Like her cursive lines drawn across the face of moving water, Leah Dawson’s path hasn’t been a straight line. Pivoting, speeding up, slowing down, and gliding, her surfing journey has evolved from maneuvers that gain the most points in contests to embracing the rhythm of her own drum and advocating for environmental conservation. Being in the presence of her radiant confidence, you get the feeling she’s exactly where she’s supposed to be.
Between winters spent on Oahu and a summer full of women’s surf retreats, we caught up with Leah to talk about the projects that are fueling her passions and the performance details on her new signature suits.
All photos by Ashley Barker
Projects that nurture the women's surfing community is such a huge part of your life now. How did the shift from surfing in contests to community happen for you?
When I was 23, my mom began giving me some advice for my surfing that at the time, I was not quite ready to hear. “You don’t have to be a competition surfer to keep surfing.” At that point, I thought this meant I had to give up on my surfing dream. I was not quite sure what the details of this dream exactly were, but I knew I didn’t want to let surfing fade from the centerpiece of my life.
As I continued to compete and chase titles, I started reading various books in the realm of spirituality.
The idea of non-judgment and non-comparison struck my heartstrings. I remember reading these pages and feeling this wave of release, as I no longer wanted to hold myself to a competitive standard of trying to be the best, based on someone else’s judgment. Moreover, the idea of trying to be better than anyone else lost its flare for me.
Soon, I began riding all sorts of alternative surf crafts, in ways that might not achieve high scores for judges, but in a way that my heart wanted to, truly discovering how my body wanted to naturally move on the water.
What were the positive aspects of the competitive surfing experience?
My favorite aspect of competition surfing has always been the community it connected me with. Some of my best friends in life came from competing in contests together, yet those friendships have blossomed as the entire water and nature-lifestyle continues to penetrate our lives.
Shifting from competition to community, friendships through surfing have become the most important element of the influence surfing has in my life. However we arrive at these friendships uniting our growing community, we cherish these connections, as they are the zest and salt of life.
Tell us more about your signature suits! What type of features did you want in a surf suit?
I’ve always dreamed of collaborating with a company to create the products I depend on. That dream has come true, fuller than I could have ever imaged.
When asked to design my first signature Seea suit, excitement filled me, and Amanda (Seea founder and designer) brought to life my wishes.
As athletes, our attire affects the way we perform. After decades of constantly adjusting my bikinis, shivering in the lineup, and slathering sunblock from head to toe, there were a few key elements I knew I needed in my ideal surf suit, so much so that we created two different suits!
These features include:
Core warmth. I tend to get cold, no matter how warm the water is. If there is a trickle of wind, I get the shivers! If our kidneys get cold, chances are our whole body will be cold, so the surf suits are designed with 2mm neoprene around the whole chest area.
Supreme Comfort. To maximize the comfortability of the suit, we use C-skin material (mix between Lycra and neoprene) on the bottom portion of the suits. This fabric is soft and also forms well to the body, preventing the need to constantly adjust the suit.
Maneuverability. The long arms are made from Seea’s high-quality Lycra intended for paddling ease. We designed the cut under the arms to prevent from any friction or rashing.
Sun protection. I believe the best form of sunscreen is clothing coverage. Safe sunscreens are expensive and all others are dangerous for our skin and the oceans, so the less sunscreen we have to wear the better! We designed the Leah bodysuit as a full-coverage suit intended for sunny days and long sessions.
Form and Fashion. The zip front and neck cut are designed to give support for the bust, with a relaxing, loose fit around the neck, that still prevents lots of water from flushing into the suit.
3 in 1. These suits feature three different materials, Lycra, neoprene, and C-skin, each placed to serve their maximum purpose.
How did it feel when you first tried on the samples to test out?
The Leah bodysuit is my favorite suit I have ever worn, namely because its effective warmth, trustworthy sun protection, and when worn out in the surf or on the river, the suit never needs to be re-adjusted, allowing me to fully focus on my activities.
As a woman with fair skin, covering my body is essential for me to live my life with the sea. The bodysuit not only saves me a ton of sunscreen, it also allows me to never have to adjust my attire while I am playing in the sea. The bodysuit is the most comfortable surf outfit I’ve ever worn!
The Leah surf suit is ideal for warm climates like Hawaii, where there is always a bit of a wind chill. I love this suit for surfing in powerful waves because I never have to worry about it getting out of place, allowing me to fully focus on my dance with the waves.
Tell us more about the Changing Tides Foundation that you started with your sea sisters. What is the foundation’s mission?
In 2016, four of my dearest sea sisters and I started the Changing Tides Foundation (CTF). Our mission is to empower travelers to give back along their journeys, while increasing action towards lessening our environmental footprint.
Our model is based on collaboration with local communities, existing organizations, and stoked travelers. We believe, “together we are better.” Only together are we going to solve the grave challenges our world faces, environmentally and socially.
What are the most recent campaigns and projects that you’ve done with Changing Tides and their impact?
