At Matuse, we are privileged to witness remarkable individuals donning our wetsuits, showcasing their talents, and pushing the boundaries of what is possible. In this blog post, we delve into the inspiring journey of Katie McConnell, as she shares her profound insights on surfing, the art of teaching, and the unwavering pursuit of one's deepest passions. Join us as we embark on a journey through Katie's own words, exploring the exhilarating world of wave-riding, the transformative power of mentorship, and the profound significance of aligning with one's heart's true desires.

- How did you first get into surfing, and what made you fall in love with the sport?

I grew up in Encinitas, California, but I didn’t start surfing until high school at San Dieguito. 

At some point I started flipping through surf magazines, and I could not get enough of those beautiful photographs of surfers on waves. The incredible play of light and color on the infinite shapes of bending water captured my fascination, and I decided to become one of those people who could position themselves so close to that magic. So, I convinced my best friend, Emily, to take Surf PE with me, and we convinced our parents to drop us off at Cardiff Reef every morning before school our sophomore year. 

Emily and I were the only girls in the class, and we had these used shortboards that we would just send on closeouts on the dumpy inside bar, eating sand over and over for days on end, relentlessly trying to figure out how to stand up. Emily understandably got over it, dropping out after the first quarter while I kept at it. 

Eventually, a regular dawn patroller took pity on me and lent me his longboard, telling me it was “magic” and inviting me out to the actual reef. Finally, I caught a small wave and rode the green face all the way across the patchy seagrass-covered reef to where the wave petered out, and I was absolutely hooked. It was just pure, lighthearted joy gliding across the water, pushed along by wave energy– it was fun as heck! 

From then on, my whole life started rearranging itself around surfing and being in the ocean. And, after consistently going to the ocean, I just felt stronger, healthier and happier in body, mind and spirit. Surfing was the seed for my relationship with the ocean, something that since then has shaped my entire experience.

-How did you transition into big wave riding?

Well, when I teach surf lessons, I always ask people to watch the water and tell me how big the waves are. Usually I get a qualitative answer– “It’s huge!” or, “Not too big”--and we talk about how wave size is often relative to our ability and confidence level given the conditions du jour, and then talk about some tricks to empirically estimate wave height from shore. In the “sport” of big wave surfing, though, waves with 20 foot faces are generally considered the starting point for what is considered a big wave.

My first love was longboarding, and I’ve always just naturally sat out the back. At first it was because I didn’t want to get caught by cleanup sets, but over time I started seeking out the biggest wave of the biggest sets. It’s a really fun game– who can find the biggest/best wave of the day and discreetly and stylishly slip into it? I love to be that stealthy ninja.

My transition into waves with 20ft+ faces began a couple years ago when I was living in Oregon and Northern California. I wanted to surf every day, but the waves were pretty ugly, gnarly and downright scary most of the time. What was worse, though, was getting stuck on the sand and watching my friends surf, so I decided I just had to suck it up and figure out how to navigate. 

At first, my boyfriend at the time let me borrow this 9’2” Linden gun, and I would send it on what were the biggest waves I’d ever caught and think, “Wow, that was epic! What else can I do?” …and so began a gradual progression where I started going bigger and bigger, eventually getting my own gun. 

I’ll never forget when I called up Gary Linden for a big wave board. He didn’t doubt me for one second, and even encouraged me to go all-out on a 10’0”, saying “Don’t you want to catch a million waves?!” Gary hand shaped me a beast-mode quad gun with a 2”-thick stringer that became the gateway board to a whole new life centered around big wave surfing. He was the turning point in my life, the reason I’m here today. Sometimes it just takes one person to believe in you, even a little bit.

- Can you share a memorable surfing moment or experience that has stayed with you?

I will never forget the giant south swell that slammed Punta de Lobos and then El Buey in Chile, from August 15-17, 2022, triggering the Lobos por Siempre and Santos del Mar Big Wave Invitationals to run.  

The swell arrived to Punta de Lobos at 17-19 feet at 17 seconds, and pretty west… absolutely massive and with light offshores in the morning, veering light onshore in the afternoon. Sunny skies. Just incredible.

