British Columbia

This surfer may be best Canadian athlete you have never heard of — yet

Born in Victoria, living in Maui, Paige Alms comes home to Canada to try and surf her way into Olympic history

Paige Alms, world champion surfer and fearless sports pioneer, comes home to Canada with Olympics on her mind

Victoria-born Paige Alms is the two-time defending big wave world champion. A wave is considered "big" if it's over six metres high. But a big wave can often reach 15 metres. (Erik Aeder/CBC)

Paige Alms lives to surf but the harsh reality of that lifestyle is that she must also work to surf — two nights a week slinging tacos, beer and burgers at the Fishmarket Restaurant in her hometown of Paia, Maui.

Never mind the Victoria native is the two-time big wave world champion.

Never mind she's the first and only woman to barrel ride the notoriously massive Maui wave known as "Jaws."

Surfing, especially women's surfing, has just never been a dependable vehicle for paying the bills.

But that's not the point for Alms, who says it's more about the personal payoff than the paycheque. 

"Surfing is still a very spiritual sport," she said. "Being connected with nature and being in the ocean is definitely my true passion."

Paige who?

At age 30, Alms is very likely the best Canadian athlete no Canadian has ever heard of. There's a reason for that. 

At age nine she moved to Maui with her mom. By age 13, she was making a name for herself as one of the best young American surfers, competing under the Hawaiian flag.

Alms will probably opt for a wet suit this weekend when she hits the cold water at the 2018 Surf Canada Nationals off Wickaninnish Beach in Tofino. (Eric Aeder/CBC)

She never considered giving up her Canadian citizenship because in a small sport like surfing citizenship just didn't matter. Until it did.

Two years ago, the International Olympic Committee voted to add surfing to the summer Olympic program for the 2020 Tokyo Games.

Game changer

Instantly, the Hawaiian surf star became a Canadian Olympic medal favourite.  

"As far as representing Canada, it will catch a lot of people by surprise. But I was born there and continue to hold my Canadian passport," she said.

"Being part of the Olympics is a game-changing experience. And for sure it opens up a whole new avenue for athletes. But the first step is getting on the Canadian team."

Despite her credentials, that's not exactly a slam dunk. 

Alms will have to be at her best in the smaller conditions off Wickaninnish Beach in Tofino this weekend, site of the 2018 Surf Canada Nationals and the first step in Olympic qualification.

There, she'll be up against hometown favourite Mathea Olin, the 2017 Pan American gold medallist, and California champion Bethany Zelasko, who is eligible for team Canada by virtue of her Canadian-born mother.

Canadian surfing: small but mighty

Surf Canada president Dom Domic says for a small surfing nation, Canada is surprisingly mighty, especially on the women's side.

"There's a lot of countries with a much deeper talent pool than Canada, but our good ones are world class." he said. "And Canada tends to do well at new events at the Olympics so we hope that trend continues."

The forecast for the Tofino nationals calls for brilliant sunshine but small surf — not exactly the best forum for a big wave world champion. Waves over six metres high are considered "big" and are surfed on a long board, while a short board is used in smaller waves.

But Alms is more than ready. 

"People don't realize I surf on a short board 99 per cent of the time. I may be known for big wave surfing but I ride  everything," she said.

"Since October I've had just four big wave sessions. Unless you're travelling non-stop year round chasing storms around the globe ... you literally have a handful of opportunities to showcase your surfing in big waves."

Sponsors stepping up

The Olympics are still over two years away but the Olympic spotlight may already be working in Alms' favour. During the interview for this story, she revealed she had just come from signing a major sponsor — Patagonia Clothing. 

"I'm really, really happy about it," she said.

She also hinted that other deals were in the works that could allow her give up the restaurant job to chase waves full time. 

"As of today, I don't necessarily have to work anymore. But I'm going to give it another month or two."