Lakey Peterson‘s mom is a former Guinness World Record holder. Her grandfather created the McDonald’s Egg McMuffin. She is now the best surfer in the U.S. after a breakthrough 2018, with 20 months until the sport’s Olympic debut in Tokyo.
Peterson went into this week’s Maui Pro, the last contest of the World Surf League campaign, in second place in the season-long standings. She trailed only the legendary Australian Stephanie Gilmore, who won six world titles between 2007-14.
Peterson’s minute world title chances vanished on her elimination in the opening rounds Monday at Honolua Bay. Gilmore became the second woman to win seven world titles, joining retired countrywoman Layne Beachley.
“Stephanie’s trying to be the greatest of all time,” said USA Surfing Olympic coach Joey Buran, who guided Peterson a decade ago in her early teens, around when Peterson had a poster of Gilmore on her bedroom wall. “Lakey’s trying to make her move now.”
It’s an opportune time. The bulk of, if not the entire U.S. Olympic surfing team will be decided via next year’s World Surf League standings.
Peterson nearly screamed from the couch on Aug. 3, 2016, when she learned via email that the sport was officially added to the Olympic program.
“Kind of been some talk of it within the industry,” she said before a fan meet-and-greet in her native Southern California this summer. “It wasn’t completely foreign news.”
On that day in August 2016, many would not have pegged Peterson to make the Olympic team, which could be limited to two Americans per gender.
It had been four years since her one and only World Surf League event win at the 2012 U.S. Open as a 17-year-old. She had missed the first half of the 2016 season with a broken ankle, what she calls her biggest obstacle in surfing. Americans Courtney Conlogue, Carissa Moore and Tatiana Weston-Webb were ranked Nos. 2, 3 and 4 in the world behind Australian Tyler Wright. (Webb, a Hawaiian, announced this past April that she would represent her birthplace of Brazil as an Olympic hopeful.)
Peterson’s mom, Sue, was in another room at the house when the Olympic news broke. She has a unique perspective.
“I’d love for Lakey to have the opportunity to compete in the Olympics because, as an athlete, I know what it feels like to try, and I never experienced that honor,” she said. “But I was a little bit [thinking], oh shoot, that’s a lot of pressure. I know what that pressure is like. They go to the Olympics, and if they don’t win a gold medal, then they’re [labeled] a loser. It’s too bad because they’re all great athletes.”
Sue Hinderaker Peterson held the 50-yard freestyle American record from 1978 to 1980 as an All-American at the University of Southern California. It got her in the 1980 Guinness Book of World Records as the fastest female swimmer at 4.42 miles per hour in a 25-yard pool, standard for NCAA meets. Olympic pools are 50 meters.
But Hinderaker Peterson never made it to the Games. There were no Olympic Trials in 1980 because of the U.S. boycott. Hinderaker Peterson’s best event, the 50m freestyle, also wasn’t on the Olympic program in 1976, 1980 or 1984. It debuted at Seoul 1988.
USA Swimming still held a national championships meet days after the 1980 Moscow Games ended. An Olympic team would still be named, for what it was worth. Hinderaker Peterson, seventh in the 100m free at the 1976 Olympic Trials, skipped it and flew to Hawaii.
“I had already had my chance in 1976, and that was all I needed,” she said in 1982, according to the (Palm Springs, Calif.) Desert Sun. “To tell the truth, I was kind of glad that I didn’t have to try out again.”
She finished competitive swimming at USC the next year. In 1982, she married David Peterson. Turns out, his father invented the Egg McMuffin.
“He started the whole breakfast business, actually,” said Hinderaker Peterson, who is divorced from David. “When he started at McDonald’s, they weren’t open until 11 a.m. He loved eggs Benedict, so he created this kit to take to Ray Kroc to show him in Chicago. Had a blacksmith make a round circle to put the egg in.”
Peterson’s childhood is a unique story. When Hinderaker Peterson was five months pregnant, she was told her baby (whose birth name would be Laura) may have Down syndrome and that if they wanted to abort, this was the time..
At eight months pregnant, she came out of the water first in a team triathlon.
When Peterson was 5, brother Parker 10 and sister Whitney 13, the family traveled the world for the better part of a year — Biarritz, Switzerland, Bali, New Zealand, Tahiti, Australia.
“Skipped Africa because we didn’t want to give her shots,” Hinderaker Peterson said.
Peterson got her picture with Beachley in Manly, Australia. In their two months in Australia, she attended a daily surfing school.
“They would call her Lakey Surf Legend,” Hinderaker Peterson said. “She would get on her boogie board and just stand up. She wasn’t afraid.”
When they returned to California, Peterson stuck to basketball, flag football with the boys, soccer, tennis and water polo. But her mom always hoped she would revert to surfing.
“In the back of my mind I just thought it would be really nice to have her do a sport where we can go to the beach and it’s a little more casual,” Hinderaker Peterson said. “It’s not an Olympic sport. Not as much pressure.”
After many Southern California oceanside trips, Peterson finally asked if she could go to a local surf contest. There was no girls division, so she beat all the boys.
Soon after that, she was competing at a national-level championships, marveling at a pair of Nikes in a glass case display and wondering what it would take to get sponsored by the Swoosh. At 14, Peterson became first woman to throw an aerial maneuver in a contest. She won and won and wrote and wrote letters to the company, which eventually signed her in 2009, when she turned 15.
Nike included Peterson in an all-female surfing film in 2011 with some of the U.S.’ best, including the world champion Moore. Peterson had yet to make her senior world tour debut.
She proved herself later that summer, winning the junior U.S. Open, getting into the senior U.S. Open as a wild card and advancing all the way to the final, where she took runner-up. Peterson, who had worked one day in the drive-thru at one of her father’s six McDonald’s restaurants, reached the elite senior level of pro surfing.
The next year, Peterson won the U.S. Open, competing for Daisy Merrick, the 8-year-old granddaughter of her board shaper and daughter of her church pastor. Daisy was diagnosed with cancer at age 5. Peterson, who taught a Bible study class to Daisy and her friends, promoted websites during the season to aid the family’s medical expenses. Daisy died the following February.
The next five seasons, Peterson made 13 semifinals on the world tour but had zero victories.
“I was doing fine. I was doing OK,” she said. “I just wasn’t winning.”
She broke through at the 2018 season-opening event in Coolangatta, Australia, in March. Then won again in Bali in June. She traded the overall standings lead with Gilmore, arguably the greatest female surfer in history. Only Kelly Slater has more world titles among men or women.
“I broke down a lot of mental barriers,” Peterson said Monday. “Proved to myself that I can be in this position going for a world title. … There’s lots more to learn.”
Like waves of consequence, meaning the biggest waves the surfers face in contests, such was the case Monday. “Something I think I’ve really improved upon,” she said. “A few years ago, I would have been pretty scared. … I need to continue on that trajectory of learning to read the ocean, reefs and bigger swells.”
Peterson and other surfers prefer the season-long world championship format to the Olympics, given the latter’s one-off format inherently increases variability.
“It just feels more, I guess, fair. Like, the best person will truly win,” she said. Peterson then noted that there are no anthem ceremonies on the World Surf League. “That being said, I don’t know if there’s anything more magical than winning a medal, standing up there and hearing your national anthem play. That just would be the most incredible feeling in the world.”
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