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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.

The event, in a way, echoed another, earlier event that has since taken its place in the annals of surfing lore--the 1966 world championships in San Diego, an event many now see as the end of one era, the ushering in of a new. David Nuuhiwa was the man to beat in those days. A Hawaiian by birth, possessed of a catlike grace, Nuuhiwa seemed the archetypal California stylist, everything smooth and fluid, each move blending effortlessly into the next, the master of hang 10. Nuuhiwa was supposed to be a shoo-in. He lost. He lost to a 19-year-old kid from Australia known as the Animal. Also known as Nat Young. Many cite Nat's performance in those championships as the beginning of the modern school of surfing. Nat was not cool. Nat was aggro , dude. The man didn't cruise, he ripped. Not content to ride in a straight line across the wave's face, Nat was a pioneer of the vertical move, the hard drive off the bottom, the hard turn off the top. Nor was his aggression limited to moves on the waves. He went after them with aggression as well, out-paddling competitors, stealing waves, occasionally pausing to pound the deck of his board with his fist. Now it is not clear whether Frieda Zamba did any deck pounding at Solana Beach, but at a time in which girls were supposed to exhibit a little femininity out there, what Zamba did was what the Animal did back in '66: She ripped, and women's surfing would never be the same.

You might assume the rest was history, but not quite. There followed one crazy year on the pro circuit that was many things to a quite young girl pushed suddenly from the serenity of Flagler Beach to life on the professional tour. It was exciting, frustrating, at times humiliating and, in the end, instructive.

Exciting, because suddenly "it's like you get to go all over the place, surf all these good waves you read about in the magazines. You're traveling on your sponsor's money, so it's like, it's great, you know."

The flip side to that can be found in the fact that these places don't come free. There are dues. Hawaii, for instance. "I was excited," Frieda says, "because that's where I'd always wanted to go, but then when I got there it was like, 'God, these waves are big .' It was like anywhere you went it was big , all the time. Then there's this reef you've got to deal with, and crowds and locals. . . . "

Another surfer from Florida, a friend of Flea called Beaver, had to deal with the reef at the Banzai Pipeline on the North shore of Oahu. He'd gone into it head-first on a bad wipeout and stuck there. The rescue crew had gotten to him by following his leg leash down from the surface. Months of surgery and rehabilitation were to follow. And each year there are injuries, everything from what happened to Beaver, to ruptured disks and eardrums, to torn muscles and ligaments--the results of trifling with impact zones as ferocious as any you are likely to see in the NFL. "I had my boards," Frieda says. "But I didn't know where to sit (to wait for the waves) or where to paddle out." It was frustrating. It was also scary. She remembers surfing Haleiwa for the first time, getting held down long enough to forget which way was up. She lost in her first heat. At the time she was glad. "I just knew I wouldn't have to go out there anymore."

But it wasn't just Hawaiian Juice--a term surfers use to describe a wave's power--it was the whole scene. Surfers on the tour might have sponsors, but it's not exactly tennis. "You wind up in these really cheap rooms with a bunch of other girls. You sleep on the floor. You want to go to sleep because you've got this early heat, but somebody else wants to party. So what happens is, you can't concentrate. You do lousy. Your friend does lousy. You say, forget it, let's go get a beer." Frieda wound up getting quite a few beers that first year on the tour. Her weight went up. Her contest results went down, and it was time for Flea Shaw to step back in. He had, after all, discovered a surfer, not a party animal. Next year Flea went out on the tour with Frieda as her coach. She was the only girl to have one. She finished second. In 1985 she won it, the world title, and Flagler Beach put out the welcome mat. They even gave Frieda the key to the city. "I was so embarrassed," Frieda said recently in an interview with Sports Illustrated. "I didn't go downtown for a week."

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