march 2011

Layne Beachley on another classic ride: “I wanted to write a book for myself as part of a cathartic journey,”

Layne Beachley: Child of ‘Gidget’ Who Made Good--Very Good

Undaunted by illness and emotional upheaval, the retired 7-time World Champion surfer now works to help other girls and women achieve their dreams

Australia’s Layne Beachley, one of the many women influenced by the pioneering surfing exploits of Kathy “Gidget” Kohner Zuckerman, became a giant in what was largely a man’s world at the time she entered it. Following a neck injury in 2007, Beachley retired as a seven-time world champion on October 2, 2009 after surfing her last WCT event--her own $100,000 Commonwealth Bank Beachley Classic, the largest prize purse on the tour--to cap a 20-year professional career. When she started surfing in the ‘70s there were, she says, “two or maybe three girls in the water,” and now the women outnumber the men in the lineup for the next big wave. She went out in true Beachley style, too, riding, in May 2009, what many consider to be the largest wave ever challenged by a woman, in Australia at Ours, Maroubra, Sydney. Surfline’s Nick Carroll praised her “big wave moxie and scary competitive drive” while noting how her dogged efforts at publicizing women’s surfing earned her the nickname “Queen of Self Promotion” from an Australian newspaper.

Layne Beachley gets one of the deepest tubes ever by a woman on a thick day at Ours, Maroubra, Sydney, Australia. An entry in the Ride of the Year category of the 2009/10 Billabong XXL Global Big Wave Awards. See for more details. Video by Tim Bonython.

There’s more to Layne Beachley than her athletic exploits, though. The same year she unveiled her Beachley Classic competition, she started the Aim For the Stars Foundation “to inspire girls and women across Australia to dream and achieve,” a cause to which she now devotes most of her time. After breaking ties with her long-time supporter Billabong in frustration over the lack of support for women surfers, she introduced her own clothing line, Beachley Athletic. In retirement she is in demand as a motivational speaker, and devotes considerable time and energy to various charitable activities beyond that of the Aim For the Stars Foundation.

Her story has its fair share of off-the-waves drama, too, as Beachley has surmounted obstacles that might have sent a less hardy soul into seclusion and out of the public eye for good. In her 2008 autobiography, Beneath the Waves, she revealed long-hidden struggles as part of what she called a “cleansing process.

“I wanted to write a book for myself as part of a cathartic journey,” she told reporter Aleks Devic in an interview for Australia’s Geelong Advertiser upon the book’s release. "It's an expose of the other side of what I have endured," Beachley said.

“The other side” includes the devastating revelation, in her teens, that she had been adopted and was in fact a child conceived by rape. "It made me feel isolated and instantly feel like I didn't belong," she said. "I just pretended it was not happening, I was shocked and didn't let anyone in." Reunited with her birth mother in 1999--a complex relationship she details in her book--Beachley has never sought out her biological father.

‘Competitiveness was ingrained in me, it ran through my veins as much as blood did’: a profile of Layne Beachley

In 1992, at the age of 20, she won her first tour event and achieved a #6 world ranking, only to be felled that same year by chronic fatigue syndrome (possibly a byproduct of her rigorous physical training regimen) and was forced to the sidelines. Undaunted, she took care of herself and returned to the circuit to record ASP Women’s World Tour wins in every year from 1993 through 1996 (in the latter year, she claimed an astonishing six wins on the World Tour). In the midst of her 1996 triumphs, though, chronic fatigue syndrome struck her again, and with it, depression. Battling back, she ended the season with a #3 world ranking.  In 1998, she won, by the largest margin in women’s competitive surfing history, the first of six consecutive World Championships. In 2006 she won her seventh and final world title, her career total far surpassing that of previous record holders, four-time winners Lisa Anderson and Frieda Zamba. During this run, while training with her boyfriend and big-wave tow expert Ken Bradshaw, she became the first woman to tow into 35-foot surf on Oahu’s Outer Reef. She is now married to Kirk Pengilly, guitarist/saxophone player for INXS.

