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The Girls of Summer


WebMD Feature

May 29, 2000 -- Growing up in a dusty, landlocked city in Texas, I listened to the Beach Boys and yearned to surf. Years passed and nothing came of it. Then last summer, after reading about Las Olas, an all-women surf camp outside of Puerto Vallarta in Mexico, I decided to meet my destiny on a 9-foot piece of fiberglass.

Las Olas' founder, Bev Sanders, sees the program as somewhere between an empowerment seminar and slumber party. In this kinder, gentler, girls-only atmosphere, with no guys to impress, attract, or try to compete with, we were going to learn to "hang ten" with the best of them.

In between surf lessons, we experienced a great side effect: camaraderie. Ranging in age from 25 to 50, we campers bunked together in open-air palapas overlooking the ocean. We stretched en masse in morning yoga, paddled out together, ate, drank, and conga'd as a group. High-fives erupted whenever someone caught a wave or cracked a joke about sex.

Sanders, who launched Las Olas in 1998, fosters the mood. She's the kind of person you'd like to be when you decide not to grow up, and her mission is to turn women into surfer girls. Her body is athletic and her organizational skills impeccable. Her "surfer grrrl" rhetoric makes everyone believe they will one day ride a frothy curl while "Surfin' Safari" plays on the soundtrack.

But what really makes a women-only camp so special? Can it be that there are no men around to be distracted by? It's more than that, says Pam Martella, a Temple University doctoral student in sports psychology, who has studied all-female groups in the outdoors.

Women-only groups are freed from the more male-centric approach of proving one's self and living up to heroic imagery, she says. Women also tend to learn well from each other, so that the model for the group isn't necessarily the expert riding the waves; instead, it can be a fellow camper who's simply learned to balance on the board.

What's more, says Martella, "women's groups are more fun, sillier, less competitive." This is something to which I can personally attest. The boys would certainly roll their eyes at the henna tattooing or jewelry-making sessions. But in our group, even the three policewomen and the fire fighter took turns getting suns painted around their belly buttons.

And let's face it, you stop worrying about how your bathing suit fits or if that yellow zinc oxide flatters your complexion when you're paddling like hell to elude a monster wave (OK, 4-feet-tall was monster to me) that's eager to drown your inconsequential self.

For me, surf camp also gave me a new identity: I now can call myself a "chick with stick" (slang for surfboard) and have since paddled out in waters that were rife with testosterone. But I stay out of the experts' way, I don't drop in or steal anyone's wave, and I only ride the little ones. The thing is, now I can tell that some of them aren't any better than me. They're just guys.

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