The Salty Life: Five Decades of Surfing

Surfing is who I am. It is my identity. If you know me, you know I surf. It’s as natural to me as brushing your teeth might be for you. I literally don’t feel like myself if I have too many days in a row without a dunk in the sea. For me, there is nothing like paddling out, catching a perfect wave and riding it to its’ end. It’s euphoric. It makes me feel whole, complete, satisfied. When I’m in the groove, there is absolutely no better feeling. I am my true self when surfing to my best ability. I am sharing my experience in the hopes more women will take up the sport and share in the remarkable feeling.

Surfing, California Girl, Female Surfer
Fun day at the end of the street

I’ve been surfing my entire life. Mom wisely taught me to swim early on and had me paddling around on her longboard in San Diego Bay at 4 years old. Addicted herself, she was eager for a built-in surf buddy. By 8 years old I was catching and riding waves on my own, and by age 13 I was totally addicted. I rather obsessively checked the surf, swell direction and tides every day, multiple times.  If the “Big Swell” was coming…all schedules ceased to happen, plans changed, priorities shifted.  When big waves were on the horizon my time was choosing which of several boards I would ride, depending on the kinds of waves expected.  By 16 I was in full competition mode, competing against girls my age despite having to wear men’s wetsuits because no one thought to make them for girls yet.  Competitions were tough as no one took women in the sport seriously.  Fellow male supers would balk at me and my fellow female surfers riding waves with them so we would have to hit the beach at 4:30 AM until we felt good enough to compete.  Sponsorships followed, a well-respected surfboard brand as well as a wetsuit company and for close to ten years, I competed every weekend. 

El Salvador, California Girl, Surfing, Female Surfer
Surfing in El Salvador

The travel bug can run parallel to the love of surfing, with spectacular results. Pilgrimages to Hawaii, Mexico and up and down the Southern California coast became the norm. I surfed my way to a couple of minor titles, but in that era money in surfing for both men and women was minuscule to non-existent, especially so for women, so I buckled down and got a degree.  College actually proved to be a great way to keep surfing. Every school break included travel. My love of exploring the world for waves only intensified. Finally, I met and married the love of my life and of course on our first date he took me surfing at a spot that today is still one of my favorite local breaks. We married, I got my teaching credentials, had two beautiful children and continued surfing with a passion.

Shelly Pool and Leonard Pool
Leonard and Shelly Pool – the love of her life

Surfing is dangerous, and at times comes with serious consequences. Most hard-core surfers have sustained an injury, sometimes serious, and I’ve had my share; stitches in the face, broken nose, black eyes, shoulder surgeries, multiple ear surgeries and I have even fractured three vertebrae in my neck. Sometimes these are self-inflicted, meaning I blew it, but other times, it’s the price to be paid in a crowded surfer line-up. Each of these injuries, however minor, generally prompt one major concern ‘when will I get back in the water again?’ Surfers are known to defy conventional medical wisdom, we tend to heal very quickly although I do remember my sweet mother-in-law asking once why I kept surfing and “shouldn’t I consider another sport might cause stitches to the face?” I just smiled and thought, ‘well she doesn’t surf’.

Shelly on her favorite local break

As a younger woman in this male-dominated sport, I knew there would be limitations. Men are generally stronger in the upper body, it’s just a fact of biology. It seemed ridiculous and pointless to get aggressive and try to compete with them in the water. So I embraced my femininity. My idol was Jericho Poppler, a professional woman surfer in the 70’s. She surfed huge waves but did so with grace and style. Her toenails were always painted and she had an infectious laugh, I wanted to be like her. 

Surfer, Women Surfer, Waves, Ocean, California
Morning surf session with the girls

I have embraced being a woman in the water. If a man says ‘take this wave’, I don’t hesitate. I take all the help I can get. It’s important to network, and take an interest in one’s fellow surf brothers, ask them about their wives, girlfriends, home life in general. I talk fondly and often of my husband. They know I’m out there to have fun, but I’m not a threat. I believe the sport of surfing is a gift, and waves are to be appreciated, not squandered. 

Ugg boots, San Orofre, California, Surfing
Surf Camping – San Orofre in San Clement

Lately, I’ve found that age is a difficult pill to swallow. I still surf regularly, I still ride a higher performance shortboard and am holding my own. But things have definitely slowed down. It’s harder for me to catch waves. Many people my age are moving to longer boards, thicker boards. It makes it easier to catch waves, hence older folks ride them. I still check the surf several times a day, and I know when a swell is coming as well as the current tides and water temperature. The cruel irony, however, as I’ve aged and have more time to surf, my body asks me to surf ‘just a little less’. This, of course, scares me since I really don’t know who I’d be without surfing. I don’t remember a time in my life when surfing wasn’t my number one thing. Will I still enjoy life? What will I do? I really don’t know. Too scary of a thought.

Surfer, Women Surfer, Waves, California, Women who surf
Beach day with her granddaughter, a future surfer girl

Another difficult part of the aging process is that most women my age have aged beautifully. They have smooth skin free of sunspots, nice nails, and wear pretty make-up. When I’m surfing, none of this can exist. As much as I try to cover my face and hands with sunscreen, it doesn’t last long when I’m in the water. Nor does nail polish, which chips easily when wet for an extended time. Even the gel nails have chipped. Makeup is impossible; it just becomes a runny mess, so it has to come off before surfing. A peel or laser treatment? Hah! That would mean days or even weeks out of the water and a part of me is worried I’ll be “punished” by the sea gods and miss the Swell of the Decade. My surfing has already lost so much due to injuries and surgeries, so I’m just not willing to sacrifice any more time than absolutely necessary. So basically, I have to be exactly as I am with no extra help, and at ‘fifty something’ it ain’t always pretty. Skin is spotty, hair is a mess, and wrinkles… well what can I say? This has definitely been hard on my ego. The older guys now talk to me about how ‘we’ have aged. How ‘we’ find it harder to surf. How ‘we’ have sustained yet another injury. When did I get to be part of their ‘we’ club?

So what do I do? I plan a lot of tropical surf trips with my husband and I keep myself surrounded by good surfing girlfriends. They keep me stoked! They keep my competitive spirit up. When I hear they’ve been out and it’s ‘good’, I can’t wait to get out myself! We plan day trips together. We talk surf. We are a tribe. So even when all my other lady friends are done up, made up, dressed up and looking really good, I am quietly planning tomorrow’s surf and don’t feel too intimidated. And so the stoke continues… 

Guest Writer – Shelly Pool

6 thoughts on “The Salty Life: Five Decades of Surfing”

  1. Always fun surfing with you at our secret spots. Solid surfer who rides a shortboard even though a longer board would be beneficial sometimes. You’re still surfing good glad to see you have the same excitement to get in the water

  2. Shelly,
    A beautifully written Love story that so many can relate to. Tangible …. living…Aloha in action…. you are an inspiration.
    See you in the water!
    Mahalo nui loa!

  3. Despite your best efforts I never caught the surfing bug. But I can confirm your obsession with the water and your grace on a wave. I was always proud to be your spotter and brag a little about you! Wishing you good waves and good vibes! you go girl!

  4. Shelly I have met you. Your caring soul and fabulously athletic body make up for any “flaw” surfing has brought to your skin Who cares if it isn’t porcelain?You are the envy of many women, I can promise. Personally, I think you are gorgeous! Strength and confidence is beautiful – you have tons of both. No amount of makeup can create that. Surf on!

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