With her down-to-earth demeanour and freshly shorn crop, the Basque surfer is pioneering an image that champions wellbeing and self-expression. But it hasn’t always been an easy ride.

Plenty of myths surround the term ‘surfer girl’.

As soon as the words are placed together, non-surfers are likely to start envisaging salt-sprayed blonde waves and taut, unattainable golden bodies. You’ll probably see Sports Illustrated covers and the bedroom walls of teenage boys. You may even hear the faint warblings of the Beach Boys. These are, after all, some of the signature symbols of ‘surfer girl’ culture: images which have spent decades submerging themselves in the mainstream mindset.

They’re also the reason why Ainara Aymat is a breath of fresh air. The 21-year-old Vans ambassador has been making waves in the surfing world – and not just because she’s an extremely talented goofy-foot. Instead, her appeal is due to the way in which she sits outside of these stale stereotypes. With her down-to-earth demeanour and her freshly shorn crop, the Basque native is a living proof that you don’t need to subscribe to a certain look to succeed in the sport: you just need to remain as true to yourself as you can be.

“There has always been that ‘surfer girl’ model with long hair who is blonde and skinny,” Aymat tells Huck, pragmatically. “I didn’t feel like I wanted to get into that, so I changed and shaved my head. That way I could show everyone – mainly the girls – that there’s no one way to be a surfer.”

Born and based in Zarautz, a small town on the Basque Country’s northern coastline, Aymat has been surfing since she was five years old. In her early teens she began to find success, climbing up the scoreboards of the World Qualifying Series at a dizzying pace. (So far, she has won three World Surf League heats and reached the semifinals in both Casablanca and Israel.)

But it was when she hit 17 that things – and priorities – began to shift. After fiercely dedicating most of her life to surf, Aymat took a step back and began to reassess her relationship with the sport.

“I was putting too much stress on myself,” she remembers. “If you want to be a top athlete you have to kill yourself. Some people are good at it; they can do it and they can still enjoy their job or their sport. But that’s not my way. I can’t.”

Her doubts, she says, were triggered by her parent’s shock divorce, and the growing pressure of her school exams. That, combined with the unrelenting pressure of surfing heats, led her to take a year out from competing: “It was a really bad year. I was pretty lost.”

It was a bold move, and one that would set a precedent for the years that followed. She began thinking in new, innovative ways about her career – how she could do what she loved while also not compromising her emotional wellbeing and mental health. She started working on short films about surfing (like this year’s S A M B A L), doing community-focused work, and building her partnership with Vans.

She also – in one of her most symbolic acts of rebellion so far – shaved off all of her hair. “Everybody was saying that my hair was beautiful but I didn't feel like it,” the surfer says, referring to the cascading caramel mane of her teenage years. At the age of 20, after seeing a hairdresser that was offering to donate cuttings to a children’s cancer charity, she made the move without hesitation.

“It's just hair, but it was something that really represented me. I wanted to take it off and start again. It was challenging, but at the same time really powerful, so I shaved it. I didn’t become a different person, but... I don’t know. Something changed.”

The move was especially tough given her fluctuating self-confidence. “I was scared because if I shaved my hair, people were going to see my body more than before. I’m insecure about my body – I always have been. That was really challenging.”

“I still feel that way a little bit,” she adds, with a laugh. “But I’m working on it.”

These days, Aymat keeps herself busy with a number of different projects outside of the surf world. On weekdays, she balances her time at university (where she is studying sports science) with a volunteering role at a local drug addiction centre. Surfing, she says, is now a pleasure that she saves for the weekend, when she can allow herself to spend the entire two days getting back to nature with her three beloved dogs (one of which – the “ugliest” – goes by the name ‘Sexy’).

“I’m trying to do different things in my life, so I’m enjoying those things,” she says. “I’m surfing less but I feel happier now.”

The Basque surfer stresses that keeping busy in this way, and indulging in as many other interests as possible, is vital for keeping sane in such a high-pressure profession. She also adds that, while she will always keep a foot dipped in the surfing world, the aim is to keep learning too – with eventual plans to study biomechanics.

“They always say you have to surf and train and work hard for the competitions so you can be the best athlete, but there’s no one way to get into the top,” she says. “You don't have to work hard just for the contest because sometimes they push you too much.”

And, when it comes to sharing what she has learned with young hopefuls who may want to follow in her footsteps, her advice is simple: “There’s not just contests in this life. Keep going forward. You can always do something different.”

Find more stories from This Is Off The Wall, an editorial partnership from Huck and Vans.

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