CU­RI­OUS SPECIES

All of life was a dance for Aus­tralia’s first, fe­male surf­ing cham­pion”

Tracks - - Regulars - By Emily Brug­man

It’s 11am when I pull up out­side the Bupa Aged Care Homes in Pottsville, on the Tweed Coast. I’m go­ing to visit Phyl­lis O’Don­nell, Aus­tralia’s first fe­male World Surf­ing Cham­pion. I make my way up­stairs, and see Phyl­lis sit­ting in the court­yard, eyes closed and face to the sky, drenched in Spring sun­shine. We take a seat in the court­yard to­gether, and I see that Phyl­lis has brought her Hall of Fame tro­phy with her.

Phyl­lis was born in Drum­moyne, Syd­ney, in 1937. She was a late bloomer, she tells me, and didn’t get on a board un­til the ripe old age of 23.

“I didn’t know a thing about surf­ing,” she says. “I bought my first surf­board from a place called Knott & Kirby’s. It’s like buy­ing a surf­board from Woolies. I didn’t have a clue. I used to go down to Manly and I met a man named Snowy McAlis­ter, who I would call my mo­ti­va­tor or men­tor. Snowy was many years older. He used to be able to get on a board and stand on his head.”

With Snowy’s coax­ing, Phyl­lis be­came a reg­u­lar down at Manly beach, and by the time she was 27, she won the 1964 World Surf­ing Cham­pi­onships, along­side Mid­get Far­relly.

What was it like, to be a woman, surf­ing in those days? I ask Phyll.

“It was very hard, surf­ing with all those blokes. You had to be ag­gres­sive.”

Phyl­lis is a nat­u­ral sto­ry­teller, and she launches into one of her sig­na­ture yarns.

“I was surf­ing at Rain­bow Bay one day and I had a pink rinse put through me hair. These guys were laugh­ing. I said ‘What are you laugh­ing at?’ They said ‘you’. They said ‘we haven’t seen any­one as old as you surf­ing.’ Well I was only 29. Any­how, one guy dropped in on me, I got him by his wet­suit and pushed him into the rocks. You know, don’t mess with the old girl.”

Phyll was no pushover, but she also says she wasn’t overly com­pet­i­tive.

“When Mid­get and I won our World Ti­tles

at Manly there were about 60 000 peo­ple on the beach. No one thought that we would win. There was a girl, Lynda Ben­son, she used to play in the Gid­get films, and she was a very fierce com­peti­tor. Lynda was favoured to win, but what hap­pened is, they started to play some re­ally nice mu­sic, and I to­tally re­laxed. I just swayed along to the mu­sic, jazzed along the waves – I didn’t even know I was in a con­test any­more.”

And so Phyl­lis O’Don­nell, for whom surf­ing was a kind of dance, be­came Aus­tralia’s first fe­male world champ, and her prize, as she loves to tell, was a car­ton of Craven A cig­a­rettes. “And I smoked ‘em all!”—she de­clares with a chuckle.

Phyl­lis’ story is demon­stra­tive of the im­mense shifts seen in surf­ing over the past 50 years. She has heard about the WSL’s re­cent an­nounce­ment of equal pay for women. A mo­men­tous step in surf­ing his­tory, es­pe­cially when com­pared with Phyll’s prize-win­ning ex­pe­ri­ence. “I think it’s great,” she says. “The girls that surf now, they’ve got a good for­tune ahead of them. As I said, I was happy with my Craven A cig­a­rettes.”

In those days, be­ing a world champ didn’t trans­late to a ca­reer in surf­ing, and it’s only in re­cent years that the top 17 have been able to rely on surf­ing as a sole source of in­come. But our Phyl­lis had a pen­chant for the road, and so she did bar work to fund her trav­els around the world.

“I can’t be­lieve I used to carry a whole tray of mid­dies, of spir­its and beer, hold­ing it above my head!”

Phyll trav­elled to Hawaii, Cal­i­for­nia and the South Pa­cific, but it was Puerto Rico, she tells, me, that stole her heart.

“Now that’s a beau­ti­ful place! I used to work at Twin Towns on the Gold Coast. I had a 3-week leave of ab­sence to at­tend a surf­ing com­pe­ti­tion. Well, I stayed in Puerto Rico 12-months. I was eight stone when I left, when I came back I was ten. Ham­burg­ers, French fries, pan­cakes! But mostly rum, Emily, that was The Rum Trip.” Phyl­lis tells me this last part with a lit­tle twin­kle in her eye.

But Hawaii is Phyl­lie’s first love. She’s been 18 times, loves to surf Sun­set, and if ever, through­out her life, she has found her­self floun­der­ing, her mantra goes like this: If in doubt, go to Hawaii.

Phyl­lis is of tough stock, a woman of wry hu­mour who doesn’t seem to take life too se­ri­ously. She shunned the idea of the nu­clear fam­ily for a life of surf­ing and travel, in a time when to be a surfer meant to go against the grain.

Age has forced Phyl­lis to reign it in a lit­tle. Nowa­days, she tells me, she leads a clean and pure life of ice cream, crunchy bars and coke zero. “I get them on the trol­ley.”

Phyl­lie will al­ways have her vices, just like the surf cul­ture she’s a part of. While surf­ing grows cleaner and more re­spectable as it ma­tures, it will al­ways have its loose can­nons. We breed them by our very na­ture – and aren’t we glad we do?

Above: Peren­nial en­ter­tainer, Phyl­lis O’Don­nell, with her Aus­tralian Surf­ing Hall of Fame Award. Be­low: Young Phyl­lis with a gleam in the eye and a board on the shoul­der.

Main: Arch­ing to­wards vic­tory at the 1964 world cham­pi­onships at Manly. In­set mid­dle: On the cover of ‘The Surf­ing World’ with Mid­get Far­relly. In­set bot­tom: Hal­cyon era with Nat Young (mid­dle) and the gang. Phyl­lis on Nat’s left in the frame.

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