The view from my window: World champion surfer Layne Beachley

Australia’s seven-time world champion surfer Layne Beachley has eyes on the beach, where more women are riding the breakers than ever before

Iused to be able to sit looking out at the water and go, “Yes, surf’s up!” Now there’s a bamboo bush, an olive tree and a Moreton Bay fig in the way and I can’t even see the sand. But I can still see the statue of Duke Kahanamoku, the godfather of surfing, who first introduced Australians to surfing in 1914, right here at Freshwater, at the northern end of Manly Beach.

As a kid, I grew up down the southern end of Manly. When I was 4, I stole my older brother’s board and that’s when I first learned to surf. These days, there are a lot more women out on the water — apparently that’s all my fault! Sometimes down here at Freshie, we can outnumber the guys.

Surfing is such a centring, calming influence in my life. If my husband [INXS’ Kirk Pengilly] sees me getting grumpy or overwhelmed, he basically puts my laptop down on my fingers and tells me to go for a surf.

I started competing in 1986, so I was very aware of what went on in the early days when the sport went professional. What really surprises me is how accepting of it I was. The behaviour was so overtly sexist and misogynistic that it was just considered normal. Women were treated like a sideshow and made to believe we weren’t worthy of anything else.

Immersing yourself in nature is usually such a calm, welcoming and connected environment. But the ocean is so volatile and unpredictable that men seemed to think they were the only ones with the strength and the ability to “conquer” it. Girls were expected to sit on the beach looking pretty, applauding and celebrating their men.

A few of those old-school boys were probably a bit challenged when I was made chairperson of Surfing Australia in 2015. Ultimately, my mission is for women to be allowed to stand on their own two feet, without being compared to men and questioned whether they have as much to offer or can surf as well, because we’ve proven, time and time again, that we can.

When you think about the manual women used to be given back in the 1950s, about how to be a good housewife — all the rules and regulations they had to subscribe to — that generational thinking just carried over into the sporting world.

There was pressure on us to behave in a certain way and we did everything we possibly could to prove to the surfing industry that we were worthy of support. A lot of body image issues, a lot of eating disorders, a lot of boob jobs. When I was 24, I had liposuction on my thighs. It’s one of the biggest regrets in my life.

At competitions, if the waves turned to s***, they’d send out the girls. If we took a stand and refused to go into the water, we were threatened and bullied by our sponsors, who’d threaten to drop us. Yes, there’s equal pay at world champ level [since 2019], but there’s a massive disparity further down and there are still very few athletes who can earn a living from their sponsors.

Finding out I was adopted is what drove me, 100 per cent. When I was 6, my mother died of a brain haemorrhage. Then when I was 8, my dad told me I was adopted. Kids around the neighbourhood were starting to ask why I looked so different to the rest of my family.

I remember Dad sitting me down in the lounge room and saying I was his baby girl and that he was so grateful to have me. He was telling me, “You’re loved, you belong here,” but I filtered all that out. What I heard was, “I’m abandoned, I’ve been rejected and I’m undeserving of love.” So, I thought if I became a world champion, everyone would love me. Fear drove me — the fear of not being enough.

It could have been tennis, cricket, soccer, basketball … I was a real little tomboy. I didn’t decide to go for surfing until I was 14, but I fell in love with the competitive environment, even though I was so nervous that I came dead last in my very first event.

When I came through the ranks, I was considered a loose cannon because I stood up for what I believed in, which went against the mentality of the industry at the time. I’m sure they were glad to see the back of me.

I remember Paige Hareb [the first New Zealand woman to qualify for the ASP Women’s World Tour] was a powerhouse when she burst on to the scene in 2008, the year I retired. I loved her fluidity and style. She was fierce, focused and determined to make it, which she did, inspiring a generation of Kiwi surfers to ride the same wave. Ella Williams is also an incredible surfer and I always thought she was destined to make it on to the championship tour.

Even today, talented young surfers like them can still expect to encounter hostility from guys who are entitled, aggressive and intimidated by being beaten or challenged by a woman. My advice is to find your allies. You’re going to have to stand up and fight for what you believe in but quite often you may not have the energy or the conviction to do that. That’s when you need people around you to speak on your behalf, who believe in you more than you believe in yourself, and can dust you off when you feel like you can’t get up again. Those were the people who changed my life.

As told to Joanna Wane

The holder of a record-breaking seven women’s world titles, Sydneysider Layne Beachley features alongside other pioneering rebels in the documentary Girls Can’t Surf, which premieres on Sky’s Rialto Channel on March 30, in support of International Women’s Day. In 2020, Beachley founded the Awake Academy, an online personal development programme drawing on lessons she’s learned from overcoming her own life challenges (awakeacademy.com.au).

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