Although there were judges and a point scoring system, the event was created as a celebration of surf where we honor and appreciate nature together, inspiring conservation and stewardship. The invitational welcome letter mentioned, “...the great day of waves that we all have been dreaming about.”  I had been dreaming about surfing giant Lobos and had been working on it, but this was sure to be something else entirely. It was my first big wave contest where I would surf in a heat, with a format in the style of the Eddie where everyone surfs twice and your best waves are totalled at the end of the day. It was also going to be the biggest day ever surfed in local memory. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen.  

The waves were absolutely wild that day, some of the biggest I have ever seen. They were much taller than the morros themselves and breaking on outer shelves we hadn’t known existed. It felt surreal to be there to give it a go and share it with so many friends from all corners of the globe. I kept getting this feeling like we were all living in a tangible, moldable, collective dream. It was one of the greatest days of my life, for sure. I will never, ever forget it. 

Chacha Ibarra dropped that bomb that won him the XXL Award around 2:30pm– I was standing on the cliff in between my heats chatting with Greg Long. When it happened, it was like an energy vortex. Everyone turned to witness it, no matter what they were doing. How did we all feel it right before it happened, just in time to turn and watch? 

In the first heat, I got this really happy feeling before I caught the biggest wave of my life yet, but then it ate me! It broke at the top in front of me and I went flying into an overhead barrel the wrong way, and then it almost spit me out the whitewater for a straight drop, but it bucked me off and I went down. I came up laughing after the craziest centrifuge tumble cycle ever. That send was enough to take 1st place for the women, representing alongside Natalia “Cata” Escobar Diaz (Chile), Emi Erickson (Hawaii) and Michaela Fregonese (Brasil). Both Cata and I outscored some of the 25 men who competed. Several people were unable to catch a wave that day, and there were a couple minor injuries but nothing major. 

The prize money was shared equally amongst all the competitors, and that night several of us flew overnight to Arica to surf in the Santos del Mar Big Wave Internacional at El Buey. The swell filled in huge across the day - clocking in at 12-13 feet and still with 17 seconds backing it up. It was thick and gray in the morning of the first day, pretty much as big as El Buey can get. There was some morning sickness, but that wave is always so clean! I caught a couple okay waves, got caught by some bigger surprises, and, though sleep deprived as heck, was stoked.

Santos del Mar was so homegrown and rootsy and awesome. In between heats I would go upstairs in the hotel and, in my exhausted state, try to do a bilingual webcast alongside local charger Sofia Borquez, and do Instagram lives to try and get people to tune in at the same time. I’ll never forget watching Cristobal de Col make a giant backside right barrel for a perfect 10! Sofia and I went wild on the mics. 

As the event wore on, El Buey was on a board destroying rampage, so everyone started lending each other boards. Someone rode my board until I ripped the tail out, then Michaela Fregonese lended me ride her board while the guy who was supposed to ride mine borrowed someone else’s board, which happened to have been an old Jamie Sterling board anyways, and so on until the lawn in front of the hotel was strewn with pieces of boards and equipment.

In my second heat I was with Jafet Ramos, the most notorious (and arguably most barrelled) Zicatela local. We’ve always had good rapport, but finally we were both foreigners and therefore equals in the lineup. It was on. He was very aggressive in the heat, and we were jockeying for position, but I ended up scoring higher than him. Word spread around Zicatela the rest of that summer and it became a hilarious story to banter with him and the guys about when I saw them later in Puerto Escondido. It even scored me a few calls into waves from Jafet, muchas gracias!

Through dipping my toes in competition I discovered I have a super competitive side of myself. But, in the end it was always for the fun of it! Seeing, out of everyone from around the world, who can find and ride the biggest wave of the day… it’s just the most fun game and it really does motivate us all to expand our capabilities and go for it. It also brings value to the wave, to the surfers, to the local community and to what we all love to do. I was honored to represent as one of the few present women. 

But, especially in the case of Punta de Lobos that day… The ocean always wins. 

- Can you describe the key features or qualities you look for when choosing a wetsuit?

When choosing a wetsuit, I look for the most Earth-friendly wetsuit available because every little bit counts to keep our planet clean and life-friendly. To do so, I kind of boil it down to material, construction and fit. When the water is frigid I look for fully taped seams, and a torso panel that is shiny (as if the material has been sealed to block the wind/evaporation…not sure the technical term for this!), and extra insulation on the core.

- Have you noticed any trends or innovations in wetsuit design and technology among Matuse? 

I’ve been super stoked on Matuse’s Geo-based suits and have had a good time putting them to the test. There’s a big movement away from petroleum-based materials, and I’ve been trying out both Geoprene and Yulex material suits with great results. 

