East Los Angeles, California
Years Surfing: 5
Fave Board: My thick yet flowy girl- Lola the Longboard
What/who got you started surfing? I grew up in Los Angeles, first generation daughter to Mexican immigrants. Surfing was never even an idea in our family. All we knew was that our parents worked hard labor jobs so that the children could go to school and break from this cycle. Surf, and play, and going to the ocean to just relax was a lesson I had to teach myself.
But I always did notice things related to surfing from a young age- a vintage picture of surfers in Waikiki, a wetsuit hanging from someone’s porch, or a car driving by with a surfboard strapped to the top. Growing up I was also incredibly unathletic and unable to swim- It didn’t even occur to me that I could learn to master my body and overcome the limits of my mind and someday learn to surf. It was like surfing was for “other” people- cooler people, who were born brave, and I wasn’t one of them.
At 25, my entire life fell apart- and it was one of the greatest heartbreaks that has ever happened to me. I call it my quarter-life crisis: I quit my job as a teacher, I moved to Venice Beach, I started going to the gym, and I decided to step into the ocean. It was a sunny afternoon, my sister and I were just casually talking as we drove back to our new apartment in Venice (before Venice was so hipster and expensive) and the idea of taking a surf lesson came up. I don’t even know how we got on the topic- but within 5 minutes we had searched Yelp for an instructor who answered the phone with one of the thickest surf bro accents I have ever heard, and booked a lesson with him for the next day. It happened so quickly and the factors all seemed to line up so well- it was one of those moments where you know you are exactly where you need to be. And I was going to get to do it with my sister- who I had watched get dragged by the ocean in a near drowning experience. We had not stepped foot in the ocean together since that day- but untangling your fears with someone to accompany you is a very special thing.
The first time I stepped into the ocean with a surfboard, I knew how to float- but hardly knew how to swim. I did not catch a single wave that day. The sensation of being in the ocean, balancing on a board, and attempting to pop up was all so physically foreign to me. It was like a fish out of water- or rather, a human in water. It’s an element we don’t naturally belong in. But the second we left that lesson, I knew I had to keep trying. We drove to the store and bought two Wavestorms and ordered a couple of wetsuits online. Our tiny Venice apartment became a surf hut overnight.
Everyday, my sister and I would wake up and bike to the beach at 6am. We would pull our wetsuits on, walk into the water with our foam boards, and try and try and try again. Try to read the water, try to carry the board, try to paddle better, try to avoid nosediving. Slowly, your body changes and adjusts to all these things. But it took a long time and a lot of patience. My sister caught her first wave after 2 months- she was always a little sportier than me. And I remember I asked her, “What was it like?” I read books, watched videos, and took the fins off my board to practice in my living room. After 6 months, I finally caught my first wave. And it was once of the most blissful 3 seconds of my life- nothing else matters in that moment when you connect perfectly with the ocean, it’s like time stands still and everything goes silent except the little giggle in your throat and the sound of the water crashing behind you.
How has your surfing life in the water affected the rest of your life on land? Surfing has changed everything in my life. She has the power to transform your entire life. She is after all the master teacher in every human emotion: peace, adventure, mystery, joy, ego, tranquility, and for me- fear and courage.
I still remember the day the ocean taught me about fear. I had already caught my first wave, but was still struggling to consistently catch waves. The day was slightly gloomy, the water was a bit stormy, and the waves were lacking shape.
I looked at a wave coming in. Turned my board to paddle. But as the wave got closer to the tail of my board I peeked back- and I noticed how quickly the face rose. It looked like a stone wall that had suddenly grown from 1 foot to 6 feet in a matter of seconds.
I felt a little pain in my brain = the fear thought
I felt it travel down my body like an electrical current= the neuro signals
I felt my muscles receive the current and tense up, lock up, and freeze = the physical reaction
All of this happened in a matter of 2-3 seconds. The wave came crashing on my head, I got tossed around, came up for air, flopped myself back on my board, and paddled back out.
When I was safely back in calmer water where the waves were not breaking, I sat and just reflected. And I realized that I had just tracked the fear through my body, that the fear actually led me to get more beat up because my body froze. And that next time, the second I became aware of the fear thought- I needed to prevent it from traveling like a current through my body and taking over every one of my moves. I could be stronger than the fear. I could stop it. Recognize the fear and go paddle anyway.
I have used this awareness of fear to help me outside of the ocean- in my work, in my relationships, in my travels, in my martial arts, in everything.
And when you learn to be stronger than your fear, you do things you could not do before. This is courage.
Since that day I quit my job, started training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, traveled the world alone, grown as a leader in my new job, put my finances in order, restore relationships I was too afraid to approach, ended relationships that were not good for me, and continue to courageously fight everyday to have the peace in my life that the ocean has shown me.
