It’s hard not to be taken in by Eva Porter. With long, white-blond hair, that perfect tan, a welcoming smile and gentle eyes, she’s an electric jellyfish, crackling with vibrancy, fluid as an angelfish. By the time the server at Southern Grounds & Co. in Neptune Beach sets down her tea, he’s stammering and blushing furiously, possibly wondering if he’s encountered an earthbound seraphim. But Eva Porter is no typical 21-year-old beach beauty, her thoughts a centrifuge of narcissism and insecurity: She is an intensely competitive athlete, a world traveler, a truth-seeker most comfortable in the ocean’s embrace.
Last June, Eva (pronounced ay-vuh) Porter rocketed to the forefront of the surf lifesaving circuit when she took home the crown at the South Bay Dozen at Torrance Beach, California, where she bested favorites like Carter Graves and triathlete Taylor Spivey. She went on to win the Open American IronWoman event at the USLA National Lifeguard Championships in Daytona, on a challenging 1,400-meter course that included swimming, paddleboarding, surf skiing and a beach sprint. Those results earned the veteran Jax Beach lifeguard and former University of North Florida swimmer a spot on the team representing the U.S. at the International Surf Rescue Challenge in Maroochydore Beach, Australia on Sept. 3-6 last fall.
It did not go particularly well.
“I ended up having, like, the most events that first day ’cause I did the Ironman, I did the surf ski relay, I did the individual surf ski, the paddle and I think that was it, I think I had five,” she said.
She placed fifth that day, which she says was her goal; the teams from Australia and New Zealand have long dominated the competition.
Following a day of rest, she competed in the final day’s events.
“I don’t know what it was, maybe I was discouraged because the other competitors were that much better, but I didn’t do as well.”
She’d already decided to take off the fall semester from her studies at UNF, so when she found a family to stay with through a surf club, she jumped at the chance to remain in Maroochydore, where she immediately started training with a vengeance.
“Monday/Wednesday/Friday was surf ski training, Tuesday/Thursday was board training in the afternoons and then Saturday was Ironman training, and then the mornings I would swim from, like, 5 to 7 a.m.”
Simultaneously, Porter was teaching surfing at first one, then another surf camp. Spending 10 hours in the water every day eventually pushed her beyond the limits of her stamina, so she stopped doing the 5 a.m. swim.
“I was so exhausted every day and I got my butt kicked,” she said. “I probably cried a few times after training.”
Though she’d been surfing for years, Porter was largely self-taught with the habits and techniques that plague those who acquire a skill without much professional coaching. In Australia, she started working with surf coach Grant Thomas, along with Ironman Rhys Drury.
With Porter’s constant training, surf lessons and getting accustomed to the consistently bigger waves on Australia’s Sunshine Coast, she felt her athletic future had never looked brighter. That all halted when an accident almost ended her career — and possibly her life.
THE MAKINGS OF A WATER GODDESS
Growing up at the Beaches, Porter, the second of her Dutch mother and American father’s four children, was a fixture at local skate parks, where she developed a fondness for taking risks.
“I always loved the vert, I always dropped in, like the 8-foot ramp, I could drop in the halfpipe really easily.”
Pushing herself to ever-greater heights eventually resulted in some broken arms, which ultimately ended Porter’s love affair with skateboarding.
At 10, she attended a week-long surf camp; each subsequent summer she’d spend more time surfing. Like most beach kids, she’d boogie-boarded a lot, which, coupled with the skills and fearlessness she’d developed skateboarding, made the transition to surfing an easy one, even though she stubbornly refused to learn on the easier and more forgiving longboard, opting for the challenging shortboard right from the start.
Porter says she really fell in love with the sport during her first surf trip at the age of 15; and, although today she laughs at how far-fetched it was considering her skills at the time, decided that she was going to be a professional surfer.
“I feel comfortable in the water, I feel comfortable under the water if I get held down,” she said. “Maybe that’s why … I would love to train to get to that level of surfing those huge waves.”
Witnessing detritus and pollution running into the ocean on a subsequent surf trip to Puerto Rico, Porter decided that she would dedicate her career to improving infrastructure.
She followed through at UNF: Eva Porter was going to be an engineer.
Or so she thought.
Days after our initial interview at Southern Grounds, Porter explains why, as a college junior, she changed her major from engineering to ceramics this year.