Construction is super important, both because it comes down to the ethics of how/where/under what conditions it was made, and the long-term durability of the wetsuit– if your wetsuit lasts forever and you don’t have to buy a new one every season, that counts a lot towards a smaller footprint. And, Matuse participates in a wetsuit recycling program which helps further close the loop. 

So far, my Matuse suits are pretty much indistinguishable from the first day I got them, which pretty much means daily use over about six+ months now. Everything has held up so well– even the zippers haven’t corroded. 

- What are you passionate about outside of surfing in depth?

You mean besides bodysurfing? Haha!

Outside of surfing and my family, I am passionate about teaching and learning! I am a voracious learner, curious about everything, and am extremely thorough with my interests, which are many and varied. Gardening, yoga, backpacking, hot peppers, buoy data, music, reading, skating, building and fixing things, traveling, scuba diving, movies, photography, theater, writing, fermenting, beekeeping, biking, crypto, space exploration… pretty much nothing is out of bounds. 

I’m an ocean scientist and research diver by training, and I also work as a facilitator and educator in a variety of contexts. I believe in compassion, meticulous data, and our ability to make the impossible possible– and enjoying our time as we go! My grandfather was a peace activist and I grew up with him calling me periodically to preach “Peace, Justice and Care of the Earth! You are an Earth Trustee!” So here we are. 

In general, I love symbolism. This applies to good stories, but also to working systems and cycles. For example, Save The Waves Coalition’s adaptable model of Surf Protected Areas and Networks is something I really believe will turn the tide for safeguarding our natural resources for future generations.

To support myself during big wave competition season in Hawaii, this year I started working part-time as a substitute teacher at the local public elementary school, which was a pretty new experience. 

I started subbing because it’s a flexible, on-call job that would allow me to surf whenever I needed. But meeting these little kids from all walks of life where they are and getting them excited about life and learning in a way that works well for each of them turned out to be such a rad and rewarding challenge. 

I think one of my gifts is to be able to identify a need or a gap and help it– I’m big on problem solving. This probably comes from both my parents: My Dad is super calculated, collected and hands-on, and I’ve never met anyone more giving, hardworking and nurturing than my Mom, who has been a nurse her entire life. As a substitute, I have a lot of freedom to float, which means I get to know every single student in school and can provide personalized attention that overburdened full-time staff often can’t. 

Also, blending my academic and surfing background in a classroom environment is super fun and engaging for the kids. I used to teach college biology and environmental science, but working with the little kids is also awesome. They go crazy when I show them clips of waves I caught over the winter, and we’ve done some really great impromptu activities about oceanography, waves/tides, measuring wave height, surfing history, plastic pollution, social justice and access, sea creatures, humpback whales, and on and on and on. There’s magic that happens when they start asking questions and we can adapt our curriculum to follow their line of inquiry and interests. 

We must take better care of our children! They truly are our future. There’s nothing quite like seeing the next generation thriving, and I learn so much, too. 

-What is your greatest accomplishment and what is your number one goal in life?

It’s so fulfilling to see my former students becoming their best selves, but honestly I’m proud of my surfing journey over the last couple years: The waves I sent it on, the risks and sacrifices and choices I made in my life, the extended family I’ve found and the memories we made along the way. The greatest part of it all is that, in a vein similar to teaching, my surfing and story has inspired others to dream, believe and get after it. And I’m still just getting started! 

My number one goal in life? Lol, to prove that I can actually turn! Just kidding, but that’s a deep question.

My number one goal in life is to push the limits of what we think is possible while making the world more fair and taking care of the planet. This will create more freedom, peace and ease for everyone and everything. I’m doing that through surfing and big waves. I want to catch the biggest wave ever and ride it with style. I want to get to the point where I can catch the biggest wave at every spot on every swell (but I promise I won’t hog all the waves). People will be inspired. 

PS - another surf memory

Pre dedicating my life to surfing big waves, I made a short film about a mass whale die-off in Patagonia and it was published on NatGeo. I installed time lapse cameras throughout Golfo de Penas and got a bunch of friends to go on a 11-day seakayak expedition to recover them a year later… and surf! NatGeo wasn’t interested in the surfing, so the video is just about the science, but it’s a really fond memory

Here’s the full video that I shot and edited: https://vimeo.com/271516745

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