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Frieda Zamba Rides High on Surfing's New Wave : The Three-Time World Champ Revolutionized Women's Pro Surfing

November 01, 1987|KEM NUNN | Kem Nunn is the author of two novels, the recently published "Unassigned Territory" and "Tapping the Source," a 1984 American Book Award nominee that is set amid the surfing milieu of a California beach town.

YOU COULD SAY it was a girl who started the whole thing. So OK, not surfing itself, which probably had its origins somewhere in Polynesia. What I have in mind here is something a good deal more recent: the beginnings of surfing--not simply as sport, but as a phenomenon of popular culture. The date was 1956. The girl was Gidget. In the 1959 film she was portrayed by Sandra Dee--lithe, tan, blond, pint-size, but full of energy. The characters around her had names like the Big Kahuna and Moon Doggie. They rode the crest of what amounted to surfing's first big wave of popularity. The thing came down on us--I see it kind of wobbling along--like a beach break at high tide, reeking of cocoa butter, bouncing to the rhythm of "Surfin' USA."

Now, more than 30 years after Fredrick Kohner's book about the Malibu surfette, the second wave appears to be upon us. Perhaps it will be even bigger than the first. It comes with much of the same baggage--movies, clothes, hairdos, a pair of familiar faces, Frankie and Annette, plus a few new twists like wave pools and a revitalized professional tour. There is even, in the midst of this familiar sea of hype, a young, blond-haired girl, lithe and tan with a board beneath her arm, so that you might imagine the Gidg has come back to us as well. Which in a way she has. Except that this time around her name is Frieda Zamba. (With a name like Zamba you can skip the Gidget stuff.) And this time around, she can really surf.

This is her story. But it is also the story of what that first Gidget was a part of, a certain spirit, if you will, born of this activity that has served both as a sport of kings and as outlaw subculture, and which is with us still, amid the professionalism of the '80s.

It seems now that that first wave was a bit like one of those mysterious comets some believe are responsible for life. It passed without noticeable damage, but it left its spores. Where there were spores, there were, in time, surfers. The spores fell in many places, from Oregon to the Mexican border, from the chilly coast of New England on down to the tiny southern town of Flagler Beach, Fla. The surfers in Florida, much like those in the movie that had helped send the wave on its way, had funny names, like Beaver and Flea. And, just like in the movie, there was a girl on the beach, watching. And just like in the movie, she got tired of watching and decided she wanted to take a shot at it herself. And then something unusual happened. The girl got out there, and pretty soon people were watching her.

Flea Shaw was one of those people. He was a surfer and a good one. He'd spent five years as a professional. Surfing's never been the easiest sport to make a living at, even now, and Flea's time was then, the trough between the waves. When he hung it up he returned to Flagler Beach. He kept his hand in, however, surfing, shaping boards, even coaching the Flagler locals. He shaped Frieda's first board for her when she was 15. And then he began to watch, seriously, that is. "I'd been out on the pro tour," he says. "I'd seen how the other girls were surfing. And I'd seen how fast Frieda was progressing. And I just knew she could do really well."

In 1982, Flea got a chance to test his judgment. Mazda was sponsoring a women's pro event in Solana Beach. Flea found out about it, and he entered Zamba. He had to talk her into going. Frieda was 17. She'd never been out of Florida. "It was," Flea admits, "kind of a big thing. She'd never even been on an airplane. It was a big step." When Frieda speaks of it now, she laughs. "I didn't know any of the other girls on the women's tour. It was kind of like I was standing by myself all the time, on the beach. Surfing by myself. It was really weird." It was true that Frieda was by herself a lot. By the end of the contest she had blown everyone else out of the water, something the Californians thought was kind of weird, themselves. Flea, it seems, knew a surfer when he saw one.

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