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Making waves in kneeboarding: Elsa Michaela introduces us to one of the UK’s least known sports

Kneeboarding is a niche watersport; it is not quite as popular as surfing, but a small group of loyal kneeboarders have managed to keep the sport alive. Often overshadowed by surfing, kneeboarding is carving out its niche. Elsa Michaela, an aspiring female kneeboarder who resides in the northeast of England, is in that group of loyal kneeboarders. Her story is not just about kneeboarding but also about overcoming misogyny and gender stereotypes in watersports and balancing her life as a single mother and a working woman without sacrificing her hobby. 

I met Elsa three years ago via a WhatsApp group, ‘Howayve The Lasses,’ created to connect female surfers, paddleboarders, and swimmers in the North East—a safe space for women within the male-dominated arena. Elsa was the only kneeboarder in the group, and I soon discovered she was one of the few female kneeboarders in the United Kingdom. 

Elsa was born in Suffolk but led a somewhat nomadic lifestyle growing up. She has lived in places such as Northumberland, a UK home county that boasts some of the best and most picturesque surf spots in the country, and the Isles of Scotland.  It is no surprise that growing up here instilled a deep love for the water as a child; on South Uist, she had twenty miles of coastline to herself. Unfortunately, these seas are much more treacherous and not ideal for surfing. However, this did not stop her. Elsa still surfed on calmer days when the waves were smaller and picked up sea-kayaking. The sea “was actually kind of a babysitter,” stated Elsa, “we were a handful [four kids] for my mum, so the sea entertained us”. Elsa taught herself about the currents and tides by observing the waters; she didn’t have the vocabulary for the waves and currents, but from observing the patterns, she became familiar with how the sea worked. Her connection to the sea has always been strong, from “talking to the sea and playing games with it” to “spending hours connecting to the sea”. It is safe to say she is both physically and spiritually tied to the water. 

@surfthought

Its been a winter of onshore, and south- easterlies. A small day but clean at least. We had a huge arcing rainbow frame the horizon for the whole session. I don’t have Emma’s tiktok but thanks for the video! #kneelo #kneeboardsurfing #fringesurfing #cutbacksurfing #surfingisgreat

♬ Summertime – Janis Joplin

For Elsa, kneeboarding refers to the board sport where the rider paddles for their waves – not the version of kneeboarding where speedboats tow the rider. Compared to surfboards, kneeboards are smaller and require a specific skill set to navigate. She paddles out and rides the waves on her knees instead of ‘popping’ up to her feet like surfing.
Although a minor sport, Elsa credits the film “Crystal Voyager” for instilling the love of the sport into her even though she could hardly swim and hadn’t tried surfing or kneeboarding yet. The first time she caught a wave, she rode it so well on her knees that she never looked back.

Kneeboarding presented a unique challenge; it was a sport where female athletes were scarce, and opportunities were even scarcer. Since meeting Elsa, she has even strengthened my love for the sea and inspired me to take on new sports and not fear what others may think. Her candid honesty about what it is like to be a kneeboarder, single mother, and working mum is inspiring and proves that women are much more than the stereotypes they are often aligned with. 

“Unfortunately, kneeboarding is a dying sport”, Elsa stated, “I only know of two other female kneeboarders, and I was the only woman at the meet-up out of 10 or 12 guys”. Elsa is not wrong; the sport is slowly dying out. Even a quick Google search shows you are pressed to find widespread popularity for it. Kneeboarding is a slight drop in the ocean compared to surfing, paddleboarding, and even kayaking. The Wikipedia page for kneeboarding is scarce, with a few references scattered here and there; compared to the page for surfing or paddle-boarding, it is clear to see that the sport is not as popular as its counter-parts other than a few spikes in popularity over the years. 

Women’s participation and representation in watersports are slowly rising, especially in the North East of England. Companies such as SurfYonder specialise in teaching women how to surf and be safe in the water, and smaller groups formed by friends, such as ‘Howayve the Lasses,’ encourage and celebrate female participation. 

@surfthought via Instagram

Historically, water sports have been heavily male-dominated, with women often sidelined or outright excluded due to societal norms and gender biases. The feminist movement has been crucial in challenging these barriers, advocating for equal access, recognition and safe spaces for woman to learn and develop their sporting skills. For decades, women were discouraged from participating in sports, especially water sports and swimming, due to concerns over modesty and safety in the water. These biases led to competitions and clubs being closed to women, making it harder for female athletes to break out in the water sports scene. 

Despite these setbacks, there were pioneering woman athletes early on, such as Gertrude Erdele, the first woman to swim the English Channel, and Margo Oberg, a 1970s surfing pioneer. The footsteps of Eredele and Oberg paved the way for female surfers and kneeboarders today. Unfortunately, even today, in 2024, it can be challenging for women due to the misogyny that still exists in sports globally.

