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LOCALS ONLY : Meet Five of the Best Southern California Women : on the Pro Surfing Tour

November 01, 1987|SUSAN HEEGER and Susan Heeger a Los Angeles writer.

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIANS, take heart.

One South African and an Australian or two might be closing in on three-time world champ Frieda Zamba, but five of our own are right there in the scramble for the women's world surfing title.

Four world events--and three wins for Wendy Botha of South Africa--have opened the field to the challengers, and, say the Californians, sharpened their own hopes for a winning 1987-88 season.

"The competition is much stronger this year," says Jorja Smith of San Clemente, currently the sixth-ranked woman on the Assn. of Surfing Professionals' world tour. "There's no one out there that's unbeatable, so we're all working harder."

Recently, the top five Californians--whose world standings after four events range from 10th to fourth place--gathered in Malibu for a national meet put on by the Professional Surfing Assn. of America. Because this year's PSAA schedule conflicted with the world tour, the women had missed several PSAA events, and most went to Malibu to enjoy the prime conditions rather than to compete for the national title.

On the kind of late summer day that Malibu is famous for--sunny and 75 degrees with four- to six-foot waves--they took time out to talk about themselves and their goals in a male-dominated sport.

All five are quintessential Southern Californians, golden brown, athletic, easygoing. They are all friends. Two are twin sisters. They are all, they mention casually, Virgos. They are also confident and disciplined perfectionists.

Kim Mearig, 24, of Carpinteria, has already won the women's world surfing title once, in 1983--her second professional year. Known for her graceful style, she was recently described by Peter Townend, the 1976 men's world champion who coached her as an amateur, as "a complete natural--the first girl who surfed like a man with the grace of a woman. She took the world by storm."

Finishing second in 1984 to Zamba, Mearig then had what she calls "a two-year slump," taking sixth in '85 and '86. This year she has gotten back "a craze for winning," which has put her, for now, in fourth place.

Mearig grew up in Santa Barbara, and her mother, Lois, recalls that when Kim was 12, she "got on a board and surfed her first wave clear to the beach."

In the National Scholastic Surfing Assn., one of the country's largest amateur surfing organizations, Mearig quickly became a star, winning the championship in 1982.

Around the same time, she met her husband, self-described "surf addict" Brian Gruetzmacher, now 27. "I had called in sick from work; she'd played hooky from school," Gruetzmacher remembers. "We ended up surfing the same peak. I fell in love that day."

While her first pro year was disappointing (she finished 18th), her world victory the next year made up for it. Suddenly she had solid sponsorship, with Ocean Pacific Sunwear joining Victory Wetsuits and Channel Island surf boards to provide enough financial backing for her to tour and train year-round.

Ironically, she sees her trademark graceful style as a partial liability, given "the way women are being judged now. The one who surfs most like a man wins," she explains.

To add aggressiveness to her grace, she trains four to six hours a day, often with her husband, who videotapes these sessions for study later.Occasionally, she considers retirement--"being a rep for my wet-suit sponsor, staying at home, having a family."

But at the moment, these thoughts are rare. "It's such an interesting year," she muses. "The odds are stacking up against Wendy (Botha). Isn't that the law of probability?"

Tricia Gill, 22, of Leucadia and Newport Beach, has had perhaps more reason than anyone to pray for Wendy Botha's luck to change. In the first women's contest of the year, the July Stubbies Pro USA in Oceanside, Gill lost to Botha by one point, which Gill believes should have been hers.

Nevertheless, Gill, who finished her '84 pro debut in 13th place, has progressed steadily through the ranks--to No. 8 in '85 and No. 7 in '86. Last month she finished the fourth event of the season, the Marui Pro in Chiba, Japan, rated fifth. Gill is known for her aggressive style. Debbie Beacham, the 1982 women's world champion who sometimes coaches Gill, has called this style "very smooth and very explosive."

The same words fit Gill herself. In pastel clothes provided by sponsor Town & Country, with the added touches of pearls, a gold cross and Bolle shades on a turquoise string, Gill is the picture of smooth. When she opens her mouth, passion rages amid the surf lingo. She is "stoked," "amped out."

Gill started surfing by taking lessons through the Newport Beach Department of Parks and Recreation. "She was a real individualist," her mother recalls, "one of the first girls to play Little League. And once she got on a board, she was at one with the world."

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