CTF recently launched a campaign called the Plastic Swear Jar Challenge, which aimed to bring awareness to how much we all use single-use plastics and encourage conscious awareness to avoid them. By keeping track of each single-use plastic we use by putting $1 in a jar for every piece used, we create consequence for what we previously never paid attention to. The earth is paying a big price due to humanity’s unconscious use of plastics—this challenge gives us a glimpse into just how detrimental the plastic is to our world. I strongly suggest watching the documentary “A Plastic Ocean,” which solidifies concern about the world’s abuse of plastic.
I challenge you to take the one-week Plastic Swear Jar Challenge—avoid single-use plastics as much as you can, and witness how much plastic you still end up using at the end of the week. It’s astonishing and a great reminder that we individually have to change our ways and make daily decisions on our plastic consumption.
The first step to create change is establishing awareness. This challenge aims to create just that.
You talked about how you were lucky enough to be introduced to playing in the ocean early in your life, and you wanted to share these tools with others. Tell us more about how your latest CTF effors in Panama introduces local women to the ocean.
CTF teamed up with Give and Surf to create the first female focused program ever in Bocas, the Women’s Outreach Mentorship Program (WOMP) based in Bocas Del Toro, Panama. WOMPBOCAS is CTF’s latest flagship program.
Give and Surf is a local NGO in Bocas which provides educational programs to indigenous communities throughout the Bocas province, as well as surf programs to enable local kids with water skills and access to the many waves of their homeland.
A head volunteer from Give and Surf designed a 10-week course and gathered any teenage girls in the small town of Basti who wanted to participate. Our CTF team joined the group of seven girls on the third week of their program. We brought them five stand-up paddleboards and a ton of gear including reef-safe sunscreen, masks and snorkels, shoes, water proof bags, and beautiful Seea suits!
What is the socioeconomic background of the women that participated in the program, and how did they feel after the experience?
In the small town of Basti, there are huge gender disparities. Girls rarely finish high school, as they are often pregnant by 12-years-old and expected to stay home to clean house and raise the families. Left with few options, WOMP empowers the young girls to consider and strive for a life beyond teenage motherhood.
Though many of the teenage girls on the island are friends or related, trust and inspiration to dream amongst them has ceased to exist. Our goal was to exemplify sisterhood to them and help create a bond between them through a common love and interest in the ocean. Though these young women have grown up right by the sea, it wasn’t until we executed this program did they discover their interest in ocean sports and the joy the water can bring to their lives.
In the week that our CTF team was with the group of girls, we witnessed their sisterhood form, their discovery of the ocean penetrate their lives, and their desire to dream of a life beyond teenage pregnancy form.
Our goal is to continue funding this program so that more girls will participate and opportunities for these young women will continue to empower their lives. The ocean does wonders!
How do you feel about being a role model for younger women and what do you hope to teach the next generation?
Though I am not a mother yet, my mothering instincts are very much alive in me: nurturing, protective, supportive.
Growing up, I always drew inspiration from female role models who exemplify the high moral standards I strive to live by. Seeking a spiritual foundation, showing respect, appreciation and humility have always been most important to me.
Being a girl or young woman in today’s world is recognizably scary, as our society has developed a norm of materialistic standards, self-judgment, and demoralizing values. Everywhere we look, we see images of women revealing their bodies, with focus on outer beauty before inner beauty, giving young women a sense of dissatisfaction with their bodies or their lives.
I am grateful beyond words that Seea exists, mainly for their respect of the feminine and commitment to creating a space for women’s surf culture to have self-respect. I strive to be an example for the growing generations to love and respect themselves, to see their innate inner beauty, to love our earth and want to protect it, to believe in their dreams, to see surfing as medicine, to appreciate education, to strive to be their best self, and to connect with and work together with their community.
We are all well aware now of the severe danger our earth’s environment is in. I’ve always recognized surfing as a platform to speak up for our earth, to spark environmental awareness, and to create passion in all areas of life. It is my life’s purpose, and I am honored to have Seea as a vessel to share this with the world.
What’s next for you? What are your big dreams in the next few days and years?
With each passing day, the fire inside me to help our planet and its entire species grows and grows. I know I was a water baby, put on the planet to be of service, utilizing my relationship with the ocean.
I am a storyteller at heart and a media maker by trade. I’ve been writing and developing a film for a few years that I feel I am just maturing enough to start making.
I dream of making women’s surfing films that expand the consciousness and passion of their viewers. Women’s surfing at its core is the feminine dancing with breathing nature; I cannot think of anything more spiritual or beautiful on our planet.
As we continue growing with the Changing Tides Foundation, I foresee a huge web of water people connecting across our planet. Surfers have to be leaders in our environmental revolution, for our connection with and dependency on nature are tremendous.
I continue to push my creativity in surfing to fulfill my dreams of self-growth and progression, but also to further give reason for people around the world to be interested in the messages I am here to relay.
Empower actions with respect for all: ourselves, each other, and most importantly, our amazing planet.
Thank you Leah for being an inspiration to us all!
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