Through surfing, these women built self-worth and community

Kimiko Lorraine Russell-Halterman surfs in Manhattan Beach in 2021. Photo credit: Gabriella Angotti-Jones.

As a Black woman, Gabriella Angotti-Jones was rare in the world of U.S. surfers, which has been mostly dominated by white men. She grew up in Capistrano Beach in Orange County and got her first surfboard when she was 9 years old. She talks about that and many other moments in “I Just Wanna Surf,” a book mainly of photos — of her friends in and out of the water — and short reflections on her life.

She writes that as a child, she felt like she really belonged in the ocean, where she caught her first wave at age 6. 

“When I'm in the ocean, I forget about everything around me, and I'm completely focused on what's in front of me. … When I caught my first wave … I was completely encapsulated in the moment, and I couldn't feel anything but the whoosh and sliding,” she tells KCRW.

At age 9, she got her own surfboard, which was hot pink and too big. When she carried it from her mom’s car to the San Clemente Pier water, an older white man asked, “You’re gonna ride that thing?” 

“As soon as we got down to the beach, like I just threw the board in the sand. And I just sat next to my mom. I felt my whole body tense up. I dug my hands in the sand. I was grabbing it. And I was just watching these surfer boys who were mostly white teenagers just surf. And I just remember thinking this is too much for me. I can't do this anymore. Just because it felt like such an amalgamation of … little microaggressions … that piled up over time to make me feel like I couldn't do it.”

Marikah Burnett (left), Gabriella Angotti-Jones (center), and Olga Diaz (right) are in Ventura, California. Taken August 2022. Photo credit: Gabriella Angotti-Jones. 

When it came to white women, they showed camaraderie but also “enforced positivity.” “It’s like, ‘So glad to see you're out here. Wow, your bathing suit, your hair — wow, amazing!’ And it's like — why do I have to be a spectacle? It should feel so low-key, surfing is such an internalized experience. And I'm not really here for the comments. I'm just here to surf.”

Angotti-Jones now has a community of nine Black women surfers, ages 24-40, who work in various fields such as physical therapy, emergency room medicine, and film. They rely on each other for life advice. 

Marikah Burnett (left) and Kimoko Lorraine Russsel-Halterman (right)  in Baja California, Mexico. Taken June 2021. Photo credit: Gabriella Angotti-Jones. 

For example, when Angotti-Jones had one particularly bad episode with depression, she considered checking herself into a hospital, then reached out to the group. 

“I was really nervous about reaching out because it felt like I was admitting to myself that I was suicidal. But I did it anyway. And I remember as soon as I sent that text message, it was like four texts at once. … I think my friend Shelby was having this brunch party, and I ended up going, and the girls just took me in the back. And they just fed me food and made me laugh, and made me realize that I had so much more value than what I thought I had. And it was really powerful.”

She adds that these women saved her multiple times. 

That includes Kimiko Lorraine Russell-Halterman, who is mixed-race. She shares what the sport means to her: “My relationship to surfing has become a way to reflect on how to connect to my ancestry and … finding water as this powerful connector between many people. That's become a very special part about surfing.”

Lizelle Jackson is in Nosara, Costa Rica in 2021. Photo credit: Gabriella Angotti-Jones.