Gidget Kicks Ass

Within the anachronistically macho world of professional surfing, respect comes when you rip like a man and act like it's no big thing. Two-time world champion Lisa Andersen is the first woman to pull this off, changing the way beach boys look at beach girls and bringing droves of young women into the sport. But hey, no big thing.

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Grajagan, Indonesia, is a Shangri-La of the professional surfing set, a spot on the southeastern tip of Java so remote you have to take a plane, then a bus, then a ferry, then a small boat to get there. At G-land, as Grajagan is more commonly known, surfers stay in open-air treehouses, sleep under mosquito nets. There are no tourists, no locals, no groupies--just the deafening smash of blue water and a thin strip of coarse beach fringed by Plenkung National Park, a thick green jungle prowled by tigers, white rhinos, and green mamba snakes.

It's June of this year and a specialty event, the Quiksilver Pro, is being held at Grajagan, at a notoriously difficult break known as Speedies, and four of the top women surfers in the world have been invited to try it out. It's a first: No woman has ever surfed this stretch of G-land before, at least not competitively, and the organizers aren't sure they can handle it. The waves are lethal on this particular morning: double-overhead barrels racing toward a nasty coral reef that can cut a surfer to ribbons. It's a morning the surfing magazines will later describe, in their inimitable prose style, as "epic," with "some of the gnarliest contest surf ever."

Lisa Andersen is bobbing in the steep roll of the water, straddling a new shortboard, wearing a jersey, fluorescent orange board shorts, and a crash helmet. It's her first time out today, and photographers from the international surfing press are lined up along the shore, perched in boats, dangling from helicopters.

A set of waves moves in. They flare and start rearing up, one after the other, to reveal their true wicked selves: eight- and ten-foot hollow cylinders, round and clean and solid, breaking in a unified line down the long point. Few people have ever seen surf this big at G-land before.

A pair of lifeguards buzzes up on jet skis. "You girls don't have to surf this!" one shouts. "They think it's too dangerous. But they want you to decide. Thumbs up or thumbs down."

"They" means the honchos--the judges, the organizers. Of course, "they" also means the guys. Forty-eight of the world's best male surfers are gathered on shore, many of them watching with binoculars. They're waiting in the wings for the women to do their thing, as if this were the pregame tease at the Super Bowl. Kelly Slater is here, as are Sunny Garcia, Rob Machado, and Derek Ho. Ross Williams and Gary Elkerton are scheduled to surf in the next heat, and they are increasingly anxious to get into the water.

But at the same time, they want to see how Lisa Andersen will fare in this raw, momentous surf--she being the object of much discussion, and some obsession, on the circuit. Surfers on the international loop tend to fall back on superlatives when talking about Andersen, the two-time world champion who'll be defending her third straight title at the Quiksilver Roxy Pro at Sunset Beach, Hawaii, on November 27. She has the best cutback of all the women surfers, they say, the most polished style, the scrappiest attitude. It's said that she's the first woman to surf in a truly modern, aggressive way, with an extremely low center of gravity and a confident style that often gets described by guy surfers as, well, "surfing like a guy."

"Lisa's by far the best woman surfer in the world--whether she's winning contests or not," argues Ian Cairns, a former champion from Australia who is now a promoter and organizer. "She's one of a very few women who have total credibility among her peers, women and men."

"Guy surfers are awestruck by her," agrees Steve Hawk, editor of Surfer. "On the beach, the most amazing thing happens. You see all these guys hanging around, staring at her. They're afraid to come up and talk. She's really beautiful and she really loves to surf. And so when she paddles out, they're looking at her with a funny variety of feelings--appreciation mixed with respect. She's the ultimate surf chick."

Maybe so, but there's one detail in the portrait that seems slightly, interestingly, out of place: Lisa Andersen is also a working mother, the first mom on the world tour, toting her daughter, Erica, to just about every stop on the circuit. Every stop, that is, except utterly remote places like G-land.

