Leah Oke has been surfing for 23 years, and it shows in both her skills and accomplishments: the native of Port Renfrew, B.C. has seen her name on the lips of more and more surf enthusiasts thanks to sponsorships and appearances at major surfing events both in Canada and around the world.
Although Leah was brought up learning how to surf on Sombrio Beach on Vancouver Island, she’s most recently been living in Panama – the country she calls her favourite place to surf – where she’ll be at the National Panamanian Circuit this year as well as the country’s three Triple Corona surfing events. Last year, she won both the Triple Corona de Surf and Morrillo National Circuit in Panama. However, Leah will be returning to Vancouver Island this year to compete in the Rip Curl Pro Tofino and Queen of the Peak contests – the latter of which she has won twice before.
But the competition she’s most proud of winning? That would come to her at the tender age of 14, when she won the Canadian national qualifier in Tofino following tragic circumstances in her family life.
“This contest was held 6 days after my oldest brother died in a tragic car accident,” she says. “That contest I put in my all for him – he was a legendary surfer in these parts and taught me well – and ended up winning my first ever competition.”
These are, needless to say, impressive accomplishments for any surfer, but Leah’s inspiration for surfing in the first place came from being in the right place at the right time.
“I lived right on the beach so I was in the ocean all the time,” she says. “Watching my older brothers and sisters out there having so much fun naturally made me pick up a surfboard and get out there and have some fun myself.”
Sponsored by Rip Curl, Nixon and Sitka, Leah is also a rider for the SurfSkate Canada Team. While her accomplishments in surfing are definitely nothing to sneeze at, it hasn’t come without some scarier moments.
“One time in Mexico on a big day, my leash got tangled in my hair and therefore I could not kick my feet to get to the top of the water,” she says. “I was under for a long time, one of the only times I’ve been out of breath and scared for my life. I ended up taking off my leash and ripping out a shitload of hair to finally be able to come to the surface.”
While her family no longer lives at the beach area they grew up around – Leah was inspired to surf through her dad and her older brother – surfing is still something that runs through Leah’s veins, and her move to Panama has helped her stay active and in the water. That said, coming back to surf in Canada is always a great experience for her. Oke says she usually returns for Rip Curl Pro event in the summer as well as Queen of the Peak in October.
As fun as coming home is for Leah, there are some definite differences between swimming in Canada and in Panama – mainly the fact that in Canada, you need to wear a wetsuit, which she calls “quite restricting and heavy” to wear.
“On the flip side, I love wearing booties because your feet stick so much better to the board, allowing you to stomp things you would otherwise lose your grip on and slip off,” she says.
Wherever Leah is in the world, she’s just happy to keep doing what she’s doing, and her passion for surfing is something she still has plenty of.
“Surfing is super fun for me and I can’t say there [are] days with waves I’m not keen to get out there,” she says. “You only live once, the time to get out there and enjoy is now, no matter what the conditions are.”
As for Leah’s goals for this year, she says she’s focused on being “in the water focusing on progressing in surfing and and enjoying life to the fullest.”