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No Dummy, Beck Studied Hard for Her Boards

July 27, 2001|MIKE BRESNAHAN

The ocean waters were serene and the moonlight dim, eerily reminiscent of the opening scene from "Jaws"--but Holly Beck wasn't worried about sharks.

She was scared of people. Other surfers, specifically.

As she quietly paddled her board out to the more challenging waves, Beck was afraid of being spotted by experienced surfers who wouldn't think twice about heckling or hazing her.

She was, after all, a newcomer to this surfing thing, employing an ancient, bulky board that her uncle had used in the 1970s and taking up the sport at age 15, a relative septuagenarian among the surf gremlins who typically master their first wave at an early age.

Inexperience and board-size aside, she also could be singled out among the chops and breaks because of one simple fact--she was a female in a male-dominated surfing world.

Thus the daily efforts to beat the boys to the beach, days that began with 4 a.m. wake-up calls and continued with the first wave within half an hour.

"I didn't want to look silly," she said. "As soon as someone made their way out to where we were, I'd go in. There weren't any other girls I knew who surfed and I thought the guys would all make fun of me."

Now she's the one stealing waves from the fellas.

Beck, 20, officially turns pro at the Philips U.S. Open of Surfing, which starts Saturday in Huntington Beach and ends Aug. 5.

The reigning amateur national champion, she has lived a charmed life in the surf since her days of heading out to sea under cover of darkness.

Anna Kournikova with a surfboard, the 5-foot-7 blue-eyed blond has had photo shoots in several national magazines that play on her looks more than her ability.

She'd rather be known for the latter.

"Now, it's serious," she said between bites of teriyaki chicken and rice at a Manhattan Beach hangout. "In the past, if I didn't do well in a contest, I had an excuse--I've got school or I'm not a pro yet. And a lot of the girls have written me off, saying I'm just a face, saying 'She can talk to a camera, but she can't surf.'

"Anything I do I want to be the best at. We'll see what happens."

Most surfers turn pro shortly after they hang their high-school tassel on their rear-view mirror. Some don't even make it that far.

Not Beck.

After graduating from Palos Verdes Peninsula High, she attended UC San Diego and earned a degree in psychology in three years. Surfing took second place when school was in session, Beck wedging in time for it on weekends.

"She defies that Jeff Spicoli [of 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High' fame] stereotype," said U.S. Open spokesman Mike Kingsbury. "Parents will see people like Holly and see that these surfers can be successful and educated.

"She's the template--if it works, I'm sure many will follow in her footsteps."

Fine with Beck, who's tired of hearing the snickers and sensing the reproach when describing what she does for a living.

"I tell people I'm a professional surfer and they make some comment about smoking pot and sitting at the beach all day," she said. "I want to help change the image of what surfing is all about. I want to show that you can pursue your dreams and go to school."

If not for a few twists of fate, Beck would probably be at an entry-level position in the working world.

She was never really interested in sports--her mother, Debbie, steered her to dancing and horseback riding instead--but she was intrigued when a surfing magazine was accidentally mailed to the Beck household when she was 12.

Fascinated by the fusion of man and ocean, Beck clipped out photos from the magazine and pasted them on her bedroom wall.

Slightly more than a year later, she found a surfboard hanging in the rafters of her grandparents' garage and was told it had been used a generation ago by her uncle, Mike Cleghorn.

Beck asked him if she could have the board, which seemed thicker than an airplane wing and was blackened by decades of dust that had stuck to the board wax.

He said sure. Her mom said no way.

"My mom was really against surfing," Beck said. "She thought I should be sitting on the beach in a bikini."

But Cleghorn surprised Beck--and her mother, for that matter--by giving the board to Beck for her 14th birthday.

Intimidation got the best of Beck, who used the board only a few times that year. But she threw herself into the sport the following year, aggression pushing apprehension further into the past.

The learning curve is infinite for Beck. The surfing world is watching and waiting.

The exact date rolls off the tongue of Lt. Chuck Thomas as if it's an anniversary, which it is, though not really the card-and-flowers type.

Fifteen years ago, riots marred the U.S. Open of Surfing at Huntington Beach, then called the Ocean Pacific Pro Surfing Championships.

Hundreds of youths pelted police with rocks and bottles, stormed a lifeguard station and destroyed five police vehicles. Twelve people were injured and 10 arrests were made, each on charges of felony assault on a police officer.

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