Andersen had Erica three years ago, an unplanned addition, but like other trying scenarios in Andersen's life, it's turned out fine. She's been forced by the arrival of a dependent to become focused, to stop wasting time. For years, Andersen had been teasingly close to a world title, but it was only after Erica was born, in 1993, that one came her way. "Erica distracted me from all the distractions," she likes to say.

Just now, though, Erica isn't at the top of Andersen's thoughts. With another set of waves rolling in at Speedies, her face is frozen with fear, eyes bulging. "It was powerful, much bigger than we'd ever expected," Andersen will recall later. "The waves were practically sucking the reef dry, leaving it boiling and exposed. My heart was galloping, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum."

Everyone keeps watching the women, wondering whether they'll go for it in the end, or whether they'll just "hair out." "If we said no," Andersen will say later, "it was like, Chicken! You've come all this way and you don't surf?" A decision is required.
So Andersen paddles over to the other women in the heat--Australians Lynette MacKenzie and Neridah Falconer--and says, with an understatedness that borders on the flip,"We're here. Might as well."

She gives the rescuers the thumbs-up. They're going to surf.

Thirty-six years after Sandra Dee introduced the Hollywood surfer girl in Gidget and after Annette Funicello put a coquettish, C-cup spin on the archetype in Beach Blanket Bingo, surf culture is still, incredibly, a sporting-world throwback that, as Cairns puts it, is "run by a lot of rad male chauvinist pig dudes." In terms of both image and reality, surfing is an overwhelmingly male universe. Of the 1.75 million surfers in America, an estimated 15 percent are women, and nearly every outlet of surfing culture, from movies to magazines, seems to celebrate an ethos that is every bit as testosterone-laced as cigar connoisseurship or high-end stereophonics. The advertisements, the tropes, the music--most of the outward signs would lead one to think that ripping surf is, by dint of deep tradition if not genetics, a guy thing. Surfers have interesting explanations for why this is so, although nobody quite explains it. There are endless theories, proposed solutions, and always the sad obligatory paternalism. Women don't have the same paddling strength, they'll say. Women lack the requisite self-assurance, the nerve, the peacock's need to strut.

Mucking up this logic, though, is Andersen, who at 27 is undisputedly the most famous woman surfer in the world--and the first true female surfing star, period. In beachside restaurants and cafës, teenagers in oversize board shorts swarm her, proffering tattered napkins to be autographed. For three years in a row, she has been named "favorite surfer" by young women in the National Scholastic Surfing Association. In February she became only the second woman to be spotlighted on the cover of Surfer in the magazine's 37-year history--a stunning breach into the male bunker.

Her fame is so ascendent, in fact, that an inevitable downside is emerging: This August in Biarritz, Andersen had to be assigned a bodyguard after being mobbed by fans, and a year ago she was being stalked by a French radio journalist. "It was a kind of Fatal Attraction thing," she says. "This guy started sending me letters and postcards. Then he'd fax me romantic notes at hotels. Then he sent videotapes of me on the beach. Not shots of me surfing, but just hanging out, walking alone, sitting in the sand. It was creepy."

Such clamor comes not because Andersen is the first American woman champion--a notable pantheon precedes her, including Joyce Hoffman in the sixties, Rell Sunn and Margo Oberg and Jericho Poppler in the seventies, Frieda Zamba and Alisa Schwarzstein in the eighties--but because she's the first woman to cross over into surfing celebrityhood and to achieve a dominance that's made the pig dudes shut up and take notice.

And yet, even as she lip-bashes her way into new territory for women, Lisa Andersen remains one of the guys. It's a role she's spent her life perfecting. At ten she was the only girl on her Fork Union, Virginia, Little League team. When her family moved to Florida, she swapped the diamond for the beach, harassing the guys in the water, yelling out to them, earning the nickname Trouble. By 14 she was deep in the surf with the boys, the lone girl on the Seabreeze High School surfing team, riding her waves on a hideous pink board.

