Holly Beck rides a wave off the coast of Nicaragua this winter. (Morgan Hoesterey )
Not too long ago, Holly Beck was surfing's "it" girl — a photogenic up-and-comer seemingly poised to break big in the world of competitive wave-riding.
Blonde, blue-eyed and hard-bodied, the Palos Verdes-bred Beck was dubbed "Anna Kournikova with a surfboard."
It proved an apt description.
Like Kournikova, Beck never reigned over her chosen profession but maintained her allure among sponsors nonetheless.
Though the globetrotting Beck stopped competing a few years ago, her dream of qualifying for the Assn. of Surfing Professionals' elite-level world tour unfulfilled, you would scarcely know it by perusing her recent travel schedule.
In only the last six months, at the behest of sponsors, the photogenic 30-year-old has crisscrossed the planet en route to photo shoots, surf trips and other action adventures.
She has touched down in exotic locales such as China, Hawaii and, among a number of Central American countries, her quasi-home base of Nicaragua.
By mid-summer, she is scheduled to have made additional trips to Thailand, Fiji, Puerto Rico and Alaska.
Who has time to compete?
"Being a pro surfer was a dream come true, all I could ever imagine," Beck says during a recent visit to Redondo Beach, sipping a chai latte at a local hangout after a morning spent surfing. "I spent seven years competing and traveling and at first it was amazing, the greatest thing ever.
"But then it got to the point where I wasn't winning. I was sort of placing in the middle … and I sort of lost motivation.…
"I decided I wanted more."
Equally adept in a boardroom or bikini — she holds an undergraduate degree in psychology and an MBA in marketing — Beck convinced her sponsors they'd get more bang for their bucks by allowing her to function as sort of a roaming billboard.
"I'm incredibly lucky in that I still get paid to surf," she says. "Most of my peers lost that [privilege] years ago."
Beck, the oldest of five sisters, came to the sport later than most professional surfers, taking it up in earnest at age 15 after discovering a bulky old surfboard once owned by her uncle hanging unused in her grandparents' garage.
Though her mother discouraged her — "She thought I should be sitting on the beach in a bikini," Beck says — the neophyte soon made the surf team at Palos Verdes Peninsula High.
She started winning contests, working her way up the ladder.
"By the 1999 season," Janice Aragon, executive director of the National Scholastic Surfing Assn., notes via e-mail, "she dominated women's surfing in the amateur ranks."
At age 20, a degree from UC San Diego and a national amateur championship in hand, Beck was ready to turn pro.
She may have gained her widest exposure, though, not from surfing but from co-starring in "Boarding House: North Shore," a reality TV series that aired on the WB Network in 2003.
A Los Angeles Times review of the show described Beck as a "dedicated competitor who scoffs at giggly surf chicks."
As a touring pro, however, Beck never reached surfing's top tier, a reality she calls disappointing but not devastating.
"In some ways, yeah, I wish I'd made it," she says. "But at the same time, I wouldn't change any of the experiences I had. It's one of those things where it would have been nice just to say I did it, but for no other reason than to say I did it."
At about the same time she left competitive surfing, Beck bought land in Nicaragua and started a business (surfwithhollybeck.com) leading surfing and yoga retreats.
She's in the process of developing the property, which fronts the Pacific Ocean about 45 minutes northwest of Chinandega in the northwest corner of the country.
She plans to live there.
"It's unlike Costa Rica or Bali or a lot of more established surfing destinations," Beck says of her adopted home. "It's less developed, so there's still a lot of opportunity. It's also close to home, it's affordable and I speak the language."
Redondo Beach, her former home, may offer "good food, fast Internet and friends," Beck says, smiling, "but at the same time, there are no parking meters in Nicaragua."
Meanwhile, as she continues building her business, her sponsors continue sending her hither and yon.
"Why wouldn't we?" says Scott Daley, director of marketing at Body Glove, which has sponsored Beck since she was 17 and considers her part of its family. "She has that very traditional California-girl look — blonde, great body, great surfer — but she's also got great intellectual skills on camera.
"She's kind of an all-around ambassador for what our brand represents. If our brand is the ultimate water-sports brand, we certainly want a gal like Holly to portray it."
At this rate, Beck may never have to work a regular job.
Her fingers are crossed.
"One thing turns into the next thing and turns into the next thing," she says. "So far, it's worked out."