Shelly Appleby fondly remembers sitting on the beach at Lower Trestles in San Clemente a couple years ago, watching women surfers impress the crowd in a contest.
"It was really cool because I was just sitting there watching and all of a sudden I'm like sitting next to all of my heroes," Appleby said.
Heroes for female surfers? That's just one of the byproducts of the large steps the sport has taken. The best of women's surfing is on display this week and next in Huntington Beach, where a record number of women are entered in the Shockwave U.S. Open, which goes through Sunday. The Gotcha Pro follows from July 28-31.
The world of surfing is opening up like it never has before for Appleby, who will be a senior at San Clemente High, where she competes on the surf team.
According to Surfing magazine, women make up 15% of the U.S. surfing population of 1.75 million, up from 5% in the mid-1990s. Magazines, videos and clothing lines devoted entirely to females taking to the waves are just a hint of how large the sport has become.
Appleby's dedication--she surfs up to nine hours a day in the summer--is a sign of the new times in surfing, as girls are finding a new form of expression in the water.
"Once you drop into a huge wave, it just lights you up," Appleby said. "You're just hooked."
Surfing's draw for women is the same as it is for men, according to Rochelle Ballard, a Hawaiian who was ranked 10th in the world through July 11.
"The thing that makes surfing such a unique thing is there's a lot more passion behind it than other sports," said Ballard, 28. "It's not just about winning a tournament, it's about the ocean and a love for it. To be able to share it with other people is great."
The increasing numbers of girls getting into surfing has been felt on a number of fronts.
In 1995, Surfing magazine decided to run an annual insert--Surfing Girl--in its monthly magazine. After four years of success, the publishers have decided to produce Surfing Girl six times in 2000, with plans to publish one issue as a regular issue.
Other magazines, such as SurferGirl, also have given women additional forums in the sport.
Perhaps the area that best signifies the trend is the explosion in girls' surf wear.
In 1993, Quiksilver launched its line of Roxy gear exclusively for female surfers. With Lisa Andersen--the Mia Hamm of women's surfing for this generation--wearing Roxy boardshorts, surfing gear became fashionable for the mainstream public. In the surfing industry, where domestic sales will reach between $1.5 to $2 billion this year, other manufacturers and stores have caught on quickly.
Aaron Pai, majority owner of Huntington Surf and Sport in Huntington Beach, said his store had "nothing for women" on the shelves in 1990. Eight years later, the store added a $100,000, 700-square-foot women's department.
If there has been a drawback to the mass marketing, Appleby said, it's that serious surfers are sometimes overlooked when it comes to sponsors and commercial endorsements.
Ballard said part of the reason women aren't recognized for their surfing accomplishments is because so few women are involved in marketing the sport.
"It's just being hit upon where, 'Hey, there's money we can make in the women's market and there is longevity in it,' " Ballard said. "Well, there hasn't been a surfer girl to go in there and say, 'I want to start something in the industry.' "
The sport also has not grown on the competitive side as quickly as it has among recreational surfers. Although this week's U.S. Open drew a record-number of entrants--76, up from 64 last year--there were about 60 entrants five years ago, when Ian Cairns took over as its executive director. This year, about 400 men are entered.
"There is a growth of women's surfing in general, but people are surfing for fun," Cairns said. "Most of the girls surf because their parents surf or their boyfriends encourage them to surf."
Appleby's mother, Michelle Goossen, introduced Shelly to surfing four years ago after getting back into the sport herself following five years of medical school. Goossen, 42, taught herself to surf at 15, at a time when nearly everyone who entered the water with a surfboard was a man.
"It's changed so much, it's unbelievable," Goossen said. "When I used to paddle out, I used to almost always be the only girl. Now, sometimes it's half women and half men."
Corky Carroll also has witnessed the change. Carroll, 50, was the world's top-ranked surfer in 1967 and is a three-time international professional champion. He runs a surfing school and has seen his female clientele steadily rise.
"Three years ago, if we had 50 people there were five or six girls," he said. "Now, if we have 50, we have around 18 to 20 girls."
The reason females take up the sport and excel at it are obvious to Carroll: "It's like skiing. It's graceful."
Appleby said she doesn't encounter much sexism in the water, which is another reason for the sport's popularity among girls.
"When you paddle out for the first time," Appleby said, "all of the guys will be waiting to see what you do on your wave. Once you get a good one, they're like, 'OK, she's all right.' "
That respect hasn't come easily. Ballard compared Lisa Andersen, the four-time world champion who recently took a hiatus from competitive surfing, to Billie Jean King, the tennis great who defeated Bobby Riggs in the groundbreaking "Battle of the Sexes" tennis exhibition in 1973.
"Lisa Andersen was our Billie Jean King in the sense of breaking down those [stereotypes]," Ballard said. "She surfs better than a lot of guys I know. That's one of the tracks that got laid down for us, and we have to take it from there."