The 5 Most Influential Professional Women Surfers of All Time

Unless you go by strict numbers like most wins or highest points, any list of the “best” or “most” of anything or anybody will require some subjectivity. Especially in this case as I muddled, searched and meandered through surf history’s finest female surfers. I decided to stop at the top five, but it hurt to leave off so many great ladies, so I narrowed the category from “Greatest Ever” to “Most Influential."

Honorable Mentions

There are so many great and influential female pro surfers, but we couldn't include them all. Maya Gabreia gets an honorable mention on this list. Her contribution to the surfing world lies mainly in getting hammered in giant surf. Ultimately, however, I think Keala Kennelly did it first and better (in terms of making monster barrels). But neither women’s contributions to the arena of big wave surfing should not be ignored. These women are surfers and this about competitive surfing.

Marge Calhoun

Marge Calhoun was the first women’s world champion of the Makaha International. So she is not the official first female pro champion, she did win the international surf event - the only contest of the era that pulled in surfers from all over the planet and boasted the ultimate surfing arena. Calhoun’s win puts her at the top of a very elite list of women and at the beginning of women's competitive surfing history. She was a pioneer and was inducted into the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame, in 2003.

Phyllis O’Donnell

O’Donnell, a native of Sydney, Australia, was born in 1937 and started surfing in the 50’s. Her early career would be heavily influenced by her mentors C.J.”Snow” McAlister and Bob Evans. At a time when the sport of surfing itself was considered to be on the fringe, women’s surfing was even further out on that fringe. In those early days, Phyllis fought hard for acceptance on the Australian breaks and earned a reputation for being tough and aggressive among the leading male and female surfers of the time.

More than 60,000 spectators crowded onto Manly Beach in Sydney, Australia back in 1964 to watch surfers from all over the globe compete in the first World Championships of Surfing. When it was all over, Australians Bernard “Midget” Farrelly and Phyllis O’Donnell would make surfing history as they ascended the podium to accept the trophies, and the glory, of being called the first.

Margo Oberg

In 1977, Margo Oberg famously told People Magazine, “There are ten really famous male surfers in the world and one really famous female surfer. That’s me. I want to ride the biggest waves any woman has ever ridden.” Her words, while dripping with braggadocio, were rooted every bit in truth. No one could dispute that the graceful regular-footer was the queen of women’s pro surfing. She was one of those rare athletes who dominate so convincingly that others appear ill-equipped to compete. Think Mark Richards, Tom Curren, Kelly Slater. Margo Oberg is on that list. She stormed to the top of her sport and is widely regarded as the first female professional surfer (parlaying wave riding into a legitimate career that would span decades). Her epic clashes with arch-rival Lynne Boyer became legend. A world champion four times over and one of the first women to truly break into Hawaii’s big-wave boys club, Margo Oberg was one of a handful of women to set the performance bar beyond reach.

Lisa Anderson

To completely wrap your head around Lisa Anderson’s competitive legacy, you have to start with the cold facts: 4 straight world titles from 1994-1997; ASP Women’s Rookie of the Year in 1987; 24 total contest victories; ranked #76 among Sports Illustrated for Women’s “Greatest Sportswomen of the Century; 6 time winner of Surfer magazine’s Readers Poll;  chosen as one of Surfer Magazine’s “25 Most Influential Surfers of the Century;” named “1998 Female Athlete of the Year by  Condé Nast Sports for Women magazine.

That said, there is no argument that Lisa Anderson is one of the surfing’s greatest athletes, but her true impact would transcend mere numbers. Blending equal parts feminine beauty and animal aggression, Anderson shattered the surfer-chick mold and reached iconic status by single-handedly changing our perception of women who ride waves.

Layne Beachley

Layne Beachley is the most dominant woman surfer…ever. The powerful natural-footer from Australia ruled women’s surfing on both a competitive and cultural level amidst her 20-year career. In truth, her only competitive comparison would be Kelly Slater as she practically wiped clean the records of her female peers. Beachley was hell-bent on success from the moment she first tasted victory as a pro surfer, going on to win seven world titles and distinguishing herself as a legitimate big wave charger.  With 20/20 hindsight, she later commented on her achievements, proclaiming, “To dream takes courage…to set yourself apart from the masses by allowing yourself to set a goal, no matter how unrealistic it may seem.” But it’s doubtful that a teenage Beachley back in Manly ever dared to dream this big: winning her first world title in 1998 which she would not relinquish for 6 straight years, an unmatched feat.

Through shrewd self-branding and fearless performances, Beachley had created a total package that couldn’t be ignored by the industry, prompting full press coverage and global name recognition. She came back in 2006 to win her resounding 7th world title as if to slam the door shut on all contenders.