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a six-part series profiling athletes reaching the next level in their sport.

Imani Wilmot
Story by Leslie Hittmeier

On her surfboard, 27-year-old Imani Wilmot looks comfortable, like she’s right where she belongs.

On her surfboard, 27-year-old Imani Wilmot looks comfortable, like she’s right where she belongs.

“No. I can do it.”

At the moment, there is nothing hardcore or edgy about Imani Wilmot’s surfing. She’s gracefully catching waves on one of her favorite breaks near her home in Jamaica, her long, skinny dreadlocks pulled back from her face. Her surfing is quiet, as she is. No big, snappy turns or look-at-me tricks. She carves back and forth on the wave, flowing effortlessly from one turn into the next. She’s not performing or competing. She’s just doing what she loves.

But I know what her cool, uninfluenced style belies. For almost a decade she stood on the podium after every surf contest she competed in—the best female surfer in Jamaica. When she was 17, she decided to start an all-girls surf camp because that’s what surfing needed. She was competing against the same women every year and she wanted to get more Jamaican girls into the sport. It’s been almost 10 years since her first one and she has held them almost every year. Now, at 27, she still wins pretty much any local competition she enters even though she just had a kid, manages the surf camp, and runs her own production company on the side.

Imani isn’t Steph Gilmore or Tyler Wright. She’s not going to be winning any world titles any time soon and she probably never will. But in my mind, she is doing something more important and just as badass. She has created a place where other women in Jamaica can learn to surf. She’s not focused solely on herself; she is focused on helping other girls find their own confidence on waves—and, as it follows, in life.

"Growing up here on the beach, it’s a different kind of lifestyle. It’s so relaxed. I’m ok with just existing and not worrying about what my hair looks like and if it’s dry—that stuff’s not a big deal to me." - Imani Wilmot Photo by Ishack Wilmot

Two days earlier, my taxi driver dropped me off at a little sanctuary tucked away from Jamaica’s busy capitol city of Kingston. This collection of small buildings surrounded by weathered surfboards and lignum vitae trees is Imani’s home, also known as Jamnesia Surf Club. Walking in, I almost forgot that surfing is not a popular sport in this country.

Evidence of the four generations of Wilmots who have lived at Jamnesia is everywhere. There’s Imani’s dad’s old board hanging from the kitchen ceiling, DVDs of the kids surfing back in the early 2000s, and piles of surf gear passed down the line. Starting with Imani’s grandparents, Jamnesia has been a gathering place for locals, visitors, and, most importantly, surfers. A cluster of bungalows and cabanas with bright psychedelic surf scenes painted on them surrounds a cobblestone courtyard. Across from the cabanas is a stage where the Wilmots hold a reggae concert every other Saturday night—people from all around town come for the famous jam sessions. Behind that, there’s a beat-up skate bowl decorated with graffiti.

A rare quiet moment at Jamnesia Surf Club. Photo by Leslie Hittmeier
Her four brothers were always out there with her so she learned how to fight for her own waves.

In one corner of the patio are about 50 surfboards, new and old. There are still no surf shops in Jamaica so the Wilmots have acquired these over time, from sponsors, donors, and well-wishers in other countries. In the community kitchen, the bar, walls, and ceiling are plastered with stickers from guests and friends, messages like “Aloha Y’all,” “Endless Summer,” and “Stolen from Africa.” Through a gate that says “staff only” is the house that Imani’s dad, Billy, grew up in, and where he and her mother, Maggie, still live. In between the cabanas and her parents’ house is Imani’s place, a peach, two-room cottage that used to be a garage, where she lives with her one-and-a-half-year-old daughter Nya and her partner, Mykal Cushnie, or “Cush.” Fifty feet from Imani’s front door, through iron gates painted powder blue, is where it all began: Cable Hut Beach. Every single day, the Wilmot family, surf campers from around the world, friends, and local rippers gather here for modest left-breaking waves in a place where the surf culture is vibrant.

She learned to surf at the age of eight on Billy’s old board. It was the board he rode on the biggest wave in recorded Jamaican surf history.
Imani surfing in her back yard at sunset. Photo by Ishack Wilmot
Imani Wilmot surfing one of her favorite home zones called Lighthouse. Kurt Steinmetz

The waves behind Jamnesia may be small but they hold so much history. In the ’60s, when Billy was 15 years old, he saw a guy surfing them and walked up and asked to learn. Years later, it’s where he pushed all five of his children onto their first waves.