Her parents frowned on surfing."I remember my father dragging my pink board into the living room one day," Lisa says. "He hopped on it and crushed the fin."

"We associated surfing with drugs and beach bums," explains Andersen's mother, Lorraine Lemelin. "It didn't seem like a good lifestyle for a young woman. Lisa was headstrong, always hanging out with older kids. She gave me more trouble than any of her three brothers."

For Andersen, surfing became an escape route, a way to keep running away. She started skipping school to follow the waves. "I just wanted to go to the water and jump off,"she says. Her parents began to threaten her with court actions and house arrest, so while her mother was off visiting relatives for a week, Andersen did something stunning. With money saved from waitressing at a pancake house, the 16-year-old ran away from home, left school, left her family, left her surf buddies in Ormond Beach. She bought a one-way ticket to Los Angeles and washed up in Huntington Beach, where she worked at an Italian restaurant and spooned up cones at a frozen yogurt parlor. Legend goes, and Lorraine verifies it, that Lisa left a note behind in her bedroom: She was heading out to become number one someday, it read, the world champion of women's surfing.

"I didn't even know if there was a world champion in surfing," she says. "But I just took a gamble by writing that. I guess. I was figuring, 'Well, I have to say something really, really huge here. Make her think that I'm going to do something.'"

And then she adds: "I didn't leave just to surf. My parents were divorced, but my dad was still at home, tormenting my mother and drinking. They were always fighting, acting strange. I was forced at one point to choose between them, and I chose my dad. Then he said he didn't want me. It was easier to leave and hope the mess would disappear."

She was gone a full year before her mother tracked her down after a jaywalking ticket issued in Huntington Beach was mailed to the family home. "I thought I'd never see them again," Andersen says. "When you're young and you leave like that, it seems like it's forever. Since I've had Erica, I can't imagine how I'd feel if she did that to me."

It's mid-august, and Lisa Andersen is lounging around the house with her family. Which is to say she's in a motel room at one of the many venues in the great movable feast that is the international circuit. In this case, the venue happens to be Huntington Beach, in Orange County, California. Along with a dozen other itinerant professional surfers, she's staying at the Huntington Shores Motel, a park-in-front-of-your-room kind of place right on the Pacific Coast Highway. It's less exotic than other locations on the tour--Fiji, Brazil's Barra Beach, Rëunion Island--but everyone settles in anyway. Ratty towels hang on rusting balconies. The beginning riff of "Dark Side of the Moon" floats out an open window.

"Yeah?" Andersen grunts, opening the door to her room. She's barefoot, wearing faded jeans and a light sweater. She's pretty in a cosmetics commercial kind of way--better than her pictures--stripy blond hair and chocolate tan, sharp eyes. She's also oddly impenetrable, closed down, as if the personality of a 17-year-old linebacker had been grafted onto her feminine psyche.

The motel room door swings open wider. Inside, surfboards lean against the walls, duffel bags are systematically arranged on the floor, a wetsuit drips from the shower curtain rod. Lorraine is sitting on one of the beds, coughing a lung-killer cough. "I got some South American crud," Andersen says, "and gave it to Mom." Lorraine lives alone in Florida and is visiting Huntington Beach to log time with her daughter and granddaughter before they head off for France and the next leg of the tour.

Erica is camped out between the beds, hypnotized by the idiotics of a certain purple dinosaur. I love you, you love me... Andersen groans in quiet revulsion, then arcs a wadded ball of paper to the screen, hitting Barney with a thunk.

Andersen isn't exactly media-friendly, and she's far from being a Miss America-style ambassador for her sport. And yet in her own blasë way, she's begun to change the image of the surfer girl, from the oiled up Lolita in a G-string languishing on the sand to something else entirely. In the past three years, there's been a quiet evolution in women's surfing that's been attributed in large part to Andersen's rise. According to the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association, there are now 260,000 women surfers in America, and female participation in the sport is growing twice as fast as it is among males--jumping 15 percent last year alone. "Lisa's taken the Gidget image and broadened it.," says Elizabeth Glazner, editor of Wahine, a water sports magazine for women that began publishing last year. "She's not only raised the technical ability for women, she's raised the sponsorship money. The philosophy in surfing has been that if she isn't a bunny, she isn't female. But Lisa doesn't do that."

