Interview: Sachi Cunningham Wave Saver Athlete of the Year

Ed Temperley

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Updated 130d ago

Save The Waves have selected Sachi Cunningham as this Year’s Wave Saver Athlete of the Year. A multi-disciplinary docu filmmaker, professor, surfer, water photographer, cancer survivor, and mother, Sachi inspires with positivity in the face of inclement conditions.

Sachi was one of the pioneers of water photography at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach and is now back in the water after battling fallopian tube cancer. Her work also featured in the recent documentary on women’s big wave surfing, It Ain’t Pretty. We caught up with her to talk battling with health, being a survivor, and getting up and still paddling out whatever the weather.

How does it feel to be recognised like this?
I've been a competitive athlete since I was a young girl (gymnastics, soccer, swimming, water polo and cross country were my sports), however, I haven't won a ribbon or any award since high school (when I was all-city champion in Pittsburgh, PA in cross country and the 100 butterfly and 100 freestyle), so to get this recognition at the ripe old age of 44, and following the most decorated big wave surfer in the sport, Greg Long, in receiving this award definitely feels good.

Top of the world with Bianca Valenti..

Top of the world with Bianca Valenti..

© 2017 - Sachi Cunningham

Can you tell us a little bit about what the award (Wave Saver Athlete of the Year) means for those who are unfamiliar with it?
I think you have to ask Nik (at Save The Waves) about this... because honestly, it's something that they decide internally – it's not something that you can sign up to compete for. In full disclosure, I used to be on the Board of Directors and have also been awarded the "Most Awesomest Filmmaker" at a prior Save the Waves film festival (which goes down as the best named award I've received) so to be fair it's a bit of an inside job. While I am honoured nonetheless, it's not like I won the Boston Marathon. I think it mostly means that I'm an athlete who has shown sports(wo)manship in and out of the water and have applied sports(wo)manlike ways towards working to conserve our collective coastal environment.

I think the reason why my name probably came up this year is because I was able to continue swimming out in big waves at Ocean Beach this season, and was able to continue covering the big wave season including coverage of the first WSL big wave competition for women at Pe'ahi (for Outside Magazine, Surfline and the LA Times) despite going through chemo treatments for fallopian tube cancer during the season. To me, the analogy of sports and its role in fighting my cancer and fuelling my environmental activism is simple. Sports, specifically the "sport" of swimming in big waves as a water photographer, has kept me sane and healthy while successfully fighting cancer. Climate change is like cancer – we've received an early diagnosis, and have several treatment plans before us. It's up to us collectively attack it like an athlete: with sacrifice, hard work, and nothing less than victory as our goal.

Sorry to hear that you have been going through all that, it seems all too common these days. Is your current prognosis something you want to share?
I've been very open throughout the cancer diagnosis and treatment on social media. I was diagnosed with fallopian tube cancer stage 1C last July after testing positive for the BRCA1 gene last spring. My mom died of ovarian cancer at 49 and had breast cancer at 30. Because I have the gene I was given a 60% chance of getting ovarian cancer and a 90% chance of breast cancer so I opted to have a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy and total hysterectomy (8 hours of surgery). They biopsied what they took out and found a 2mm tumour in my fallopian tubes so I went through 6 rounds of chemo from July - Dec of last year.

It was painful and I lost all of my hair but I still swam on the biggest days last season while going through chemo, which I know helped me mentally get through the down times even though it was very physically demanding, since my red and white blood cell count was low, which meant less oxygen was getting to my body, which resulted in me being constantly out of breath and feeling fatigued. I was also still able to cover the first WSL women's big wave contest at Pe'ahi between treatments which I wouldn't have missed for the world. Ironically, I was meant to have a treatment on the exact day of the contest, but because my cell count was too low the week before I had to postpone treatment for a week. At the time this was devastating, but in hindsight it was a good reminder that everything happens for a reason. If I hadn't had to postpone my chemo treatment I would have been getting injected on the same day as the contest.

I have one final surgery for breast reconstruction in June, which will keep me out of the water for a month, but after that I will hopefully only have to get blood levels tested every 3 months for the next 5 years to monitor any possible reoccurrence after which I will hopefully get a clean bill of health and live until I'm very old. There's always a monkey on your back, but I'd say life is much more precious because of the experience so I don't take anything for granted. The doctors have given me a 90% chance of survival which is much better than the 40% they gave me before.

Mavs, intense, wild, and that's just the crowd.

Mavs, intense, wild, and that's just the crowd.

© 2017 - Sachi Cunningham

You are a story teller, photographer, journalist, filmmaker, mum, surfer. What gets you motivated in the morning?
My daughter asking for breakfast would be the first thing that motivates me to wake up. Her future is what largely motivates my work, such as the documentary project that I'm currently developing about the first female big wave surfers in competition. My teaching, journalism and visual storytelling work are also driven by a desire to help people be seen and have their stories told who are usually left on the sidelines of mainstream conversation and awareness. Diversity, gender equality and environmental justice are the big picture themes of most of my work. We have a person in power now who has made the need for these stories more critical than ever.

In an age of Trump and the EPA deleting climate change references this whole climate battle has got a lot tougher over in the States. How are you feeling about that? Is it just a hunker down and wait for the science to penetrate?
I think we need to collectively continue to resist the very dangerous and fascist buffoon currently running our country until the science changes policy. We are at a critical point of no return if we ignore the science. Bill McKibben (founder of 360.org) recently wrote an article in the New York Times about how this presidential term and the damage it causes to the world's climate could actually last forever. That's terrifying. Scientists alone are not going to make the numbers penetrate. It's going to take a team effort by all of us, and like in athletics we need to work hard every day towards nothing less than victory.

You recently contributed to the It Ain’t Pretty documentary, and you are also planning a documentary of your own along a similar theme. Can you let us into how your forthcoming project will be different?
I have been shooting the big wave women for the last three seasons, since covering their first gathering for the Wickr Supersessions at Mavericks in 2014. I've covered the men for many seasons prior to that, but ever since the women have showed up on the scene I have been there documenting. I now have an LA production company, Hydro Studios, co-producing the project with me. The goal is to cover this season most intensely. The difference between my project and It Ain't Pretty is that it will focus exclusively on the big wave women currently in competition and the stories behind what makes them tick.

*Sachi will be collecting her award as part of the annual Life Is A Wave event, honouring outstanding athletes, business and environmentalist for their contributions to protecting our waves and coasts, this year’s winners also include Mark Price CEO of Firewire Surfboards, and Anna Cummins and Dr. Marcus Eriksen Co-Founders of the 5 Gyres Institute.

Cover shot: Sachi Cunningham in her open plan office by Emma Chiang


Ed Temperley

MSW editor. Instagram @edtemperley