Imani learned to surf at the age of eight on Billy’s old board. It was the board he rode on the biggest wave in recorded Jamaican surf history. Putting an eight-year-old on that board would be like putting an eight-year-old on a bull and sending her to the rodeo. She made it work. The Wilmot children received their first set of kid-size boards after Billy made a VHS tape of them surfing and brought it with him when he went on tour with his reggae band, the Mystic Revealers. “Whenever he traveled, he’d show the video at local surf shops,” Imani says. “He would always bring something back because the managers of the shops were like, ‘How are these kids surfing these big clunky boards so good? Let’s send them some stuff.’”

When she finally got a board that fit her, Imani got good, and fast. Her four brothers were always out there with her so she learned how to fight for her own waves.


“I think because of them is why I’m so—I don’t want to say tough, but I’m not very easily influenced,” Imani says. “If I know what I want, I know I can go and get it and I won’t let anyone pull me away. They are the reason I’m like that.” As the second youngest and only girl, Imani pushed to keep up with her brothers. “They’d say, ‘Oh, you can’t catch that one. You are too weak.’ So I would have to be like, ‘No, I can do it.’ And then I would.”

Imani quickly became the best female surfer in Jamaica. She entered her first local competition at 10 years old and podiumed at all the national competitions almost every year until she went to college in 2009. She entered her first international competition at 14, the 2004 ISA World Surfing Games in Ecuador. She went to the World Games and World Junior Games from 2004 to 2009, and during those years she also competed in the Jupiter Beach Fall Classic in Florida and placed fifth. She loved the surfing, but she also loved that it gave her the opportunity to travel. “When we were traveling as the Jamaican surf team, people just loved the attitude that we came with. Even if you didn’t make it through your heat it wasn’t the end of the world,” Imani says. “You had this family supporting you. If you made it through, it was like everyone on the team made it through.” Competitive surfing for the team was never about winning. It was really about the community.

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“When I was competing a lot, there were six of us girls who would surf and it was almost always the same set and results,” Imani says. “It was Elim Beckford, Esther Beckford, Jacquian Lawton, Danielle Ohayon, Natalie Zenny, and myself. I was like, we need some new girls, let me see if I can get some girls into it. And I started my first camp.” Imani was just 17 at the time and went to her high school, which was an all-girls school, with the idea. Her teachers helped her find the first set of girls, and Imani has held the camp, which she named Surf Like A Girl, almost every summer since. “That first year, my oldest student was 45 and my youngest was two years old. I’ve always had a huge range of ages and I think that’s pretty neat.”

Imani tries not to charge for the camp; she fundraises and works with instructors to try to keep it free for attendees. “It’s not about making money for me. It’s really about giving these girls that experience of trying something new,” Imani says. And it’s working—slowly. Three or four of her students are now regular surfers. One was a part of the very first camp, and she and Imani still surf together occasionally. “That kind of thing is what keeps me going because if I can get one person who keeps surfing that’s pretty great,” she says. Despite Imani’s efforts, the sport of surfing is still not popular among Jamaican women. She estimates there are now about 20 women compared to a few hundred men who do it regularly.

Imani’s biggest goal with the camps is to get enough women surfing to eventually create a female surf team. “I want to put Jamaica on the map, not just like, yeah, we surf and there are a bunch of guys that surf, but guess what—there’s a bunch of girls that surf, too, and they’re really good.”

She hasn’t held the camp in the two years since getting pregnant with Nya. But this year, she’s re-inspired and aiming to hold two. “Teaching surfing, I can pass on a lot of what I’ve learned. Just things like being comfortable with myself. Something that’s not easy to learn. Nobody tells you how to love yourself. But being out in the water and learning how to push yourself gives you a better understanding of who you are and who you can be. If I can pass that on I’d be really happy.”