But she isn’t really certain of that anymore, either.
“I was pretty focused on [engineering] up until this last year when I was in Australia, I was, like, I really do love surfing a lot … maybe I do want to do this,” she said. “Now I’m just confused again.”
In Australia, Porter was completely committed to training until, just before her return stateside, she was riding a bike home from surf practice when a car door opened right in her face.
“The paramedics came. It was this whole ordeal.”
Porter had suffered a serious concussion; her head ached for two solid weeks. Even after she got home in January — following a planned detour to Bali, during which she wrecked a scooter and hit her head again — the pain lingered.
“I was really tired pretty much January, February and March and I just saw an acupuncturist at the end of April, which has really started helping,” she said.
All the momentum that she’d built up in Australia — gone. Gone too was her motivation. She all but stopped training, changed her major to ceramics, started envisioning a future as an artist.
As her fatigue lifted and the weather warmed, the fog that had enveloped her since the first accident started to lift. Initially disjointed from uprooting her life twice in several months, home started to feel like home again and she started training, doing yoga, surfing, swimming at Episcopal High School, and working out at Down Under Fitness in Jacksonville Beach, where she fell in love with HIT (high-intensity interval training).
Running four-and-a-half miles of wooded trails on a recent spring morning affects her breathing the way a walk around the block might affect a normal person. She’s minimally sweaty, cheery, focused, and looking forward to the day.
Eva Porter is back.
“THERE’S ALWAYS ANOTHER WAVE”
It’s no secret that female surfers are subjected to different standards on the waves and off them. Women surfers are often heckled, disrespected and dropped in on by men who assume that they can’t rip just because they’re chicks.
“My friend Megan and I were in Nicaragua surfing a few years ago and there were these guys from Brazil and they were super-aggressive, they ran us over. She hurt her rib really badly.”
Porter said that even her guy friends will sometimes go after waves she’s got priority on.
“They’re, like, ‘Oh, she’s not going to get that.’ I’m, like, ‘I’m getting this wave, get away,’” she said.
She said that it can be easy to get caught up in the power dynamics on the water but, in the end, “there’s always another wave.”
Porter says she doesn’t have a signature move as a surfer and is still developing her style but that for her, it’s about pushing herself, improving her form and riding bigger and bigger waves. On a recent trip to Puerto Rico, she found herself sitting in the water, looking out at double overhead, or 15-foot, surf. Others at her skill level wouldn’t even consider riding a wave that big, but Porter went for it. “I went for that first wave and got over the ledge and, after that, I was catching wave after wave,” she said. Someday, she’d like to tackle the really big surf, like Nelscott Reef or Puerto Escondido.
Another wave she may find herself on sooner rather than later involves the sometimes-harsh world of women’s athletics. Now working as bathing suit rep for Jolyn Clothing Company, if her athletic career continues progressing, she’ll be navigating the treacherous waters of sponsors and magazine spreads. Some female athletes in those positions feel objectified or exploited, others degraded.
But Porter, who looks up to surfers like Leah Dawson and Bo Stanley, the former a “soul surfer” who no longer competes, the latter a surfer and Curve model who was told that she’d never get a sponsor because of her voluptuous figure, doesn’t seem too perturbed by the prospect of being judged by her looks. Maybe it’s because she’s beautiful, maybe it’s because she believes all women should practice self-acceptance and self-love, regardless of their size; more likely, it’s because she doesn’t get caught up in the superficial.
“Having that relationship with the ocean is more important,” she said.
This explains why, at 21, she’s happy to go to bed at 10 p.m. on a Saturday, to rise before dawn and do yoga on the shoreline, to turn to God and the ocean for answers, to live with an open heart but not require a romantic partner to validate herself. Self-awareness and self-love runs through her social media footprint like a vein. On Instagram she recently wrote, w I meet God in the stillness of the ocean. My tears have met those salty waters all across the world.”
Right now Porter is focused on her training, gearing up for this year’s South Bay Dozen in California and hoping that she has an even better season than last in spite of the injury and months of recuperation.
It’s been a challenging road coming back from being burnt-out and injured, but Eva Porter is determined to be one of the six women selected to represent the United States at the World Championships Lifesaving in the Netherlands this summer. She’s nervous but she’s not giving up — not even close.
“I know I can still do OK in American competition, but if I want to do OK elsewhere, I need to keep stepping it up.”