The Greatest Female Surfers of All Time
6 of the Best: Women
As women's surfing continues to push the boundaries in the water, and the sports world at large gets dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century, it's worth reminding ourselves that unlike some other sports (London 2012 was the first time women competed in all sports at the Olympics), surfing has a long and proud history of female stand-outs, dating as far back as the ancient Hawaiians.
And while today's slick WSL webcasts beam the Top 17's exploits to our devices from around the world, guaranteeing a global sport gets the global audience it merits, it's worth reminding ourselves of the exploits of a couple of rippers of yesteryear, who helped blaze the trail.
The 27 world titles this half dozen have amassed between them is easy to quantify.
The number of busted down doors required along the way, less so.
Frieda Zamba was the youngest female to win a pro tour contest and the youngest surfing world champion ever at 19.
She won her first three titles in succession from 1984 to 1986 before capturing her fourth in 1988, equaling the then record of Mark Richards.
In her prime Zamba crossed the performance chasm that separated male and female surfers and for that alone is regarded by many as the greatest female surfer ever.
The goofyfooter was known for her attention to fitness and training, which translated into one of the most powerful and progressive techniques of any woman, in any era.
She now lives in Costa Rica and a survey of her recent Youtube clips sees her ripping as hard as ever. In fact on that evidence she wouldn’t look out of place on the CT right now which, given she is now 52, is remarkable.
"In her prime Zamba crossed the performance chasm that separated male and female surfers and for that alone is regarded by many as the greatest female surfer ever"
Wendy Botha won four world titles, the first under her native South African flag, the rest after she had emigrated to Australia during the apartheid era.
Botha bought a new mix of femininity and power to women’s surfing and was well known for her prowess in solid waves.
Botha caused a major stir in the surfing world, and a minor one in mainstream Australia, when she posed nude for Australian Playboy in 1992.
That however was a distraction from what one of the most successful careers in surfing of all time. Botha had a supersmooth style and a fierce competitive instinct that came with growing up and competing against boys.
She also may have won more world titles if a series of knee injuries hadn’t forced her retirement at just 27.
"No one has ever dominated women surfing as Layne did, and it’s doubtful anyone will ever again"
I once scratched into a Sunset west peak that, given my puny track record, was easily the biggest wave of my life.
As the spray cleared and my balls dislodged from my throat, I just had time to see Layne Beachley scorch down the face, turn, laugh, and bottom turn into the distance as I was engulfed by 20 feet* of whitewater.
The point? The point is that wave was a mere play-thing for Layne.
For a good proportion of the 2000s there were few better surfers, man or woman, at Sunset than Layne.
Whilst amassing a record seven world titles, including six in a row, through a mix of talent, grit, sheer bloodymindedness and incredible focus, she also set new bars for women in the big-wave realm.
No one has ever dominated women surfing as Layne did, and it’s doubtful anyone will ever again. At her peak, her force of personality made her simply unbeatable.
*Or so it seemed. Later photographic evidence showed it was at least a solid 9 feet high.
At 16, because of her parents disapproval of her love of surfing, Andersen ran away from her Floridian home to live in Huntington Beach and match herself with the best surfers in America.
It was a brave move that paid off for Andersen and surfing in general. A decade later she would win her first of four successive world titles, having given birth to her daughter three years previously.
Yet it wasn’t just the competitive success that places Andersen as one of the best, and most influential, surfers of all time.
She also laid the template for the modern women surfer, remaining feminine and graceful while displaying an aggressive energy that would set new standards.
She didn't simply change how women surf, but also how they were perceived. She was also pivotal in the success of Roxy, the first woman’s surf brand.
By mixing performance surfing, competitive success and mass appeal, it’s hard to think of an individual who inspired more girls to start surfing.
That just might be her greatest achievement. And, fun fact guys, late one night in a Hossegor nightclub she told me her middle name was Lorraine.
It did nothing to dull my appreciation of her role in the sport.
"By mixing performance surfing, competitive success and mass appeal, it’s hard to think of an individual who inspired more girls to start surfing"
It’s hard to believe that Carissa Moore is still only 25.
The Hawaiian burst onto the scene as a 16-year-old when she became the youngest winner of a Triple Crown event.
Three years later in 2011 she won her first World Title, a feat she repeated in 2013 and 2015. In the last half a decade no other female surfer has progressed the sport more than Moore.
She has brought a new style of power and performance to women’s surfing and despite an ever-present smile and sunny disposition, is one of the gnarliest competitors and hardest trainers in the sport.
In an open letter to Surfer in 2014 she said, “I'm not going to wear the small bikinis. That's not me. I'm going to take the more athletic approach. I love surfing, so I want to inspire people through my surfing."
It’s fair to say that she had done that, and much, much more. She’s also nowhere finished. No doubt more world titles, and inspiration, are to come.
It’s an undisputed fact that Stephanie Gilmore is the most stylish women surfer of all time.
The DNA was crucial, but her Gold Coast upbringing was important too. The Snapper points can smooth most edges and surfing alongside her style gurus Joel Parkinson, Mick Fanning and Dean Morrison as a grom can’t have hurt either.
However one of Gilmore’s greatest achievements is bringing this inherent style and packaging it into the constraints of competitive surfing.
Five world titles, only bettered by Kelly Slater and Layne Beachley, shows just how competitive a character she is.
"Stephanie Gilmore is the most stylish women surfer of all time"
Yet while her surfing, and her tuberiding in particular, is sublime, it is also the manner she conducts herself that makes her so special. Not nicknamed Happy for nothing, Gilmore has brought an unstinting positivity and a megawatt smile to surfing.
Still competing and smiling now aged 27, Gilmore has to be considered one of the greats of the sport.