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