RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The world's best surfers are gathering today at a beach in Southern California for a stop on a championship surf tour. The competition by the World Surf League has moved to San Diego County, where for the first time, women will receive the same amount of prize money as men. And as Quinn Owen reports from an earlier stop on the tour in Orange County, it's a pivotal moment for one young professional surfer.
QUINN OWEN, BYLINE: On a gorgeous recent summer day in Huntington Beach, Calif., the bright glare off the ocean water makes sunglasses a necessity. Droves of spectators have come to see the world's best surfers compete at the U.S. Open of Surfing. Beach towels and umbrellas blanket the sand. Everyone's attention is focused on the surfers in the water. One of them is Courtney Conlogue, who's under pressure to perform well in this quarterfinal round. A professional surfer since age 17, she's well-adjusted to the intensity of competition.
COURTNEY CONLOGUE: I like pressure, so the more the merrier. If you're a runner and you're in the front, you just keep looking forward. You don't look back.
OWEN: Conlogue channels her nerves into a combination of athleticism and artistic performance. She launches into each wave riding her shortboard parallel to shore at high speed.
OWEN: With the white, pointed board seemingly glued to her feet, she carves the surface of the water, making sharp turns that throw ocean spray into the air.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We're looking at a new world number one, Courtney Conlogue taking out Malia Manuel. She'll move into the semifinals and be on top of the rankings for the first time in her career.
OWEN: After moving into the number one spot in women's surfing, the Southern California local is now seeking a world championship title. She's the first California surfer, male or female, to be ranked number one since 1990. For a sport traditionally dominated by Australian and Hawaiian athletes, it's a big deal to SoCal surfers. In the last two years, the World Surf League has made changes to raise the profile of female competitors like Conlogue. Former professional surfer Jessi Miley-Dyer is the first women's commissioner for the league. Her job is to ensure equality between men and women in competition.
JESSI MILEY-DYER: One of the big things that we're really proud of is that we have equal prize money for the men's and women's.
OWEN: The league has more than doubled prize money for female surfers. Miley-Dyer has overseen the addition of more international competitions to the women's championship circuit.
MILEY-DYER: When I was doing the tour and surfing, I would never have told you that I would've thought that surfing would've been the sport that was trying to lead the way in, you know, equality in women's sports.
OWEN: Those changes have made a difference for surfers like Courtney Conlogue. Launching a professional surfing career as a teenager comes with significant risk.
CONLOGUE: My rookie year, I was trying to do college while I was doing professional surfing because I didn't know if I could make enough money to stay on tour. I didn't know where to go, what to do. It was just me and my mom and us traveling around the world trying to figure it all out.
OWEN: Women's surfing has already seen a return from the league's investment. The top surfers in the women's division this year are widely considered the best female athletes in the sport's history. Plenty of young local fans love to watch Conlogue compete and perform.
COURTNEY SERVEN: It makes me have confidence in myself, like maybe I could do it when I get a chance.
OWEN: That was 11-year-old Courtney Serven, who watched her idol seize the spot in women's surfing at the U.S. Open this summer.
COURTNEY: It just inspires me, and Courtney is just a such good role model.
OWEN: But Conlogue hasn't won a world championship title just yet. The contest in Southern California this weekend will play an important role in securing her lead.
OWEN: For NPR News, I'm Quinn Owen in San Diego. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.