Layne Beachley was born Tania Maris Gardner on May 24, 1972 in Sydney, Australia, to a 17-year-old unmarried mother. She was adopted by Neil and Valerie Beachley, who lived in nearby Manly. When Layne was six years old, her adoptive mother suffered a post-operative brain hemorrhage and died, leaving Layne and her brother to be raised by a family friend. Independent and driven, she was drawn to competitive sports--notably soccer and tennis--before discovering the surf culture at Manly Beach, and with it, her calling. As a 15-year-old she was beating male surfers in heats at Manly, and was soon on the pro circuit, competing in trial events around Australia and showing herself to be formidable on the board. Even then she had developed an activist streak, speaking out on what she considered worthwhile causes and promoting various charities.

Asked in her first post-retirement interview how she felt about pro surfing, Beachley answered: “From my own experience, I would have to say it is one of the most amazing professions in the world. Of course there are pros and cons to every job, but I'm proud to have been labeled a pro surfer for 20 years. It has taught me so many valuable life lessons, opened my eyes to new cultures and ways of life, allowed me to enjoy some of the most amazing waves the world has to offer and has taken me to places and introduced me to people that most would only dream about.”

At the same time, she said, “It's a relief to be able to go surfing for the fun of it now without the added expectation and pressure that I have placed on myself over the last 20 years. I'm still competitive by nature, but after seeing how well the girls are surfing at the Commonwealth Bank Beachley Classic I will admit that I feel I have made the decision at the right time as I'm no longer passionate enough to push myself to remain a contender.”

‘I'm proud to have been labeled a pro surfer for 20 years. It has taught me so many valuable life lessons, opened my eyes to new cultures and ways of life…’

The Beachley Classic, which operates with the assistance of a bank rather than with any of the surf tour’s major sponsors, is a point of pride with Beachley, who says it was “always my objective to open women's surfing up to a whole new market. The industry have been supportive of the sport but somewhat suffocating at the same time, so I feel the more we allow the corporate world to participate in the sport, the greater our chances of growing outside of the limitations placed on us by the surfing industry.”

As to what she expected to miss most about the pro surfing tour, she answered: “The ability to pack up and go travelling whenever I feel like it, the fun waves, experiencing different cultures and meeting new people and partying with my competitors/friends.”

And what would she least miss?

“Travelling the world in economy class with board bags.”—David McGee



In Her Own Words: Layne Beachley On the Aim For the Stars Foundation

‘A little bit of finance or just the knowledge someone believes in their personal ambition may be all it takes for a female to achieve greatness and ultimately happiness.’

The Layne Beachley Aim for the Stars Foundation was created to inspire girls and women across Australia to dream and achieve.

beachlyHaving experienced the financial pressures of supporting my professional surfing career, I set out to establish a foundation offering assistance for those who need some extra help to achieve their ambitions. It is a hard task to be the best at your chosen aspiration when you are busy trying to substitute your income or do your school work. There were plenty of moments when I wanted to quit but I cannot begin to imagine where I would be now if I let money dictate my love for surfing!

For the first eight years of my surfing career I was my sole financial supporter. Working four jobs to fund my overseas ventures and contest endeavors meant very little time was left for surfing itself. A typical week would consist of sixty hours waiting tables, folding t-shirts, teaching people to roller blade and one hour of surfing. Not the best regimen for becoming a World Champion, but with every working hour my passion and perseverance grew.

Still, I found myself living two lives. I was only getting out of surfing as much as I put into it, which at the time was far from 100%. I came to the realization that it is a hard task to be the best at your chosen aspiration when you are busy trying to substitute your income. I appreciate everything I achieved because I had to work so hard for it but by the time I made it on tour and to competition day, I was pretty much exhausted!

The Layne Beachley Aim for the Stars Foundation was built to prevent girls and women alike from having to go through this same amount of adversity. My desire is to encourage, motivate and provide for all aspiring women. Encompassing academic, sport, cultural and community pursuits, Aim for the Stars offers ambitious and dedicated females an opportunity to receive financial and moral support to help them achieve their goals. My support will give them the opportunity to maintain a determined focus on their goal, to achieve their dreams earlier in life and allow them to further their ambitions and aim for the stars.

The foundation is an investment into the future of Australian women. Statistics show that involvement in sport or like interests detracts from drug addiction, criminal intent and teenage pregnancy. Pursuing personal endeavors enhances goal setting skills, encourages self discipline, furthers self esteem and fosters a motivational nature, all of which benefit professional, academic, personal and social interaction throughout life.

A little bit of finance or just the knowledge someone believes in their personal ambition may be all it takes for a female to achieve greatness and ultimately happiness.

The Layne Beachley Aim For the Stars Foundation

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024