Australia’s first surfing world champion | Phyllis O’Donnell

1964: a different world than today, particularly the surfing world.

The first ever World Surfing Titles were held at Manly Beach. Australians won both the men’s and women’s world surfing titles.

If you check the International Surfing Association website, it lists Midget Farrelly as 1964 Men’s World Champion, and Phyllis O’Donnell as 1964 Women’s World Champion. It mentions Midget Farrelly’s upset win of the first ever World surfing title.

But if you look at the events themselves, the Women’s final was surfed first, so in fact Phyllis O’Donnell, a lady 27 years of age had won the World Title, before Midget even surfed the final.

A different world back then. Phyllis won $250, a surfboard, and numerous packets of cigarettes!

Phyllis said no one expected her to win.There was even a band playing and the “groovy”music relaxed her, put her in the right frame of mind and the rest is history!

Gidget the movie was out in 1959, starring Sandra Dee, and the TV series with Sally Field, did not start until 1966. If you check out the movie and TV series, you can see the idea of a girl surfing was still pretty taboo, somewhat of a novelty. This is the way it was looked upon by most male surfers. It was a man’s world, and most men did not take kindly to women in the line up.

In an interview for Surfworld at Currumbin Phyllis tells how guys used to aim their boards at her head as she was paddling back out when she first started surfing – before she met the famous Snowy McAllister.

She said after that, after a couple of years, she became an “aggressive surfer”, and like the men fought for and demanded her waves.

This is where my first experience of Phyllis was, about 14 years after her win in the World Titles, I was a little grommet (Yes, cheeky grommet) surfing Rainbow Bay, about 12 years old. I went to drop in, and this older lady said f*ck off kid!

Rather mystified, and never hearing a women speak like that I told my old man that an “old lady”was out there surfing and swore at me.

“Don’t worry son, that’s Phyllis. Don’t drop in,” my dad said.

Dad tells me that around 1965 when he first started surfing, Phyllis was one of the standouts on the southern points. From my memory in 1977, she was still no slouch, even at 40 years of age.

Salute to you Phyllis O’Donnell. Australia – and the Gold Coast’s first ever world surfing champion.

Photos courtesy Ron Perrott.

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