@surfthought via Instagram

Balancing hobbies with the rest of life’s demands is incredibly hard for single mothers. The traditional view that women should solely be caregivers and homemakers is still prevalent across a lot of societies, and even while the world is beginning to move on from this, the ideology persists. This expectation is magnified when it comes to women in sports and women who follow their passions, as they are often seen as neglecting their families for themselves and having a supposed lack of commitment to one’s home life.

Yet, in Elsa’s case, her reality tells a story of unparalleled resilience and commitment. I know Elsa to be an extremely dedicated and ambitious woman. She is working towards qualifying as a surf lifeguard and pushing herself to surf bigger and enter competitions. She is living proof that talent is not diminished by motherhood but is instead magnified.

When I recently met with Elsa, she reflected on being the only woman in the lineup and how intimidating it can be. “If you make a mistake, it is not because you are human; it is because you are a woman,” she said, echoing what many sportswomen often mention. This statement alone unpacks many challenges Elsa and many women in similar positions endure—challenges that extend far beyond the physical demands of kneeboarding. 

Elsa’s journey into kneeboarding was fueled by a passion for the water and a desire to challenge herself. However, she quickly realised that the waves were not the only obstacles in her path. Gender bias and misogyny have created an additional hurdle, one that questioned her presence and ability based solely on her gender. A misogynistic view that still exists in 2024 is that woman inherently lack the physical strength or skill to perform the same, or better, than their male peers. This stereotype exists to undermine women’s achievements and discourage participation in sports. When it comes to watersports, many of these communities can be incredibly tight-knit, making it even harder for women to shine through and break into the scene.

Elsa has stated that she does not want to be seen as a warrior for feminism; she simply gets up and puts in the hard work. She doesn’t want to demonise people for having misogynistic views, as this can lead to defensive attitudes where men refuse to learn and change, so instead, Elsa wants people to unravel why they think a certain way and what has led them to the conclusions they have come too – why do men assume women are worse at the sport? Why do they need to tell her that her board choice may be wrong or that she should be more careful in the water? She is also quick to state that the only way she feels she is fighting misogyny is by unapologetically being herself and being a “female living and partaking in a world that is overwhelmingly patriarchal”. These fights for equality are often not loud statements but quiet actions taken daily against societal norms. 

@surfthought

Me on the kneeboard getting dropped in on 😅 #kneeboardsurfing #kneelo #drop

♬ Times Like These – Foo Fighters

When discussing this, Elsa said, “You (women) are just expected to be bad, expected only to stay in the white water and be on a foamie, so it can be hard to get the confidence to go further.” This alone proves that misogyny is still deep-rooted in watersports. If Elsa, a talented kneeboarder who is also incredibly confident, feels like this, how must it feel for those just starting out? Elsa continued, “Even if you do go further, you need to be way better than the men because no one will see it. Everything you do as a woman is halved.” This quote echoes what women have been saying for years—the bar is set way higher for women than men in sports, which in turn means women’s achievements remain undervalued.

Elsa likes to be more of a lone wolf in the water. She thinks it is important for woman to build their trust in themselves first so they are not as quickly bulldozed over by potential misogyny from men. “We [women] are so used to being told what to think”, Elsa said, “and we have to measure ourselves as less capable than men”, therefore she likes to build her resilience up alone, as well as her skills. Hence, she is confident she can get into the sea despite any anxieties. She uses scepticism as fuel, pushing herself harder and, as a result, inspiring many people like myself. Elsa continued, “I am uncompromising in wanting to do what makes me feel strong…that is more important than anything else”. Her determination to continue training and building on her skills, in and out of the water, is admirable. Although the playing field is far from level, we can begin to change this by celebrating women’s achievements more often and making sure they are shown across society. 

@surfthought via Instagram

The last thing Elsa mentioned when discussing her kneeboarding journey was the conversation around women’s achievements and how important it is going forward to focus on these. “The conversation should concentrate on women’s achievements within themselves rather than compared to men. It’s the comparison that keeps it all in this ‘tit for tat’ argumentative stasis. We simply need more women being women… stop drawing attention to him and her and make it about people keeping kneeboarding alive”. I genuinely believe Elsa’s journey as a kneeboarder, single mother and simply as a woman with hobbies in the 21st century is a testament to how multi-faceted women can be and a reminder that regardless of what societal bounds may exist, we can continue to push forward and carve our paths. Elsa continues to go out almost daily in search of the perfect wave, regardless of the existing misogyny. She inspires others in the North East to pursue their passions, just like she is pursuing her dream of competing and obtaining her qualifications.

You can also listen to Elsa’s podcast episode with John Pease, here.  If you want to continue learning about women in sports, you can find our article tackling equity in Cricket here.

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