This year saw the launch of the nation's first all-female surfing school, Surf Divas of Encinitas, California. In April, the first all-women's surf shop, Watergirl, opened just north of San Diego. Meanwhile, a curious retail fashion phenomenon has taken off. Next spring an estimated 100 million units of women's lace-up nylon board shorts will be hitting boutiques worldwide. Here again, Andersen is credited as the catalyst. "The board shorts vogue can be directly traced back to Lisa's first modeling them in 1992," says Bonnie Crail, president of the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association. "Women are identifying with athletes now, and not just models like Claudia Schiffer."

Not that Andersen seems to care too much about any of this. She is, it seems, an indifferent icon. She appears to have no emotional maw to be fed with adoration or praise, and little inclination to play the crusader, the Susan B. Anthony of surf. Through all the hundreds of trophies and awards, the acceptance speeches, the deadly strings of ESPN interviews--she has remained an unpackaged strain of wayward athlete: the surfer.

The Shores Motel is a throwback to the halcyon days, the old Huntington Beach, the gloriously seedy scene that doesn't exist anymore, where surfers on foodstamps prowled the Pacific Coast Highway, where beach bands like Honk played at the Golden Bear to all hours, where locals rose at dawn, stretched into their chewed-out wetsuits and surfed until midmorning. Andersen has come to Huntington to compete in the U.S. Open, and in a sense, it's a homecoming; this is the place she ran away to 11 years ago, her stomping grounds before becoming a mother, a celebrity, or an icon of anything--when she was free and unencumbered.

"I never thought I'd get married," Andersen says. She's sitting poolside at the Shores, wearing a white bathing suit with a wet towel wrapped around her waist, legs pulled close against her. She's talking about Renato Hickel, a top judge on the world championship tour and a tall, dark Brazilian with a thick, rich accent. He is Erica's father. Andersen met him while surfing at Jeffrey's Bay in South Africa, back in 1992, after she cut him off on a wave; it was not the sort of thing that typically endears women to serious male surfers. A slightly controversial romance ensued a few months later, which they kept secret for a while--eventually Renato had to give up judging Andersen's heats--and before long she was pregnant.

"But I felt it was important to be married if I was having a kid," she says. "Particularly because of all the attention on me. I do regret it now, a little. It wasn't thought out. We hadn't lived together. We hadn't known each other very long."

Erica is nearby, naked and laughing and splashing in the Jacuzzi. She beckons her mother to come give her an underwater swimming lesson. "She's still afraid of the ocean," Andersen says. Surfing is obviously farther down the road. "I'm not going to push her to surf, but she's grown up around it. It's part of her life. I just hope she never leaves a note for me on her bed."

They hold each other tight and submerge. They look sweet together, both tan, blond, and green-eyed, like clones.

"I wasn't through with surfing," Andersen says of Erica's birth, "so she had to come with me." Erica got her passport when she was just a few days old, and now, at three, has racked up more frequent flier miles than a career diplomat. But for a few weeks spent with her paternal grandparents in Brazil, Erica has been on the tour with her mom for all of 1996. No nanny. No day care. Just Andersen and Erica doing it alone. In a peculiar way, Erica has become a godchild of the tour. Whenever Lisa is called into the water, her colleagues and competitors look after the little girl left on shore, an extended family of de facto surfer aunts and uncles scattered across the planet.

She and Renato officially separated earlier this year. "He wanted things to work out, but I had to move on," Andersen says. On, but not exactly far. Renato remains a judge on the world tour and thus goes everywhere on the circuit. It's awkward sometimes. This week, at the Huntington Shores, Renato is just a couple rooms away. "I just wasn't interested in him anymore after Erica was born," Andersen says. "Maybe I don't know how to make things work out. The longest relationship I've been in is four years. But having a kid turned me off to men, suddenly. I didn't want to have anything to do with them."

