Thursday, October 29, 2009

Lisa Andersen

[ Excerpts from: "The Lioness in Winter," by Shawn Price, Orange Coast Magazine, October 2009 ]

... Lisa Lorraine Andersen was born in New York and grew up the free-willed tomboy nicknamed “Trouble” in the non-surf-centered lands of Maryland and Virginia. Finally, at age 13, she learned to ride on borrowed boards off Ormand Beach, Fla., a few blocks from the family home. “I started surfing right after my parents told me I couldn’t do it,” Andersen told a Brazilian TV reporter many years later.

Once she got her first in-control ride, she was hooked. Riding a wave felt instinctively right for her at a time when nothing else in her life was.

She ran away from home at 16, blaming a stormy home life with a violent, alcoholic father who Andersen says smashed her only surfboard in front of her. Her first plane ride was the one-way ticket she bought in 1985 that took her from Florida to L.A. and then to Huntington Beach, off to become “the No. 1 surfer in the world,” her farewell note said. She swears she didn’t even know for sure if the title existed.

After her arrival, Andersen spent a couple of years “couch surfing” among friends and occasionally sleeping on the beach as she worked herself up to the pro tour. She showed glimpses of greatness, but they ebbed and flowed as she bounced around the top 10 of the Association of Surfing Professionals’ Women’s World Tour for six years. Only after having her daughter, Erica, did things finally gel into a 1994 world championship. Motherhood seemed to focus her phenomenal energy.

She followed that first world title with three more. Her style was revolutionary, because she’d surfed around boys as she grew up, guys who actually encouraged her. She idolized world champs Martin Potter, Shaun Tomson, and especially Tom Curren, and developed her style mostly unaware of how girls were supposed to surf. She exhibited both a power and refined, balletlike movement on the face of waves. Shy but steely. Graceful and feminine, yet fiercely competitive. Soon, even the guys were watching her heats.

“It’s this slam-dance idea,” says Chris Mauro, former editor-in-chief of Surfer magazine, describing the style Andersen was quickly defining. “She was this punk-rock chick who could fit in with the boys.”

In 1996, Andersen made news when she became the first woman in 15 years to grace the cover of Surfer — an image of her smashing the lip of a wave with the blunt caption “Lisa Andersen surfs better than you.” It was a knife to the heart of surfing machismo.

Mauro believes Andersen was the right woman at the right time. “In the longboard era [of the ’60s], women like the Calhouns [Marge and daughters Candy and Robin] were respected. When the shortboard revolution took over, the women fell by the wayside because it wasn’t this graceful kind of thing. Lisa was transformative.”

Her presence on the tour was a marketer’s dream. Surfwear company Quiksilver built the Roxy brand mostly around her image and a pair of men’s boardshorts she helped redesign. She lit an explosion of women into surfing, both professional and recreational. Women’s brands and magazines sprang up, with women’s apparel playing a key role in the surf industry boom of the ’90s.

Mauro says the empowerment message was, first, practical. Women could surf and “didn’t have to worry about their bikini riding up their ass anymore. The shorts were cute and they worked. And it coincided with the [1999 World Cup-winning U.S.] women’s soccer team. They fed off each other. [Women] weren’t going to run out and buy a soccer uniform, but they could go out and buy Roxy stuff.”

In Phil Jarratt’s 2006 history of Quiksilver, “The Mountain and the Wave,” Roxy boss Randy Hild gushed: “She’d been with Roxy since ’92, but her star was just starting to shine. She became the face of the whole thing. Lisa just shattered the beach-babe-or-butch stereotype of women’s surfing. … We couldn’t have dreamed of a better brand image. She was — and is — one of a kind.”

While a phenomenon to the outside world, Andersen struggled in relationships. As Mauro says, years on the road make pro surfers “pretty feral.” It’s a restless life set to a clock of ever-fleeting swell. Life lived out of a suitcase. Nights in hotels, on friends’ floors, in boats, planes, and tents. Days are for honing craft and nights for blowing off steam, or simply killing time. It’s a lot like summer camp, right down to the romances, which start intensely and fizzle as fast as they begin.

