Since taking the reins as head of competition for the World Surf League, Sydney-born Jessi Miley-Dyer is barrelling ahead with plans to make the sport more gender equal. By Kieran Pender.
A gender-equal wave in the World Surf League
For fans of the World Surf League, the top-tier of competitive surfing, Jessi Miley-Dyer is a familiar presence. The WSL takes the top male and female surfers across the globe, competing on some of the world’s best waves. From breakers of consequence in Tahiti, to endless lines at Bells Beach in Victoria, to the playful beach breaks of California, Miley-Dyer is calling the shots. As head of competition for WSL, the 35-year-old Sydneysider decides when and where the world’s best surfers compete – and then explains her decisions to viewers on WSL’s live stream.
“The buck stops with me,” Miley-Dyer tells The Saturday Paper from Margaret River, on a lay day during the latest stop on the WSL calendar. “It’s a big one, because it’s an important part of the sport.”
Surfing is unusual in that the competition arena is so dependent on the whims of the ocean (although artificial wave pools are beginning to be used for competitions, including as part of the WSL). “I’ve come to terms with the fact that I don’t control the ocean,” Miley-Dyer says, laughing. Most legs of the professional circuit feature a week-and-a-half-long competition window. In that time, the conditions will evolve with the swell, wind and tide. Miley-Dyer has to decide the optimum moments in which to run competition, while ensuring the event finishes within the allocated window.
“For me the philosophy when I’m making a call is that I really want to give people a platform to shine, a platform to show everyone in the world what they can do,” she explains. “And so, we really go out of our way to pick the best condition. There are also certain things that are really important to us as well, like making sure that both the men and the women share the best conditions that the ocean gives us.”
These decisions are not, of course, the only part of Miley-Dyer’s role. Her full title is senior vice president, tours and head of competition. “I oversee all of our competitive competitions,” she says. “The championship tour is the jewel in the crown, but we have a bunch of tours that I oversee: our big wave tours, our juniors, our challenges series, our longboard events.”
Miley-Dyer was born in Sydney and grew up in the beachside suburb of Bronte, at home in the waves. She became a professional surfer and spent six years on the WSL, finishing fourth overall in 2006 and winning the Billabong Pro Maui in Hawaii. But Miley-Dyer balanced her professional career with representative responsibilities, serving as the women’s surfing representative on the board of the WSL (then the Association of Surfing Professionals). Since retiring from competition, Miley-Dyer has quickly become an influential figure in the global surfing community.
“I’ve always been really passionate about surfing, and it’s given me so much,” she says. “And there’s always been the drive for me to get kind of under the hood, I guess, and behind the scenes.” She is certainly making a difference.
Miley-Dyer is a central character in Make or Break, a new series that premiered on the streaming service Apple TV+ last week. The seven-part series, which has already been renewed for a second season, follows the WSL during the 2021 campaign in a behind-the-scenes fashion similar to Drive to Survive, Netflix’s formula one hit (they were made by the same production company). Suddenly, all Miley-Dyer’s decision-making is under the glare of the television camera. “I’m always under the microscope,” she says. “I know that people will watch it and question decisions that I make, and I’m totally fine with that.”
Miley-Dyer’s influence in guiding the sport towards a better future, particularly a gender-equal future, is on display in the series, most prominently in the first episode. Traditionally, the Hawaiian leg of the WSL had women surfers compete at Maui and men at the more iconic, and heavy, Pipeline. But last season, a fatal shark attack at Maui meant the women could not finish the event at that break. And it left Miley-Dyer facing a consequential decision.
“That was a huge moment for the women’s tour,” she says. Miley-Dyer gathered the women surfers and presented them with an opportunity: instead, they could finish the event at Pipeline. “The conversation that we had as a group was around having a moment, a chance to do something that we’d never done before,” she recalls. “It’s the most dangerous wave in the world. And it’s also such a competitive line-up, and it’s never been a wave that has been synonymous with women. So, the statement for us to be like, ‘Pipeline is also for the women’, is something that is [significant].”
In a powerful moment in the episode, the full cohort of female WSL surfers – not only those still in the event (which was already half-completed) – gathered to consider their options. Ultimately, they agreed to the shift and the event was won by Australia’s Tyler Wright. From this season onwards, the change was made permanent, with Pipeline now hosting both the men and women each year. Miley-Dyer says that watching back the decision-making that led to that momentous shift on Make or Break gave her goosebumps. “It’s one that we will look back on as changing the trajectory of the sport,” she says. “We all walked away from that meeting knowing that it would change women’s surfing forever.”
While the symbolism of the Pipeline shift is considerable, Miley-Dyer has also been championing structural gender equality in surfing. In recent years, the WSL has instituted equal prize money, and this year is the first fully integrated men’s and women’s WSL competition (previously there were some male-only or female-only legs of the WSL).
“The best part of the job is seeing some of the work that we’ve done, especially around the women’s tour, come to life,” she says. “To be honest, things like equal prize money and a fully combined tour are actually things that I’m more proud of than anything I achieved in my pro career. Having the women on a totally equal stage and a totally equal platform are, like, really important. Things like that are the best parts of my job by a mile.”
Despite her busy, globetrotting role, Miley-Dyer tells The Saturday Paper that she still finds plenty of time to surf. “I still love surfing,” she says. “I always feel like a better person when I get out of the water.” While the Australian says she does not miss competing – “I’ve actually never pulled on a jersey again” – she still gets out the back as much as she can. It is a perk of the job, then, that it takes her to the best waves around the world.
“Probably don’t tell my boss, but I like to get out and go for a surf [while on tour],” she says. “To be honest, it sounds silly but sometimes I get my best work done in the free surf around our championship tour, because everyone’s sitting out in the ocean. It gives me a chance to be like … ‘I was meant to ask you this on email, but I’m gonna do it now in the line-up.’ The fact that I’m pretending to have board meetings out there is something I’ll be holding onto for a while.”
Miley-Dyer may have been retired from professional surfing for a decade now, but she clearly has not lost her touch in the water. She recently posted images of a powerful carving turn during a surf at Maroubra Beach on her Instagram. “Feels good to get a couple of sneaky surfs in here in Sydney,” read the post. Two-time WSL world champion Tyler Wright responded with a comment containing several flame emojis. Fitting praise for an Australian surfing administrator making waves in and out of the ocean.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 7, 2022 as "Making waves".
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