Riding High

Pro surfer Malia Manuel is coming off a successful run at Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach, but nothing beats the elation she feels when returning home to Kaua‘i’s Eastside.

Kaua‘i native Malia Manuel began tandem surfing with her father when she was just 3 years old, eventually getting her own board and surfing alongside both her parents.

By the time she was in middle school, she earned her first national surf title (2003). Then, in 2008, at the age of 14, she became the youngest surfer ever to win the U.S. Open of Surfing.

“After the USO win around freshman year in high school, surfing opportunities really started taking over my schedule,” recalls Manuel.

Although she managed to maintain a 4.0 GPA, attending public school became a challenge. Eventually, Manuel opted to test for her high school diploma early.

Malia Manuel speaks with reporters after her run at the 2019 Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach.

“I don’t think my teachers really bought the ‘professional surfer’ excuse of missing so many school days,” she says. “Things have changed now, but back when I was at school, surfing seemed like a sport, not a career. Surfing careers weren’t very promising.”

A surfing career may not have seemed realistic for everyone, but Manuel proved herself to be the exception. Since her win in 2008, she went on to qualify for the Elite World Championship Tour, earning Association of Surfing Professionals’ Rookie of the Year in 2012. Two years later, she was ranked fifth in the world.

“Surfing is one of the most-desired sports in the world, but it’s also the most difficult to get good (at),” says Manuel. “I don’t think it will ever be a mastered sport, so that’s my motivation.

“There is always something to work on. Keeping my journey healthy and inspiring is also an ongoing goal.”

Her life’s journey as a professional surfer has taken Manuel around the world to places like Australia, Fiji and Indonesia.

As a girl who loves nature and the ocean, Manuel is genuinely grateful for all of the experiences and friendships that surfing has brought her.

“For surfing to give me a life and career to experience nature around the world is pretty amazing,” she adds.

Manuel spends most of the year competing on tour — basically living out of a suitcase, as she describes her professional time. It can take its toll.

“Being away from home is challenging,” she admits. “Not living a very normal life as far as relationships is difficult.”

Still, she approaches every challenge with determination and optimism. Her gratitude for all the experiences, conversations and life challenges surfing brings is unparalleled. But through it all, Manuel remains a Kaua‘i girl at heart.

“I just adore Kaua‘i,” she says. “Everything — a healthy lifestyle, fresh produce, nature, the simplicity and everything in between.

“Kaua‘i has shaped me as a person and as a surfer. I’m lucky I get to come back to such a beautiful place to reset and rejuvenate before another trip. I love Kaua‘i’s healing magic.

“I’m usually home a few months out of the year total, which is crazy for how much I love home. I’m big into routines, and when I’m home I love being in my routine: surf, yoga, cooking, hike, hanging with my friends. I’m forever grateful and humbled by what we have here.”

Manuel grew up on the Eastside of Kaua‘i, where she still resides when not traveling the world.

“Some of my best memories were going to school at Kapa‘a, then driving down the hill to the beach everyday after school,” she recalls. “I still have lifelong friends from (those) days, and I think that is really special nowadays.”

She says her earliest inspirations were all the “Kaua‘i boys,” and speaks with admiration about her father and uncles who were so passionate about surfing.

“My dad still surfs longer than me after getting up at 4 a.m. and working all day,” she says.

Growing up, Manuel didn’t see too many female surfers on the circuit, but the ones who were there made a big impact on her.

“I admired those women for charging big waves that I still won’t paddle out in now,” she says.

Manuel shares that growing up in a professional sport was not always easy.

“Since I was a teenager, my career has been based off (others’) opinions if I’m surfing good on that day or not,” she explains. “Everyone has an opinion on something in my life. Growing up confident had its challenges.”

Thus, it is important for Manuel to serve as an inspiration for other young girls wanting to follow in her footsteps. Her advice? Trust your instincts, and don’t compare yourself to anyone else.

“Make decisions based on what’s right and true, not what you like or dislike in the moment. Be present and a good friend without judgement. Your friends and family are your heartbeat,” she shares.

While her list of surfing accomplishments continues to grow, the 25-year-old maintains a sense of humility and perspective. Her most recent achievement was making the finals at Bells Beach in Australia.

“The waves were huge and history-making,” she recalls. “I was very honored being on the podium with John “John” Florence, Filipe Toledo and Courtney Conlogue. It’s definitely the best trophy I have in my house.

“Awards and results come and go, though,” she continues. “We have so many events; everyone forgets about what happened last week. I’m more thankful for the friendships and life I get to live on tour.”

However, that doesn’t mean she is not looking ahead toward her next professional goal.

“I’m always working on bettering my surfing, and I think that will only cushion the fact that I want to win major events on the World Surf League tour and eventually be in the conversation for a world title,” she says. “I’ve learned results don’t define my surfing, but I think it would be amazing to bring back a world title for myself and Kaua‘i!”

To keep up with Manuel, visit maliamanuel.com or follow her on Instagram and Facebook (@maliamanuel).