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Sarah Gerhardt

Sarah Gerhardt

Woman Who Rides Mountains

By Sarah Phelan

SARAH GERHARDT IS THE ONLY WOMAN TO HAVE SURFED Mavericks--and that, as any surfer knows, is a very big deal. For those not in the surfing loop, Mavericks is a rocky, shark-infested, big-wave mecca near Half Moon Bay. It was named in 1960 for Hawaiian surfer Alex Matienzo's water-loving German shepherd, Maverick.

Says Gerhardt, "If Cowells is the white belt of surfing, then Mavericks is the black. Almost every wave is over 20 feet, so it's vertical takeoff. You're barely holding on."

What drives the willowy Gerhardt to surf such a spooky spot?

"Because it's there; because it's the next level of surfing; because it's the ultimate thrill," says the 26-year-old, who is working toward her Ph.D. in physical chemistry at UCSC--a feat not that dissimilar to surfing Mavericks' mind-numbing waves.

What does she think about when she takes off on a huge wall of water?

"I get really focused. I'm dealing with the fear of whether I can I do this, to which the answer is always yes, which is why I love to surf, whether the waves are small or big. But the effect is most pronounced on big waves. The question of whether I have to do laundry isn't on my mind. Nor am I thinking, 'Oh my god! I'm gonna die!' In fact, I can't afford to be tense. If I tried to paddle to the head of a wave, then panicked at the lip, that response could kill me."

Gerhardt does admit to sometimes feeling afraid for her husband and fellow big wave surfer, Mike Gerhardt, whom she met on Oahu where both were charging waves. "Yeah, I sometimes feel nauseous when I see Mike disappear over a wall of water, barely hanging on, and then the wave hits the ocean floor so hard that rocks and stones shoot out of the back of the wave."

One of the things Gerhardt likes about Mavericks--apart from the monster waves--is its friendly atmosphere.

"Mavericks is totally different from Santa Cruz. People say hi! No one is aggressive. No one wants to shun anyone out there. Because the person you're shunning may be the one saving your life the next minute. It's a very cool vibe."

This year both Gerhardts are alternates for the invitational Third Annual Quiksilver/Mavericks "Men Who Ride Mountains" big wave event. Which makes us wonder ... If Sarah does get to surf will QuikSilver rename the competition?

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Readers' Choice Awards

Best Food & Drink
Best Music & Nightlife
Best Goods & Services
Best Sports & Recreation
Best Arts
Best People & Places
Best Write-Ins

Critics' Choice Awards

Jesse Davis: All the Shoes That Fit
Stuart Finch: Rock Balancing Act
Isabel Piekarski: Latin Dance Sensation
Juan Cuellar: Compassionate Warrior
Nate Brunskill: Film Fanatic
Warren Odell: Tour Guide to an Anomaly
Seema Weatherwax: Late-Blooming Photographer
Stephanie Smith: Student of the Sciences
Theo Paige: The Not.So.Mad Fiddler

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From the March 21-28, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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