Riding the wave
The Australian Women's Weekly|March 2021
Surfing may be an individual sport but when faced with overwhelming inequality, a band of renegade female champions put aside any rivalry to fight for their rights. They share their stories of battling discrimination, bigotry and even violence with Beverley Hadgraft.
Beverley Hadgraft

In 2018, a photograph of two junior surfing champions, proudly holding their winners’ cheques went viral. The female winner, Zoe Steyn, had won $400; the first-placed male, Rio Waida, twice that.

Facebook erupted. Did the girls surf an easier ocean we don’t know about? What are we teaching our girls through this archaic discrimination? Do I get 50 per cent discount from (sponsor) Billabong because I’m only worth half as much?

The World Surf League (WSL) rolled out its excuses but suddenly there was a tsunami of stories detailing decades of the inequality and bigotry suffered by female competitors. Shortly after came an announcement: From 2019, women would receive the same prize money as men.

For a group of tough, talented, renegade women it was the victory they’d been fighting for since surfing turned professional in the 1980s. “I started crying when I heard it on the radio. I was so happy,” recalls 1983 world title holder Pauline Menczer. She’s one of the pioneer female athletes sharing their wit, grit and vintage video and photos in a new film documenting that fight, Girls Can’t Surf.

Pauline is the epitome of the Aussie battler. One of four children raised by her widowed mum after her dad was murdered, she learned to surf on half a board after her brother snapped his in two. She collected cans or sold towels she found on Sydney’s Bondi beach to buy her own board so was used to living on the breadline.

Even so she was shocked by the lack of funds for women on the professional circuit compared to men. During 20 years of competition, she was a constant presence on the world’s podiums yet reveals, “I worked out if I’d been a checkout chick instead, I’d have earned more.”

Men had sponsors falling over themselves to provide equipment. “I’d use the same wetsuit and board for up to three years,” says Pauline. “I had wetsuits with holes in them. Once, to make a stand I thought: ‘I’m going to wear this wetsuit until it absolutely falls apart. Still, no one offered me a wetsuit.”

She presumed once she won her world title, her fortunes would change. However, even the trophy she was handed for being the best female surfer on the planet was broken. “Yes, it seems incredible. But that’s how it was for women back then.”

Sponsors meanwhile told her that, being small, dark-haired and frecklefaced, she didn’t have the look that they wanted to display in their advertisements. In those pre-social media days, even her inspiring story was worthless – including the fact she suffered rheumatoid arthritis so severe that a week before her world title win she was wheeled around in a shopping trolley because she couldn’t walk.

Layne Beachley, 48

Seven-time world champion, Layne worked four different jobs to pursue her dreams and has said her drive to win came from her belief that, having been put up for adoption, it was the only way to earn love. Now married to INXS musician Kirk Pengilly and living on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, she continues supporting women. She set up a women's surfing event – the richest competition in the world for seven years. She also launched the Aim for the Stars Foundation which supported a range of women from disability advocate Carly Findlay to mountain biking and BMX world champion Caroline Buchanan.

That the women continued to compete professionally at all is testament to their determination. Surfers had to travel the world to compete, paying their own airfares. But the four women talking today to The Weekly tell us that – unlike their male counterparts – the fear of being stranded or not finding anywhere to stay was constant. Many slept in board bags in competition tents.

“The men earned so much they were staying in ritzy hotels on the beach and could afford to fly home to Australia to refuel, refocus and rest,” explains big wave great Jodie Cooper.

“We had to live overseas 10 months of the year because we couldn’t afford to fly home. It was before the days of mobiles and AirBnB so we’d rock up and knock on doors and ask: ‘Any accommodation?’ then shack down with mates or on a friend’s couch.”

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