Those Surfing Sensations


What a changing world we live in” is a statement applied to many aspects of our lives. But what triggered my thoughts was to see young Australian surfing star and world champion Stephanie Gilmore openly promoting National Vegetarian Week in late 2009.

“I’m not completely vegetarian but I’m a big fan of fresh vegies. I try to have a few vegetarian meals each week at home and when I’m on tour, I make sure I fill up on fresh food when I’m competing,” said Gilmore, one of the current newbreed of surfing sensations.

That set me thinking. Apart from Popeye the Sailor Man (“I’m strong in the finish ’cause I eats me spinach”), it wasn’t exactly trendy to be vegetarian and sports heroes were promoted as meat-eating towers of strength up until a few years ago.

My second wave of thoughts centred around the surfing fraternity itself- how their personal attitudes and values appear to have changed considerably over the decade or two since I was a teenager.

Surfing, which was once considered a hobby, with the beach regarded as a pleasant playground for high-school or work dropouts, has now developed into a respected professional sport.

Growing up in Brisbane, our holiday recreational sport was surfing on the nearby Gold Coast. But again, on reflection, I recall a male-dominated sport. Yes, things have changed- girls don’t feel so intimidated on their boards now! While still a domain of the male of the species, of recent times the fairer sex has surfaced as worthy world champions, commanding well-earned recognition and deserved admiration.

So for now, let’s put aside famous male surfers like Hawaii’s legendary Duke Kahanamoku (the man credited with introducing surfing to the world), nine-time World Champion American Kelly Slater and Aussie notables, including the Gold Coast’s “Cooly Kids,” Mick Fanning and Joel Parkinson. Oh, and not to forget surfing elders like Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew and the legendary Mark Richards.

Exploring the realms of our changing surfing society on the home front, Australia can proudly claim Layne Beachley, the greatest all-round female surfer in the world.

As a youngster, life wasn’t particularly easy for Beachley. She was adopted as a baby by a Manly (Sydney, NSW) couple, Neil and Valerie Beachley, who had no idea then what an appropriate name this young girl inherited. Although a bit of a tomboy, she followed the normal pattern of sports (for girls), playing tennis but also skateboarding and surfing, which were mostly a male domain. At age 16, a rather skinny Beachley set her heart on surfing, going against the tide to devote her life to becoming a professional surfer.

After four years of hard work and endless harsh physical training, she’d achieved a world ranking of sixth, having won her first surfing event in 1993. However, her overzealous commitment to reaching perfection took its toll and that year, then again in 1996, she was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome.

“For the first eight years of my surfing career, I supported myself by working four jobs,” she admits. “I ended up being really sick-too much training, a bad diet, too much travel and too much surfing.”

She battled hard to overcome this setback and resultant depression, and after changing her diet considerably and modifying her lifestyle, she was eventually able to pursue her ultimate goal of becoming world champion, which happened in 1998.

This determined young woman wasn’t about to stop there! As a testament to her strength of character, she continued to focus on her chosen sport, her competitive drive and self-discipline earning Beachley another five consecutive Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) World Championships. She created history as a female surfer, claiming six successive titles-a feat no male has achieved!

Another ASP title in 2006 set her apart as an exceptional role model, with her mental toughness, motivation and self-belief an inspiration for us all. This seven-time world champion had broken the barriers associated with women competing in a man’s world.

Such was her desire to see other girls achieve their aims that she established the Aim for the Stars Foundation1 in 2003 (the year she was awarded Australian Female Athlete of the Year), to benefit aspiring, talented female surfers.

Says Beachley, “I’ve managed to inspire and motivate women across Australia to dare to dream, pursue their passion and aspire to achieve. A little bit of finance, or just the knowledge someone believes in them, may be all it takes for a female to achieve greatness.”

This exceptional sporting identity is also an ambassador for The National Breast Cancer Foundation, UNICEF, and the Australia Day Council (to name a few).

Beachley’s long list of surfing achievements2 is also amazing but what caught my eye was her ability to surf and conquer enormous waves. In May 2009, off Sydney, this fearless surfer rode what was considered “the best wave ever ridden by a female surfer,” while in Hawaii, she mastered waves up to 15 metres high. That takes a special type of courage! Never one to sidestep a challenge, she also undertook an epic trek of the Great Wall of China with fellow athletes and celebrities in 2008, raising funds for cancer research.

Having achieved her dream, at 36, she retired from full-time professional surfing after 20 years of dedication to and passion for her vocation. There were many tears but by channelling her energy into business, charity work, ambassadorial roles and motivating others, her legacy will long continue. And marriage plans are in the air, with Layne and long-time friend Kirk Pengilly (INXS saxophonist) planning to tie the knot in the future.

Beachley, who regarded the ocean as her office and surf gear as her uniform, recently named Gold Coast’s Stephanie Gilmore as “someone worthy of accepting the responsibility of being the new face of women’s surfing.”

To the delight of both, they competed against each other during Sydney’s Layne Beachley Classic, a surfing tournament Beachley staged and helped organise since 2006. Her young rival took the honours for the first two years but unfortunately Gilmore suffered a shock defeat-being eliminated by a rookie teenager in 2008.

In 2009, with her typical never-saydie attitude, Beachley was again prepared to face her protege (Gilmore) in her own event at Dee Why, NSW. She frustratingly ended her illustrious career, bowing out in an early round in rather embarrassing fashion as she fell off “a demoralising apology of a wave.” It is widely anticipated that it will be Beachley’s final competitive career event. As Beachley said in something of an understatement, “It’s quite challenging, competing against 20 year olds!”

Gilmore didn’t have much luck either, beaten in the final. Her path to surfing success began in different circumstances.

Encouraged by her father, Jeff, Gilmore became interested in riding bodyboards at the age of 10 at Kingscliff before bursting onto the surfing scene as a 17-year-old schoolgirl in 2005, winning her first major event as a wildcard entry.

During her meteoric rise as a professional surfer, she created history, capturing the ASP Women’s World Championship in her rookie year, 2007. The high-school graduate also claimed the ASP World title the following year and in 2009, the new surfing queen brilliantly earned her third consecutive crown, becoming the only surfer to win the title each year she’s competed at this elite level.

“The first title was a relief, the second one was satisfying, so too is this one. I’m stoked,” exclaimed the ecstatic surfing ace.

Like her predecessor and mentor, Gilmore has an easygoing personality and self-explanatory nickname- “Happy Gilmore”-but beneath that friendly exterior burns a fiercely competitive spirit, essential to excel at this, the highest level.

It is interesting to note that surfing legend Beachley rates love, health and happiness as more important to her now than surfing, while Gilmore, as heir apparent, sees herself as a rolemodel for young surfers.

“You’re in the public eye. You have to make wise decisions,” she says. “Once you become a world champion, you are a role model.”

Although this new surfing sensation has the waves at her feet, the golden girl knows she has to continue to work hard to stay on top, while not letting surfing dominate her life completely.

“I also enjoy music, playing my guitar, shopping and hanging out with friends-just like any other 21-yearold,” declared Gilmore, content to be both who and what she is.

2. Some of her many awards include: Australian Surfing Hall of F ame, 2006; USA Surfers’ H all of F ame and USA Walk of F ame Inductee, 2006; 2004 Laureus World Alternative Sportsperson.
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