The big white tents at the U.S. Open, a four-star event just south of Huntington Pier, billow in long, clean rows. There's a hopeful aspect to them, as if throwing up some official-looking structures could make the waves come. But they haven't come, at least not yet. And so the event's organizers are trying to put the best face on a bummer situation. There are TV cameras, concession booths, silkscreened T-shirts sold by the truckload. Old surf music, the sound track from Five Summer Stories, drones from a pair of giant speakers. Ian Cairns has planted himself in the bleachers, and here and there you can spot other venerable old surf stars, people like Peter Townend and Corky Carroll and David Nuuhiwa.

It's late in the afternoon when Andersen saunters out in a wetsuit and red jersey. It's the semifinals, her first appearance at this year's U.S. Open. Suddenly there's a buzz.

There's a cool, southerly breeze stirring now, but the waves refuse to build. Andersen grimaces at the horizon, as though any surf this crappy must have more promising stuff coming behind it. She paces the shoreline, looking vaguely distracted and out of sorts. Then half-heartedly, she drops her board in the water and paddles out. It was just a few yards from here that Ian Cairns, one of the grand old men of professional surfing, found the 16-year-old Andersen asleep under a table at the NSSA contest in in 1986. When she woke up and asked if she could compete, Cairns fuzzed the rules a little and let her in (though Andersen had neither parental consent nor the requisite proof that she was attending school).

She won. And she kept winning, too, taking amateur contests by the score, frequently having to forge her mother's signature on entry forms. She has memories of sleeping under Huntington Pier when she ran out of places to live. "People took me in, put me up," she says. And every morning, before the waves got blown out, she surfed, swallowed up in a borrowed wetsuit several sizes too big.

During one eight-month stretch she brought home 35 trophies. "It was like she had a fully formed surfing style the first time she stood up," says Nick Carroll, editor of Surfing. "Like riding a wave comes as naturally to her as dancing comes to Baryshnikov. She's amazingly accurate. You don't see arms and knees and elbows flying out. There's nothing out of place. And that's rare in any surfer, those purified movements."

She turned professional at 17 and joined the world tour. By 21, she was making finals. By 22, she was winning. In 1992 she was fourth in the world, and since 1994 she's been number one, a career trajectory and timing that parallels Kelly Slater's. And they're often compared--both Florida kids with clean images, both American world champions--but the discrepancy between their earnings is telling. The U.S. Open at Huntington Beach, for instance, paid out $105,000 to the winner of the guy's competition; the women's purse was $25,000. And while Slater easily cleared a million dollars last year--he's made appearances on Baywatch and has a recording contract and a $5 million deal with Quiksilver--Andersen made $31,000 in contest winnings and received double that from her arrangement with Quiksilver.

These relatively paltry payouts, and the grind required to earn them, are taking a toll. Next year will be Andersen's last on the tour, she says, although she does plan to train for 2000 in Sydney, where surfing is expected to make its Olympic debut--a happy chance to spend time in a country she sometimes thinks of adopting as her own. "I love everything about Australia," Andersen says. "All my favorite spots, all my favorite friends." Then, without pausing to note the huge irony, adds, "But it's too far from my mom."

So instead she's been house-hunting stateside, around Ormond Beach; the runaway is finally ready to return home, her story coming full-circle. "I'm just tired of airplanes, you know?" she says. "Tired of bad air. I don't even have a home yet. I've been traveling, just living out of a suitcase for so many years that I'm ready to have my own place."

The horn sounds and Andersen gets up, right away, on an underwhelming little wave that quickly runs out of gas. She scores a 1.5 for the effort. "That's a bad sign!" somebody shouts from the bleachers. Points are tallied for good wave selection, for each maneuver attempted, for difficulty, for taking chances. Andersen does a face plant on her next attempt, then tries another wave, and never stands up.

