really been a generation of girls coming up that really tried to push it above the lip. They’ve never needed to.” Erin, he noted, grew up skating and surfing with a crew of “little ripper boys,” that include his son Jackson, another towheaded wunderkind, and Erin’s closest friend.

The heady progression of the women’s sport is being driven by young chargers such as Erin, who also excel on concrete, perfecting rotations on halfpipes before transposing them to water.

“There is no reason girls can’t do airs,” Dorian says. “There is no physical difference between girls and boys. You’ve just got to be willing to try billions. And not give up.”

Erin looked tiny as she sat on her board that morning at Pipe, rising on the aquamarine swells like a rider on a horse. She’s tiny up close as well – 43 kilograms, she swears – and could pass for even younger than she is, especially when carrying the blue Stitch stuffy she never travels without.

Moments later she attacked the mythic wave with bravado, unfazed by its reputation, leaning hard into a tight, elegant arc, as the wave curled above, as if trying to swallow her.

The sound of its collapse over the sharp, shallow reef was like a gunshot, thrumming with violence. You could feel it reverberate in the sand. A veil of white mist created by the pounding water slamming against rock shrouded the beach. Outwardly, Erin seemed unfazed; she admits, though, that there were moments she felt “real nervous.”

“But then I just take a deep breath and remember all the work that I’ve done to get to that point.”

Every hour, the falling lip of the wave would snap a surfboard. It has done the same to tibias, necks, spines. The reef, which sits as low as one metre beneath the surface, has scalped more than a few unlucky souls. This is why so many, Erin included, now wear helmets when surfing here, on what is considered one of the world’s most deadly waves.

Erin has learned to play by the prison rules that dictate at Pipe’s tightly packed take-off area. Some don’t appreciate her aggression. “I’m just trying to do my job – calm down,” she told a man who felt she had taken his wave. On a typical day, there might be one woman out there, and 100 men. The difficulty and danger imbue the hallowed break with a kind of nobility.

This was a school day, but Erin and Jackson Dorian, who was surfing alongside her, are the luckiest of kids. They do school online in the evenings so they can surf all day, allowing them practically to live in the sea. Erin still doesn’t own a cell phone, has never played video games, doesn’t watch TV. The only clothes she owns were mailed to her by Rip Curl. Their contract doesn’t allow her to wear anything else, even when relaxing at home.

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Erin and Jackson Dorian at Ehukai Beach. Online schooling allows them to spend more time on the water.

Her days begin with a brutal workout at 7:30 a.m. with a group of young men in their teens and early twenties. This is followed by two water sessions, with lunch in between – six to eight sea hours in total. If the waves are “mushy,” she’ll hop on the halfpipe in her garage, or work with an agility trainer, perfecting airs on a trampoline, a plastic board strapped to her feet. “I’m really competitive,” she says, shrugging off concerns about the tough schedule. “I just want to be better than everyone else.”

Her start, at the age of 9, is considered late by surfing standards. Most surfers are on boards by 4. “I had to work my butt off to catch up,” Erin explains. “I’d surf at dawn every day before school, paddling out at dark, and then I’d surf after school, as well.”

Her growth, trajectory and ability “cannot be overstated,” Bob Hurley, the Newfoundland-born founder of the surf brand Hurley, told The Globe. The garrulous, aging legend – who surfs in a neon pink wetsuit – lives on the North Shore, where he’s charted Erin’s progress. Hurley thinks she could take gold in Paris.

Carissa Moore, 30, also a Paris favourite, who surfs for Hurley, says “Erin is doing airs I can’t even wrap my head around.” Every generation keeps raising the bar, she adds. “Erin is taking the baton and running with it. I’m a huge fan of hers.”

The pressure this creates, from sponsors, coaches, friends and family, and above all, from Erin herself, is acute. After losing a competition in Florida last summer, Brooks could hear Erin crying and yelling in the shower. What she wants, more than anything in those moments, is to go surf right away, she says – “to get back to work” and “fix” whatever she thought she didn’t do right.

Erin recovers from agility training in a bath of ice. Her demanding regimen has helped her to catch up with, and exceed, young surfers who typically start at an earlier age than she did.
At her family garage, she does morning stretches and applies zinc to her face before the day’s workout.
At RK Training Hawaii, Erin polishes her airs on a trampoline; at a fitness class, she works on her breathing and foundation with Kahea Hart, who has trained her since she was 9.
After a day on the water, she hoses herself off in her front yard; then, the next day, it’s back out for another round.
‘I’m really competitive,’ says Erin, shown at middle right with other surfers at Banzai Pipeline. ‘I just want to be better than everyone else.’

Last July, the unthinkable happened: Erin won gold for Canada at the International Surfing Association’s world junior championships in El Salvador. It was the country’s first medal in surfing at a global event. Erin awoke to 300 messages from excited Canadians, says Brooks, who runs her Instagram page.

“I’ve never seen the Canadian win a heat at a surfing contest before!!!!!!,” one wrote, attaching a screenshot of Erin wrapped in a Canadian flag.

Brooks, a retired detective who worked undercover with outlaw motorcycle gangs in California, is a dual Canadian-American citizen whose grandfather was born in Quebec. (Brooks, the family name, is a rough translation of “des Ruisseaux,” the name left behind when the family moved to L.A.)

With his sharp blue eyes, ragged flip flops, unkempt beard and brown hair spilling over his shoulders, Brooks looks like a Russian mystic, a Rasputin lost in the tropics.