Imani and Nya. Soon after the author left Jamaica, Imani entered Nya in a surf contest and Nya won. She was the only one in her age group to stand up on a board. Photo by Ishack Wilmot

It’s my last night in Jamaica and I’m sitting on Cable Hut Beach. The sun is setting but there are still about 20 kids in the water having the time of their lives. The kids are from all over, some staying at the camp with their families and others from the neighborhood. Imani’s older brother Icah is out there and some other older guys are out there too, while she and some of the other parents are lounging in the sand watching the little ones. Every time a kid gets up, everyone hollers cheers as the next generation of surfers rides in. “We love coming here,” Liz McCaffray tells me. Her family is from the San Diego area and her kids, Ella and Cole, are both high-level youth competitors. “We have been here three years now. We gave them the choice to go somewhere else but they wanted to come back here. I think it’s because of the community here. We love the Wilmots.”

“Growing up, people never said, ‘Oh, you surf.’ They used to say that we ‘ride on the boats,’” Imani says. “Most people didn’t know what surfing was so it looked like we were riding boats.” The Wilmot family was not the first to discover surfing in Jamaica, but they were the ones to grow it. “There used to be surfers that would pass through Jamaica on their way to Puerto Rico and they would leave boards there with the locals,” she says. “So you find that there’s some older guys who also learned to surf around my dad’s time and that’s how it originally came to Jamaica. But in terms of development of the sport, I would say that’s all my family. Like, the Surfing Association was formed by my dad.”

Billy and his crew of surfing offspring (people would eventually call them The Rats) created the Jamaican Surf Association (JSA) in 1999. It was through the JSA that Imani really discovered a love for helping people. They started hosting events, contests, and camps for kids in the area. “At first, people’s parents didn’t want to send their kids to surf camp, so we started incorporating homework programs,” Imani says. She and her brothers would take kids in the community who wanted to surf and tutor them. And then they’d go surfing. “There’s a kid that I taught to read and he’s comin’ around now and he’s a big guy, and I remember sitting there and teaching him how to read because he wanted to be a surfer and he had to be able to maintain his average in school.

There’s another guy. His name is Akeem Phillips but Imani calls him Bob. She taught him how to surf before he even learned to swim. “When he went surfing with us we always had to have somebody out there in case he fell off the board,” she says. “He learned to swim at the same time he learned to surf.” Now Ackeam he is trying to be a professional surfer.

“Surfing…it’s just, it’s positive. There’s nothing about surfing that’s destructive,” Imani says. “It’s all about building friendships and just enjoying time with people and time in the water.”

With the creation of the Jamaican Surfing Association, Jamnesia, and the contests that followed, Imani and her family have given a lot of kids here the opportunity to travel. “People here don’t travel that much, and there are so many kids in Jamaica who would never be able to get outside of their community, but through surfing they get to go.”

In the water I watch as Icah and his buddies, along with the California groms, help the younger kids get on boards and ride. It’s comforting to see that Imani is not alone in her efforts to spread the love for surfing in Jamaica. Ella, the middle-schooler from Cali who is on the 2018 National Development Team, is helping a little Jamaican girl get up on her board. On the beach, Nya, who is bare-ass naked and covered in sand, jumps on a surfboard lying next to her. In perfect form, her feet are sideways and her knees are bent in an athletic stance. “I wonder where she learned that,” I say to Imani. I can’t help but grin because I’m literally watching the sport of surfing in Jamaica grow before my eyes.

Photo by Kurt Steinmetz
Photo by Ishack Wilmot
it’s just, it’s positive. There’s nothing about surfing that’s destructive.”

About a month ago, Imani got a tattoo of a sea turtle on her arm. The turtle symbolizes the continuation of life and motherhood. Now that she has Nya, she can’t work as much and she can’t surf as much, but she’s OK with it. “Recently I’ve had a group of mothers who want to come to learn to surf reach out to me. I’m thinking that every other Sunday they can come out with their kids and we can all take turns watching them and surfing.”

While some things change, others stay the same. The week after my visit, she competed in Jamaica’s Pali Pro Surf Contest and won. At the awards ceremony, she stood proudly next to her youngest brother, Ivah, who won the men’s division. With a big smile on her face, she held a first-place plaque in her hand, while Nya giggled at her feet.

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Story / Leslie Hittmeier Design & Development / Austin Branham Lead Series Editor / Leslie Hittmeier Series Producer / McKell Favrot Back End Engineer / Andrew Wells Photos / Leslie Hittmeier, Ishack Wilmot & Kurt Steinmetz Executive Producers / Drew Holt, Steve Jones & Todd Jones