“It’s really tough to reconcile,” Mauro says. “And she didn’t have a family to depend on.”

She began a relationship with Renato Hickel, the tour’s head judge at the time, but the closeness of their professional lives cramped her style. Once their relationship began, Hickel had to recuse himself from judging her heats. Their marriage sputtered shortly after Erica’s birth. She and Hickel remain friends, even occasional allies when it comes to getting things right on the current women’s tour.

She’d competed while pregnant and rushed back to competition just weeks after Erica’s birth. Though she continued to win, her body was not ready for the stress of the tour and contests. A degenerative disk condition was beginning to make surfing difficult during her 1994-97 championship run. By late 1998, competing became almost impossible.

Andersen says she intended to retire that year, but like a lot of top athletes, finding the exit was harder than she expected. Life on tour was like a riptide, pulling her back out for one last great ride to shore. Besides, her back problems deprived her of a certain grand finale. She competed sporadically the next few years, before finally retiring in 2003.

A few years earlier, a relationship with the father of her son, Mason, ended. An outsider to the surf world, Mason’s father probably never stood a chance against the lure of what led Andersen away from home in the first place — the competitive life that defined her then.

In 2005, Quiksilver offered her the job of global brand ambassador for Roxy, a role that would make her part coach, part businesswoman, part enforcer of contest guidelines, part confidante to the young women on the tour. It offered her the chance to take a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-did role that many girls competing during Andersen’s career could have used—especially from someone who really had seen it all...

“I was a little overwhelmed,” she says now. “There were just all these different people who could relate to me somehow. They’re still dealing with the same issues. I think a lot of girls are afraid to step outside and do something where they’re going to get judged. I dressed a certain way and a lot of people didn’t like that. I wasn’t really girlie. … They need to be inspired by somebody that did it without worrying about what other people say or think. They need that little nudge.”

Rochelle Ballard, a former World Tour rival and one of Andersen’s closest friends, distills Andersen’s continuing appeal: “Women are empowered by seeing a woman fulfill her own dream and find her own balance. She had something driving her more than her goals. Because of the timing, she was the Wonder Woman of the group. In art and entertainment there is always someone that rises to be an iconic figure.”

And now, perhaps because of all that, Ballard says, “Lisa is the only woman who was taken care of by the industry after her competitive career. Now she has the opportunity to share herself with the next generation so they can say, ‘Look what Lisa did.’ You may peak in your career, but you keep growing. Life is creation. You make your own rules.”

... Andersen concedes that the elder stateswoman role is an adjustment. “There’s a couple of times in the last four years when my brain would go: ‘OK, I could start training in January.’ In your head you try to plan it out and see if it works. Then I think: ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ ”

... Andersen is thrilled to see more strategy in women’s heats now. Thrilled to see more training. More prep. And more respect given to female athletes. “You should see the game faces now,” Andersen says about the contests she visits. “I walk around telling people to lighten up.” She forgets for the moment how intimidating she was before heats, her head shrouded in a beach towel...

Achievements in Surfing
  • 4 consecutive world titles (1994-97)
  • 24 contest victories, including wins at events in Europe, Australia, and Huntington Beach, where she won the U.S. Open twice (1994 and ’97), and the OP Pro (1995)
  • 1987 Association of Surfing Professionals Women’s Rookie of the Year
  • No. 76 among the “Greatest Sportswomen of the Century,” Sports Illustrated for Women
  • 1992, 1994, 1996-1999 Surfer magazine Readers Poll winner
  • Named one of the “25 Most Influential Surfers of the Century” by Surfer magazine
  • Eleven top-10 season finishes, and seven top-five finishes on the Women’s World Tour
  • 1998 Female Athlete of the Year, Condé Nast Sports for Women magazine

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