Fisher Riding a Groundswell of Indifference : Surf racing: Math teacher-lifeguard extols her sport as she competes in virtual anonymity.


Catch the wave, says Dierdre Fisher. Take a plunge into the frothy Pacific and compete in the string of ocean sports that make up surf racing.

Watch Fisher on ESPN2 next month, swimming, running and riding a paddleboard and surf ski. One race even simulates a rescue like ones she has made as a Ventura lifeguard.

"More people should get involved in this sport," says Fisher, the nation's top water woman. "So many people, if they gave it a try, would be totally stoked on surf racing."

Although in Australia races are lucrative and draw more than 100,000 spectators, surf racing is not widely known in the United States. Spawned 30 years ago by lifeguards to promote camaraderie and fitness in their profession, the sport is treading water in America--especially among women.

Two weeks ago at Waikiki Beach 35 men and only five women entered one of surf racing's most prestigious U.S. events, the King's Race.

Fisher finished second.

"There is a lot of appeal for surf racing but there needs to be greater organization in two areas: putting together events and standardizing the races," says Barrett Tester, a Malibu lifeguard and former surf racer who publishes a newsletter on ocean sports called Masterstroke.

Only two events draw large numbers of competitors and spectators: The U.S. Lifesaving Assn. Nationals and the Bud Light Ocean Festival Series. Fisher has excelled in both.

She took three first places at the USLA Nationals in August, winning the rescue and paddleboard races and the most prestigious event--international iron woman. She finished second in American iron woman, surf ski and surf swim races.

Fisher, 30, also won this year's Bud Light series women's championship, staged on five summer weekends at Southern California beaches before a total of 75,000 spectators.

"Dierdre is definitely the top woman in the nation," says Sherri Hudson, a spokesman for the Bud Light series. "Until this year Patti Mackle was the best, but she took time off to have a baby.

"Dierdre won this year's series hands down."

Winning is great, but Fisher would prefer more competition. She has become an ambassador of surf racing, extolling the sport's wet and wild virtues to anyone who will listen.

"I'm trying to promote women in surf racing," she says. "It's so fun, you'd think it would be more popular."

But surf racing--especially events such as iron woman that combine races--is more than just a day at the beach.

In the international iron woman event, competitors were required to run one mile on the beach, swim in the surf 400 meters and race both a paddleboard and surf ski for 10 minutes each. All in the same day.

Besides being grueling, training is often lonely. "I have somebody to train with maybe once a week," says Fisher, a junior high math teacher in Ojai who spends summers as a lifeguard.

As much for friendship as for exercise, Fisher also works out with the Ventura College master's swim team. She was an All-Southern Section swimmer at University High in Irvine and occasionally enters master's meets for swimmers 25 and older.

In the pool, however, Fisher feels like a fish out of salt water. The ocean demands the skills she has honed as a lifeguard, and, in fact, surf racing is designed to do just that.

Paddleboards have long been essential to lifeguards, who can make rescues by flopping victims onto the 12-foot board and paddling to shore.

And the rescue race involves swimming 200 meters with a rescue can--a two-foot long flotation device--to a person posing as a victim. The victim, who cannot swim and must hold the can with both hands, is carried to shore by the racer.

Surf skis, on the other hand, are sleek, 18-foot ocean kayaks modified for racing in waves. Made of fiberglass, they are as light as 40 pounds and have a convex hull, allowing the paddler to sit high.

Paddleboards are also being modified for racing.

"It used to be, you'd grab your board from the lifeguard station and race," Tester says. "Now, there are elite boards built for competition."

Fisher envisions the sport becoming as big as it is in Australia, where $800,000 in prize money is offered for the professional series and races draw up to 100,000 fans.

"People, even whole families, join surf clubs in Australia and New Zealand," she says. "It's like our baseball and softball."

Tester wants to use the Australian surf-racing circuit as a blueprint for U.S. events.

"We need to put together events with Australia," he says. "A lot of people all over the Pacific Rim are into the sport. It's a matter of bringing communities together.

"It's a great atmosphere to be on the beach racing together with friends."

The last event of the season, the Solano Beach Surf Festival, will be held Saturday. Fisher will race to win, but above all she wants to see new faces.

"I do like to compete, but I like making friends with other racers even more," she says. "If I win, great, but if they win, I am happy for them."

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