Female SOLOists: meet Leilani McGonagle – the pro surfer who’s making waves

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From personal experience in Morocco, I can tell you that learning to surf as an adult can be quite humbling. It can take days before you even stand up and even then it’s for about a millisecond before you face-plant into a wave, swallow a gallon of saltwater and emerge from the sea looking like you’ve done a few spin cycles in a washing machine. Blue Crush I was not.

However, surfer Leilani McGonagle never experienced the indignities of surf school. “I don’t remember how I started surfing,” she says, smiling shyly. “My dad would push me out on his board when I was about 18 months old and I just grew up knowing how to do it. Kind of like walking, I guess.”

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She’s known internationally for her smooth, powerful style

No doubt it helps that Leilani grew up in Pavones, Costa Rica. “It’s a tiny fishing town with dirt roads and three little shops, but we had trees to climb and jungle to explore,” says Leilani. It also happens to have the second-longest left-hand break in the world. “Yeah, I really lucked out with that one,” she jokes.

All that practice on a world-class point break means that Leilani is now a pro, known internationally for her smooth, powerful style – gliding along a wave like her board is superglued to her feet.

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When we speak, she’s in California about to surf in the US Open

Her surfing has taken her all over the world, too, including Central and South America, and most of Europe. When we speak, she’s in Huntington Beach, California about to surf in the US Open. If there’s a wave to be caught, chances are Leilani has shredded it.

She says that China was the most challenging destination – “just such a culture shock” – and her favourite country is Barbados. “Every time I’ve been there, I feel happy,” she says. “The food is delicious, the people are so nice, the water is warm, the waves are good… It’s just a really perfect combination for me.”

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When I found out I’d qualified for the Olympics, I burst into tears

In 2020, Leilani represented Costa Rica in the Olympics in Japan, one of the first surfers to ever ride an Olympic wave as the sport was included for the first time that year. 

“When I found out I’d qualified, I just burst into tears,” she says. “It meant so much to me. I’d also never experienced that much pressure in one event before. I was having hot flushes and feeling like I was going to pass out. It was a huge deal.” The international press called her “Costa Rica’s Surfing Saviour”.

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Women are still battling to get the respect and funding they deserve

Although the pandemic meant competitors weren’t allowed to leave the Olympic Village, she’s still a big fan of Tokyo. “We were in this little bubble, but the volunteers were so sweet and we got a tiny glimpse of the culture which is so interesting.” Luckily, she’s been to Japan several times for other surfing competitions. “It’s such an incredible place,” she says. “I find the rituals and traditions fascinating, and there are so many good surf spots. Shikoku island is my favourite.”

Leilani says that surfing has been male dominated for decades. Women are still battling to get the respect and funding they deserve. “There’s so much systematic sexism in our sport,” she says. “It can be really discouraging if you feel like you’re underestimated just because you’re a woman. I’m pretty feisty. I’m not afraid to stand up for myself and I’ve found that once people see you can surf, they change their tune.”

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She’s a passionate supporter of environmental causes

The most rewarding thing about catching a wave? Feeling in sync with the ocean. “When you surf you have this connection with the water and you learn how to adapt and change in response to it,” she explains. “People often say ‘Why don’t you have your competitions in wave pools? It would be so much easier’. That would completely change the whole sport for me. Yes, it’s annoying when you travel all the way around the world and the wave doesn’t come, but that’s part of it.”

Spending the majority of her days in the ocean has made her a passionate supporter of environmental causes, too. Leilani recently started her La Bolsa challenge (it means “The Bag” in Spanish).

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Leilani says she still has wipeouts

“You fill a bag with the plastic you find on the beach and nominate a friend on social media to do it, too,” she explains. “Not only are you clearing up, but when you see so many plastic toothbrushes or water bottles or whatever it is in your area, you become aware of how you can change your own habits.”

Despite looking every inch the world-class surfing pro, Leilani says she still has wipeouts. “Oh, every single day,” she laughs. “It can be scary if it’s a big wave, you get held down, or you’re scraped over a reef but you just have to dust yourself off and get back on the board.” 

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Surfers have “dream waves” and Leilani’s is in Fiji

She has tips for new surfers, too. “People think ‘Oh, I’ll just surf where everyone else is’. That’s actually the worst idea,” she explains. “Ask a local where the best waves are for learners. Ideally, you want mellow waves that aren’t too crowded so you won’t injure yourself or others. You don’t want to spend your whole time terrified.”

While most of us have bucket-list destinations, surfers have “dream waves” and Leilani’s is in Fiji. “It’s called Cloudbreak,” she says, looking wistful. “It’s this barrelling left wave in the middle of the ocean, only reachable by boat. It’s off an island surrounded by clear blue water – it looks amazing.”

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Her favourite spot is the jungle just outside her backyard

Although she’s surfed all over the world, Leilani says she feels most adventurous at home in Costa Rica. “It’s such a diverse country,” she says. “You have mountains, volcanoes and hot springs, as well as beautiful beaches, snorkelling, zip-lining and wildlife.” 

Her favourite spot? The jungle just outside her backyard in Pavones. “I go hiking every day with my four dogs,” she says. “When you know a place so well and can still see it in a new way or discover something fresh – that’s when I feel like an explorer.”

Leilani McGonagle spoke to Kate Wills, author of A Trip of One’s Own, for Female SOLOists – a new monthly column for SOLO on women exploring the world their own way.

Catch up on the other interviews with Jessica Nabongo and Anna McNuff now.

Images: Courtesy of Leilani McGonagle & Unsplash 


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