His wife, Michelle, rolls her eyes when asked about all that hair, noting that a woman recently offered to buy her husband breakfast, mistaking him for a street person.

The family moved to Hawaii six years ago, when she and Brooks sold the construction business they built after a back injury put an early end to Brooks’s policing career.

Traveling 300 days a year – to Bali, the Maldives, Tahiti, and back – wasn’t part of their retirement plan.

“Sometimes I feel a little overwhelmed with the whole thing,” says Brooks, tidying the one-bedroom apartment the family shares on Oahu.

“I wonder: Is this too much too fast? Will Erin look back and wish she had a normal childhood? At 15, she has a full-time job.”

In her travels, Erin has won acclaim from many of the world’s surfing pros. A note of congratulations from pro surfer John John Florence hangs beside her board collection at the family garage.

When choosing a flag, Erin made what seems like a rational choice: 98 per cent of the women’s Championship Tour – surfing’s pro league – is either American or Australian. Because Team USA can bring just two athletes to the Olympics, many of the country’s rising stars have chosen to surf for their ancestral homelands. California’s Kanoa Igarashi, for example, surfs for Japan. Fellow Hawaiian, Tatiana Weston-Webb, surfs for Brazil, where her mother was born.

The Great White North is hardly a surfing powerhouse, but Erin could encourage a generation of kids growing up in the wave pool era to pick up surfboards instead of hockey sticks. Mechanized wave pools that create ocean-like barrels 365 days a year are fast democratizing the sport, incubating talent in cold-weather climes, where skiing and snowboarding dominate.

There are none in Canada yet. But two are proposed for B.C.: One in Squamish, Canada’s capital for extreme sports; the other, on Vancouver Island, which would also house Surf Canada’s High Performance Centre, and would do for surfers what Hockey Canada’s High Performance Centre in Calgary does for the sport’s elite: nurture talent by providing them with the best coaching, nutrition advice and facilities.

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Erin Brooks hoists the Canadian flag after her gold medal-winning competition in El Salvador.International Surfing Association

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Mathea and Sanoa Olin of Tofino, B.C., shown in 2017, would end up helping to bring Erin to the attention of Canada's surfing establishment.

Erin first caught the attention of Tofino, B.C., sisters Mathea and Sanoa Olin, who surf for Canada. They were training on Oahu, a Maple Leaf sticker affixed to their boards. Erin mentioned that her dad’s family is Canadian. The Olins told their coach about a “tiny Canadian girl” they met in Oahu who “really rips,” Dom Domic, Surf Canada’s executive director recalls.

Shortly after, Domic mailed giant boxes of Team Canada gear to Erin’s grandparents and great-grandparents. “It was so smart,” Brooks says. Erin got these teary Facetimes – with them wearing their Canada jackets. It meant a lot.”

The reaction from fellow parents at last summer’s world championship – the first time Erin wore red and white – was a little less enthusiastic. Four came up separately to Jeff and Michelle with the same question: “How much did Canada pay you?”

“Nothing,” Brooks kept telling them. (Erin had in fact declined a paid offer to surf for Italy, where her mother’s family has roots.) “Canada always felt comfortable – like family. She felt loved. It’s as simple as that.”

The reason Domic was drawn to Erin was simple: “She is a barrel riding savant.”

Next year’s Olympic surf competition will be held in Tahiti’s Teahupo’o, “one of the most dangerous, heavy waves on the planet,” Domic says. “Erin is one of the top five tube riders on the planet. She is built for that wave.”

For now, Erin, her sponsors, and her parents are trying to chart her next steps. The teen could join the women’s tour. But she hasn’t had a growth spurt, or filled out yet, changes to her body that could alter the way she rides.

Rip Curl has offered to send her on a two-year global surf trip, to film eye-popping content while she deepens the power and creativity of her surfing. They would launch her on the tour at 18 or 19, when she could come on like a firestorm.

“That’s enticing – versus trying to go to battle against women when you weigh 95 pounds,” Brooks says. But Erin always has the same question whenever the plan is proposed: “What about the contests?” She is driven, and intensely competitive. Recent wins have stoked that raging, inner fire.

Those wins are also changing things in ways that Erin and her family are still reckoning with. Whenever she’s on the beach, she draws a crowd. She gets stopped in airports, restaurants, once even at Disney World.

City workers wrote Erin’s name in wet concrete while rebuilding the sidewalk outside her home. Ready or not, she is leaving behind her modest, little life in Haleiwa for this larger existence on the world stage.

Moore, who was also a young phenom, told The Globe how lonely she was, growing up under a spotlight. “What I really wish for Erin, more than anything else, is that she finds a way to keep it fun. That she is able to find a balance between working hard, and being a kid. You’re only a kid once.”

At Pipeline, Erin chatted and surfed alongside athletes in their twenties and thirties, as she does almost every day. “You have to be respectful there and brave in everything you say and do,” she says.

She showed an entirely different side the next day after surfing Oahu’s Rocky Point with five other “groms” – young professional surfers in their tweens and early teens. There was still some sun left in the day when they paddled ashore.

Their wild hair was the same corn silk yellow, their thin, salt crusted legs the colour of terra cotta. Suddenly removed from their much older peers, they pitched their boards into the sand, scrabbling back into the sea, tossing sand balls, making human pyramids, falling, screaming, laughing, like a heap of tired puppies, or the children they still are.

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Erin gives a shaka, also known as the 'hang 10' gesture, to greet a familiar face on the North Shore.

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