Who are your surf heroes and why? I wanted to say surfers like Paige Alms who conquers some of the biggest waves people used to say were only for men, or Kelia Moniz who genuinely shows how you can be a surfer in your own way with a smile on your face. They are both amazing female surfers. Or whoever the first woman was to paddle out and surf waves better than the boys.
But my true surf hero is my friend Vanessa Yeager. (IG: @vanessayeager)
I met Vanessa where so many of us meet now- online. When I started surfing, you start following other surfers who resemble you. My sister sent me her page, “Hey, checkout this girl. I think she is Latina and surfs locally at Newport Beach.” I followed her immediately.
One day, she posted a meme from the Jaime Escalante story at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. If you’re Latino, you probably watched this movie a couple hundred times in class- it’s called “Stand and Deliver” and it’s about the first group of Latino kids to take the AP Calculus test in the midst of personal obstacles and administrative discrimination. I had always looked up to their teacher- Jaime Escalante. He inspired me to become a teacher. It hit so close to home- because I was born in East Los Angeles, the little Mexico of LA.
I replied to Vanessa’s post- “I love that movie! I am from East LA too!
And within seconds I found out how similar our lives were- not only was she a surfer, Vanessa was also a teacher, had family roots in East LA, and grew up a few blocks away from me.
Our first surf date was at Doheny Beach in Dana Point. I watched how she paddled out so fluidly like a knife cutting through butter, how she popped up with no effort, and how she played with the wave carving and cross-stepping. Then jumped down with a smile on her face. Vanessa genuinely was one with the ocean.
After our surf, we went to Pizza Port in San Clemente, CA. Up to this point, I thought maybe Vanessa had someone in her family who showed her the ways of the waves or that she grew up a swimmer. I found out that was not the case. She told me how she first learned about surfing as a teenager when a friend of hers brought her to the beach, how she decided she was going to learn, how her family disapproved, how she packed up her stuff and moved alone to to be closer the beach, how she grew and won contests, how she struggled to get noticed for sponsorships because most people didn’t want to brown girl from East LA to be the face of their brand (it just wasn’t the look of surfing), why she decided to stop competing, and how everyday she has to remind herself that she is a true surfer.
I realized the immense amount of work, sacrifice, and self-belief it takes to become one with the ocean like Vanessa. And having her tell me that story in person, in the flesh, as my friend, made me realize that if she could do it- I could do it too. She gave me the power to believe in myself too.
Most memorable surf moment? The ocean has given me so many gifts- and there are so many people who will never get to experience them. Especially people like me who come from families or live in neighborhoods where surfing is just not even an idea.
So my friend and I started Courage Camps.
Courage Camps is free surf lessons for all- we provide the surfboards, the wetsuits, and most importantly the community of people who can help you step into the ocean for the first time.
Courage Camp started one night over text with my friend Vanessa Yeager. We had talked about the idea before but had no clue where to begin. She is an AirBNB host and text me saying how excited she was to host a Puerto Rican girl from New York City- when she arrived, the sight of the surfboards immediately made her eyes bright.
Vanessa: “Hey, I think I am going to teach this girl how to surf tomorrow morning. You want to come?”
Giselle: “Yes! I have a guy from Jiu Jitsu who has been asking me too!”
The guy is one of my training partners- we grew up in the same neighborhood, and decades later our paths crossed on a sweaty Jiu Jitsu gym. He himself has a deep and painful past that prevented him from ever experiencing the joy and peace the ocean gives you. He had seen images of surfers and thought- “Wow, I want to try that someday.”
The next morning at 7am- two surfers and two students met at the beach. You know those moments when every element seems to perfectly align? Well this was one those (again).
And on that warm morning in Blackies at Newport Beach, California we officially started Courage Camp #1. Everyone caught a wave that day. And their lives have transformed in beautiful and dramatic ways as well: getting healthy, traveling the world, quitting jobs, taking new jobs, ending relationships, and starting relationships.
It all came full circle at Courage Camp #4 almost a year after. We always begin our camp by standing in a welcome circle: we say our name, where we are from, and why we are here.
“I am here because surfing looks like so much fun.”
“I am here because I had a near death experience in the ocean and I want to overcome it.”
“I am here because I’ve never had anyone to try this with me.”
“I am here because no one in my family comes to the beach or goes in the ocean.”
“I am here because I want to prove to myself that I can.”
“I am here because I want to do things with my son that my father never did with me.”
It was a circle full of all the fears, joys, and vulnerabilities every human experiences. The circle started with nervous smiles and it ended in happy tears. We come to the beach as individuals and leave as a community. We step into the ocean as one- usually the only diverse group in the ocean- and watch each other face plant into walls of water over and over and over again. Until suddenly, one person starts to get the hang of it, then another, until everyone is at least riding some foam in and there is crowd of fellow surfers clapping for you on the inside. It’s become a safe place to build your courage and break through your own internal walls.