Lakey Peterson is riding a wave of her own in the world of surfing. At just 22, the Santa Barbara native is one of the sport’s most renowned female riders.
While most pro surfers take to the waves at a very young age, Peterson grew up playing multiple sports, including basketball, baseball, and tennis. She didn’t really pick up surfing competitively until she was 11.
“I didn’t grow up in a surf family, and most people start when they’re five nowadays, so I guess it was a bit of a rare way, “ says Peterson. “But I started enjoying myself doing contests when I was 13. I just did local stuff and up and down the coast of California.”
Peterson first caught people’s eye in a big way in 2011, when, at 14, she won surfing’s most prestigious amateur competition, the National Scholastic Surfing Association championship. In the process, she became the first female to land an aerial in the competition.
Fourteen-year-old Lakey Peterson tops the competition to take the NSSA Open Women’s Title with an aerial move at Trestles in 2009.
“Until then I really loved [surfing] but I wasn’t sure if it was going to be my life,” she says. “I think once I won nationals it was a really pivotal point in women’s surfing.”
After the NSSA title, Nike signed Peterson to a sponsorship deal, and she says, “That’s when everything started to take off and go for me.”
She appeared in Nike’s Leave a Message film and also participated in her very first ASP world tour.
“I won, and it opened all these huge opportunities for me,” says Peterson, “and it was like you can either take it and make this your career in life, or I could say this isn’t what I wanted to do, and I think I just knew I really wanted it and was willing to just step out and go.”
In 2012, the ride continued, as Peterson won her first U.S. Open title.
“There were so many emotions coming in at once when I actually won it,” she says. “It’s a moment I’ll never forget.”
That moment, and the rush surrounding it, was captured in Zero to 100, filmmaker Aaron Lieber’s 2013 documentary chronicling the launch of Peterson’s pro career in 2011-2012. The title was a fitting one for Peterson, given how quickly everything happened for her.
“I qualified for the tour, which is what the movie was about, my rookie year, and once it finished I expected for things to settle in and feel like it calmed down a little bit, but it seems like I’m still going full blast at, I guess, zero to 100.”
After the film came out, pressure lurked for the new standout as she entered her second year on the ASP World Tour.
“I went through a weird transition period after my movie came out and it was my second season on tour,” says Peterson. “I was taking things, if it’s possible, too seriously. I was just too focused on winning. I’m just naturally really competitive and love to work hard and am just driven, and that’s great, but it was sort of becoming my entire life and just consuming me.”
Since then, Peterson has been working to deal with the pressure, and the effort has helped with her surfing.
“I think I’ve grown a lot as a person and learned from my mistakes,” she says. “I’ve learned a lot about heat strategy, and not over thinking it. A lot of times I’ve paddled out for heats and I was just over thinking everything and analyzing every wave.”
Peterson’s coach, Mike Parsons, gave her a bit of insight that really stuck:
“He was just like, ‘You just got to surf, just let go and if you make a mistake you make a mistake,’” says Peterson.
Family was another strong point for Peterson. Even as she dealt with the added pressure, the bond she shares with her brother and sister helped her stay focused and grounded.
“They’re my best friends, I’m closer with them than anyone,” says Peterson. “I’m the youngest so I just look up to them and how they live their life, and they definitely keep me grounded, and don’t treat me special. I have a lot of respect for them and can thank them for a lot in my life.”
After Zero to 100, Peterson’s fan base also grew; the documentary itself was on the top charts in iTunes sports, which was a pleasant surprise for the young surfer.
“It’s been really rad, the response of the movie. I didn’t really know what people were going to say or how it was going to go,” says Peterson. “But the support is amazing, the fans are awesome. It’s cool to hear the stories after they watch my movie and they go surfing for the first time because of it, or try something new. It’s heartwarming and kind of just rad, because you can have an impact on someone’s life.”
Peterson also hopes to affect lives through her work with Hands4Others (H40) on a project called Surf4Water. The venture, with which Peterson has been involved for a couple of years, has helped provide clean water for villages on the island of Roti, Indonesia.
“We actually just raised enough to finish the whole island, which is a pretty cool accomplishment,” Peterson says. “There are so many people on the island, and young kids that get sick from the water, and it’s been so rad to change their life in a cool way. They’re so appreciative for such a simple thing.”
In addition to Nike, Peterson is working with Hurley, Smith Optics, GoPro, Channel Island Surfboards and Clif Bar. Peterson has competed in six major competitions on the ASP World Tour, and while she hasn’t claimed any titles yet in 2014, she had high hopes to change that at the Vans US Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach, Calif. In the end, though, she lost in the quarterfinals.
“It was a hard one for me just because it wasn’t that I really made too many mistakes,” says Peterson. “It’s just unfortunately the nature of surfing sometimes that the waves decide to go flat, so it is a frustrating loss because there is literally nothing you can do.”
In the wake of that loss, Peterson settled in to prepare for last week’s Swatch Women’s Pro Trestles competition in San Clemente, Calif., where she is now living on her own.
“I’ve learned a lot about myself,” says Peterson. “Everything is in your hands. I still have my coach here, so he’s pushing me, but I think it really makes you a lot more independent and self motivated. It’s been a cool learning experience in all areas of life, not just surfing.”
With a house in San Clemente and her coach nearby, Peterson has raised the bar on training, taking advantage of every surf opportunity she can.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in the water this summer. I’ve always surfed a lot but I think I’ve surfed more than I’ve ever have this summer,” she says. “I’ve had time to get back and work on [a couple of key things] because we’ve had a little break from the contests.”
Trestles is a familiar territory for Peterson, and with such success under her board there, Peterson went into the competition with her confidence at an all-time high.
“I’ve always had success with the waves at Trestles, so I’m really confident there,” she said on the eve of the competition. “I’m not scared to attack the waves, I have zero hesitation with the waves there.”
Peterson made tremendous strides at Trestles, pulling off her much-anticipated aerial maneuver and knocking off No. 1 ranked Carissa Moore to advance to the quarterfinals.
“You have to surf the best to beat her,” said Peterson of her upset of Moore. “My whole thing was going in was just to stick to my game and notworry what she was doing.”
Peterson’s run came to an end in the quarters, as she was edged out by Hawaii’s Coco Ho on a buzzer beater wave.
“It’s been a lot of ups and downs this year and it’s a bummer,” said Peterson after the loss. “I didn’t really change my strategy, the waves were a bit tricky.”
She did come out of the Swatch Pro on a bit of a high note, though, taking home an innovation award for her monstrous air maneuver. Now, she says, she is looking toward the future and the chance to focus on each aspect of her training.
“I just need to put the pieces together,” says Peterson. “I’m loving surfing and I love waking up early and all the ups and downs of it, I have an amazing life and the pressure I don’t really think about anymore.”
By JESSICA PIFALO/ Sports Illustrated