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Photography by Camilla Fuchs

I was 44 years old when I joined my first sorority. OK, that’s a lie. I’ve never gone Greek, but I have gleaned that it could be described as a group of supportive, like-minded women who magically become lifelong friends. I may have skipped rush, but I swapped it for a female-focused surf camp: the house of Las Olas.

The first of its kind, Las Olas was founded in 1997 with a commitment to providing a positive and inclusive surf experience for women and nonbinary folks — an encouraging evolution in what has long been a male-dominated sport.

Las Olas also caters to all ages. When one thinks about aging, surfing isn’t typically part of the vernacular — golf, tennis or mall walking, perhaps, but not balancing on a board above white-capped waves. But after its debut at the 2020 Olympics, surfing has become one of the fastest growing sports within a surprising demographic: women over 40. Maybe I could still become a midlife surfer after all?

Las Olas founder Bev Sanders explains emphatically that yes, I can. Now 70, she is no stranger to board sports. She and her husband previously owned a snowboard company that crafted gear specifically for women, then she did a midlife career pivot and traded the snow for the sea. “I learned to surf at age 44 in Maui, and a new idea sparked,” she recalls.

“I knew then and there what I would do with the rest of my life: teach women to surf and tailor a fun-filled curriculum specifically for them.”

The whole idea felt like kismet; I’m the exact age Sanders was when she started her surf journey and I desperately want to call myself a surfer. I had taken a couple group lessons in my thirties but never felt like I could truly claim the moniker — mostly because I didn’t understand the fundamentals. My past experiences involved standing up victoriously, flailing around wildly, then crashing and burning. I started to wonder if perhaps I was just too old to get on a board.

Before committing to camp, I posed the question to Sanders: What do you say when someone thinks they’re too old to surf? “First, I laugh,” she told me. “Then I have two questions for them: If you lie prone on the floor, can you get up without too much trouble? And can you swim across the short end of a pool?” If you can answer yes to both those questions, Sanders says you can surf. So I signed up for Las Olas.

Upon arrival to sunny Riviera Nayarit, Mexico, I checked into my gorgeous villa with a private plunge pool overlooking the picture-perfect Pacific. A four-night stay with Las Olas is the marriage of surfing, relaxation and luxury. A day in the life goes something like this: Wake up in your oceanfront villa and walk sleepily to the poolside pavilion for morning
yoga. Next comes a healthy waterside breakfast followed by the first surf session of the day. There’s a massage at the spa (included), another afternoon surf lesson, then celebratory drinks and dinner with your new surf sorority.

Sanders specifically chooses surf spots with forgiving, beginner-friendly waves, but the exact locations are a secret. Campers book their flight to Puerto Vallarta, and the final destination remains hush-hush until arrival to avoid the crowds. Women of all ages travel to Las Olas and simply trust the process — chalk it up to one part pre-trip communication and one part throw-caution-to-the-wind outlook. “Surfing is a soul sport that attracts some of the coolest, free-spirited ladies who, without reservation, pack up and travel to Mexico to learn together,” Sanders says.

Our group of 15 ranged from their twenties to sixties, and everyone embodied an incredible sense of adventure and a positive attitude. Think of it as having your own personal cheerleaders, but in rashguards. Catching that first wave is one of the greatest feelings in the world, but having your new surf buddies scream your name as you rise up on your board makes you feel like a bona fide celebrity.

The six female and nonbinary coaches, meanwhile, not only show you how it’s done (quite literally) but also provide a serious dose of serotonin. Senior coach Mando LeVett discovered the joys of surfing years ago and now finds coaching others equally as rewarding. “My family wasn’t the beach type; they were more tennis rackets and golf clubs than wetsuits and sandy cars,” they explain. “But once I started surfing, I couldn’t stop. It’s like an addiction.”

At Las Olas, I finally began to understand the addictive nature of surfing, which I recently heard someone describe as a legal way to feel high. I learned to watch for the right waves, feel them beneath my board and have the courage to catch them on my own. More importantly, I learned to be present. You can’t doomscroll through social media, answer emails or join a Zoom meeting while on the water — it’s just you and the waves.

As a newbie, though, I’m also learning that surfing hasn’t always been so inclusive. LeVett explains that when they first started coaching, Las Olas was a rare safe haven for women and nonbinary people in a sport dominated by men. “These days, there are all sorts of inclusive clubs emerging along the coast, including for queer and BIPOC surfers,” they say. “All of these are attempts at creating spaces that feel like our own and redefining the sport without the toxic traditions that the surf community has held so tight.”

I want to be part of that change. In fact, I sort of want to be Bev Sanders. “No matter what age, as long as I can paddle out, I’ll still be surfing,” she says confidently.

On the last day of camp, I quietly observed our group with immense gratitude. Our faces were free of makeup, our hair matted from the waves. Our limbs were blanketed with bruises, along with some cuts and scrapes here and there. But every single person in the squad was radiant, with smiles seemingly bigger than the waves we had just conquered. Forget the sorority — we are now surfers.

Read this article as it appears in the magazine.

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