They’re the wave of the future.
Champion female surfers will be riding the waves at the 2021 Summer Games in Tokyo as the sport makes its Olympic debut.
Only 13 women in total will compete, with just two from each country earning Olympic berths. Repping team USA after qualifying in the 2019 season are Honolulu native Carissa Moore, 28, and Caroline Marks, 19, from Boca Raton, Fla.
But fearless ladies around the world have paved the way for this moment, crushing 80-foot waves and challenging the male-dominated sport for hundreds of years.
In “Women on Waves: A Cultural History of Surfing,” (Pegasus, out July 6) Jim Kempton, former editor-in-chief of Surfer magazine, puts the world of female surfers under a journalistic microscope, tracing the world’s oldest known surfboard ownership to a 17th century Polynesian princess.
Surfing was all about sex, power, pleasure and courtship, suggests the author, who notes that females in the South Seas back in the 1600s wore little or nothing while surfing and “claimed an equal share if not a lion’s share of Mother Ocean’s sensual, sacred experience.”
Fast-forward to the Roaring Twenties. Who would have thought that stodgy English mystery writer Dame Agatha Christie – known for her dozens of detective novels and short story collections starring the fictional gumshoes Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple – was an avid surfer, riding the waves when she wasn’t at her Smith Corona?
It wasn’t until the 1930s, when the flames of war were raging in Europe, that the sport of surfing was introduced to the British masses – no less by women’s surfing clubs.
In America, with the Great Depression abroad in the land, the billionaire tobacco heiress, socialite and tabloid figure Doris Duke, who had an oceanfront mansion in Hawaii, took up surfing, taught by her lover, surfer king Duke Kahanamoku.
“The torrid, tragic story of these two mavericks would have made a Paramount Studios screenplay,” Kempton writes. “They were a match made in paradise, or purgatory, depending on the viewpoint.”
Soon Hollywood stars got into the act – from Norma Jean Baker on the cusp of becoming Marilyn Monroe, posing and surfing along the beaches of Malibu — to contemporary wave-riders like Cameron Diaz, Minnie Driver and Helen Hunt, who did her own stunts for her 2015 surfer move, “Ride.”
Still, it took years of work by strong women surfers to achieve equality and equity. Layne Beachley, an Australian seven-time world champ, was outspoken about how women were marginalized in the sport, often forced to compete in the worst conditions or kicked out of the water when the surf improved so that the men could ride the best waves.
In 2018, the World Surf League announced that men and women would earn equal prize money, making it the first sport to do so.
“I used to be the lone female in the lineup, encountering hostility and threats,” Beachley, who didn’t think pay equity would happen during her lifetime, told World Surf League. “And now we occasionally outnumber the boys.”
Here are just a few of the female surfers who rode the waves to greatness and contributed to major changes in competitive worldwide surfing over the years.
Royal on board: Princess Victoria Ka’iulani wasn’t just the heir to the Hawaiian crown in the late 1800s, she was also an expert surfer and classically educated woman who fought valiantly to stop the annexation of her homeland by American businessmen. (She even met with President Grover Cleveland at the White House to plead her case.) Surfing was her great joy until her untimely death from inflammatory rheumatism at age 23 in 1898.
The first female superstar: Mary Ann Hawkins won every surfing and paddling event she entered between 1935 to 1941, racking up 37 first-place ribbons and acting as a stunt double for Elizabeth Taylor, Shirley Jones, Esther Williams and Dorothy Lamour. Hawkins created a swim school in Waikiki that taught babies to hold their breath underwater.
Surf’s golden girl: From first lady of surfing in the ’50s to stunt double for Esther Williams, Marge Calhoun became an icon after riding big waves in Malibu, winning championships and promoting the sport throughout her life, as well as co-founding the US Surfing Association.
Best in show: She stepped on a board at age 12 and became legendary for firsts — Joyce Hoffman won best surfer in the world in 1966 at age 19, and became the first multiple world-title holder, first female state lifeguard, first cross-trainer and first to ride Oahu’s notorious Pipeline. She made the cover of Life Magazine and was LA Times Woman of the Year in 1965.
Teen on the scene: Margo Oberg first surfed at age 10, and won her first competition at 11. From then on, she won every major championship, was the first female professional surfer in the world in 1975 pioneering women’s big-wave riding and dominating four years of global competition – all before finishing high school.
Petite powerhouse: Standing at 5-foot-4 and weighing 115 pounds, South African Wendy Botha won the world surfing title in 1987 and 1989 becoming Australia’s first female pro champion. She changed her citizenship to Australian, circumventing apartheid sanctions, and won again in 1991 and 1992. Botha posed nude in Playboy to show the world how surfing shapes the body.
Wonder woman: Layne Beachley overcame a tide of obstacles from chronic fatigue, depression, injuries and family tragedies to become an icon. By age 20 in 1992, she was ranked sixth in the world despite personal struggles, and went on to win six world championships in a row, from 1998 to 2003 — making her the only surfer, female or male, to have that kind of winning streak. She won her seventh title in 2006 and retired in 2008 but never stopped fighting for equal pay in the sport.
Tough rider: Stephanie Gilmore won seven world championships in her moonshot career and was the first surfer to win in her rookie year in 2007. The influential Australian champ survived being badly beaten with a metal pipe by a homeless man and fracturing a knee while surfing in Australia, going on to pose nude in ESPN’s magazine to help her “stop stressing about my insecurities.”
Overcoming all odds: Mercedes Maidana was one of the world’s best big wave surfers when she was caught by one in 2014 in Maui; it pulled her underwater, with her board crashing into her forehead. After years of treatment for a traumatic brain injury and a long recovery, she has pledged her brain to the Concussion Legacy Foundation for research to help future surfers with little talked-about debilitating injuries.