Women surfers return to daunting Olympic wave at 'End of the Road'
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Elite women surfers returned to competition at "the world's heaviest wave" in Tahiti on Wednesday, ending a 16-year absence and taste of the daunting challenge at the 2024 Paris Olympics.
For the first time since 2006, members of the women's World Surf League are competing in Teahupo'o, a wave respected and feared by boardriders worldwide.
Flanked by verdant cloud-touched volcanoes, Teahupo'o looks like a tropical idyl.
But a short distance from the shoreline is what surfers call "The End of the Road", a near-vertical drop into a heavy wave that barrels over razor-sharp reef.
At times it appears that the whole ocean is exploding onto the reef and even the slightest mistake can be punished by a fall into cheese-grater-like coral, where at least one person has died in recent years.
Adding to the drama, Teahupo'o is set to be the location of the surfing event at the 2024 Paris Olympics. Tahiti is in French Polynesia in the Pacific.
Top male surfers compete at Teahupo'o regularly, but for a long time the spot had been deemed too dangerous for women, causing anger and allegations of misogyny.
"This wave is difficult for anyone to surf, male or female," said Keala Kennelly, an award-winning big wave surfer who has won multiple titles at Teahupo'o.
"It's one of the heaviest, most dangerous waves in the world. I assure you that this wave doesn't care about your gender, it will destroy you if it wants to," she told AFP.
Teahupo'o was a long way off its fiercest for the first day of competition on Wednesday, but bigger swell is forecast for the rest of the event, which is scheduled to finish on August 21.
Among the first to paddle out in the heats was seven-time world champion Stephanie Gilmore of Australia and Tokyo Olympic gold medallist Carissa Moore from Hawaii.
"Watching the women surf-challenging heavy-water waves shows the younger generation what is possible and that women belong in these lineups," said Jessi Miley-Dyer of the World Surf League.