Lorraine has come to watch Lisa and has brought Erica along, with a drawing board and crayons in tow. "The past is the past," Lorraine says, describing her rapprochement with her daughter years ago. "We're very close now. We're like two peas in a pod. And I was all wrong about surfing. I don't know where Lisa'd be without it."

Lorraine says Andersen's father hasn't seen her surf in a while. Andersen writes him, calls him sometimes, but she says he doesn't seem interested in keeping in touch.

Andersen is up again. She misses the inside, loses steam and sinks down into the ocean with her arm raised above her head. Only halfway into this heat, she's losing, and she knows she's losing. Maybe even accepted that she's losing--accepted that she's blown the heat, blown a four-star event, blown the $25,000 purse. By the end of the heat, she's been nosed out, by three-tenths of a point, by a Tahitian surfer named Patricia Rossi.

A crowd begins to gather outside the competitor's tent. A couple of young Australian girls emerge and sort of skip along, smiling, looking carefree, unencumbered. Then Andersen appears. She has changed into a denim shirt and shorts. She's impossible to read behind her bugged-out mirrored Oakleys, but you can guess how she's feeling.

Andersen says hello, shrugs, and walks on. Lorraine trudges behind her, pulling Erica. It's like a Day of the Dead procession all the way back to The Shores, Andersen and her entourage of responsibility: her mom, Erica, the surfboard, the stroller, the toys, the drawing board and crayons, the bag of snacks.

"We're here. might as well."

The waves at G-land are booming, and Andersen looks around once more at the other women in the trough. Neridah Falconer makes the first move, struggling to position herself for a wave. MacKenzie stands up, then tumbles to the ocean bottom.

And now it's Andersen's turn. The photographers circle around her in boats, yelling, Go, go, go! She bides her time for awhile, but when a particularly intriguing wave rises behind her, a solid blue wall with mare's tails spraying off the lip, she decides to drop in. She gets a solid start and executes a few quick cutbacks to skirt some coral sparkling menacingly beneath the surface boils. "I just went in straight," Andersen says later. "I just tried to survive it."

But that's not how most onlookers view it. What they see is vintage Lisa Andersen: a poise, an economy of movement, a sixth sense for the wave's hidden caprice. She makes another cutback, but then the lip of the wave overtakes her and she's buried horribly, deep in the barrel. The impact snaps her board in half and spins her like dirty laundry toward the reef. She smashes her face on the bottom, scrapes it from forehead to chin. She pops up for air, gasping, her lacerations stinging in the salt water, and yells for her caddy to paddle another board out to her. As she waits, she's slammed by another wave, then another, then another--eight in all, an exhausting succession of breakers so relentless that her caddy can't reach her. People standing on the beach fear Andersen is about to drown, and the jet skis quickly zip out and assist her in returning to shore.

At the beach, the doctors at the first-aid tent have been treating MacKenzie for shock, and now they want a good look at Andersen's bleeding face. But she walks angrily past them, grabs another board, and jumps back into the water, paddling the several hundred yards that separate the strand from the reef break. She's crazy, people whisper. She must be exhausted. She's going to drown.

Andersen hops the first wave that crests and makes another strong run of it before being knocked off the board by the fast-collapsing lip. Again, the jet skis buzz over, but this time the shouts are more determined, more pleading. "Lisa, you've clinched it! You've won! The others have given up! You can go in now." Andersen looks at them for a long moment and starts the paddle in.

When she finally strides ashore, clutching her board, a few of the male surfers and crew members erupt in applause. Lisa Andersen has stuck it out. She's surfed Speedies on the biggest, baddest day anyone can recall. And for an instant it seems that a kind of tribal divide has been washed away--or at least that one bold soul has skipped across it.

Martha Sherrill is a staff writer at the Washington Post and is now at work on a book for Random House about spiritual life in America. Senior editor Hampton Sides collaborated on this story.

Photographs by Norman Jean Roy

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