Next Wave She's not a champion--yet--but seven years after taking up the sport, the irrepressible Holly Beck has become the poster girl for the surfer-chick tsunami

August 25, 2002

If you've seen Holly Beck on MTV or in Surfing Girl magazine or
standing goofy-footed on Tom Arnold's back on the Best Damn
Sports Show Period, you already know the most conspicuous facts
about her: She's good-looking, she's smart and she's a terrific
surfer. She is, in fact, one of the top 30 professional women
surfers in the world. But sitting at a red light in San Diego,
where her boyfriend lives--yeah, she's got a damn boyfriend--you
find out what really runs through her 21-year-old mind.

Holly Beck was idling at a traffic light the other day in her
thoroughly practical sky-blue Ford Focus wagon, roomy enough for
herself and several of her favorite boards. Right beside her was
an early-'70s Chevy Impala convertible, seemingly dipped in dull
red house paint, its rust spots patched with aluminum foil.
There was a boy behind the wheel, another boy beside beside him
and a big ol' yellow longboard, much dinged, pointed skyward out
of the backseat. The driver's sideburns brought to mind Elvis
circa 1971. His supersized shades could have accommodated
windshield wipers. His pompadour was so swooped and tall it was
practically surfable. The music coming out of the dashboard,
Sublime, was about loud enough to be heard in Tijuana.

"The glasses are not functional, one board for two guys is a bad
ratio, the car speaks for itself," Beck said, her analysis filled
with mirth. "The guy's trying way too hard. Cool is how you act,
not how you look. You have to wonder what happened to him that
made him like that?"

Here's what happened to Holly Beck, how she became a surfer. She
grew up in an affluent Los Angeles suburb, Palos Verdes, with her
four younger sisters and their father, Doug, a lawyer, and
mother, Debbie. Mom wanted her Holly to be a tap dancer, a
ballerina, an equestrian, and for years, with success at all
three, the daughter dutifully obliged. In her freshman year of
high school, on a family vacation in Hawaii, Holly ventured into
the sea, alone, a rented surfboard under her chest. Back home in
Southern California she pursued her new sport--the first thing in
her life she could claim all for herself--obsessively, surfing
before dawn on empty, glassy waves, covering the walls and
ceiling of her bedroom with surf posters. She didn't need
drinking, tattoos, multiple boyfriends, drugs. She had her own
identity. When it came time to choose a college, Beck, whose
father had gone to Princeton, chose the University of California
at San Diego, just up a cliff from some superb surf spots. She
majored in psychology, and the legacy of her major, she says,
shows up in her everyday life: observe, ask questions.

You don't need a college degree, of course, to answer some
questions. Every guy knows what the driver of the Impala was
doing: trying to catch the eye of the Holly Becks of the world.
The only problem, in the case of the real Holly Beck, is that she
is so beyond all that. Her boyfriend is a 31-year-old
air-conditioning salesman named John Holzenthaler, not tall, not
much hair, not glamorous--but a very nice guy. The only thing he
digs as much as surfing is Holly. The title of his undergraduate
thesis in civil engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology in
Hoboken, N.J., was Hydrodynamics of Modern Surfboard Design.
They're a match made in the surf, which, naturally enough, is
where they met. Within a year, Holzenthaler expects to start
traveling with Beck to her contests. He'll be the
boyfriend/coach.

In the meantime she's going it alone. Earlier this month, while
the surf-chick movie Blue Crush was opening across the United
States, Beck was competing in France. This week, in an event that
concludes on Aug. 25, she'll be competing at the East Coast
Surfing Championships in Virginia Beach. In this, her first full
season as a touring professional, Beck is trying to score enough
points in the World Qualifying Series--a developmental tour--to
earn one of the 16 prized spots on the women's World Championship
Tour, where your Lisa Andersens and your Rochelle Ballards and
your Kate Skarratts have made their names. Unless she has a
phenomenal run in the next four months, Beck will likely be back
on the qualifying tour next year. (Women's events usually run
concurrently with men's events.) But surfing either the
development tour or the elite one is a labor of love more than
anything else. Last year's female world champion, Layne Beachley,
earned $27,200 in prize money. (By comparison, the men's champ,
C.J. Hobgood, earned $102,533.) To make ends meet, a lady surfer
needs endorsements.

As a pro, Beck has not yet made it to a semifinal or final in a
major World Qualifying Series event, so for now she is living off
her good looks, her ability to speak, her potential and her one
big amateur title. In June 2001, the same month she graduated
from UCSD, she won the National Scholastic Surfing Association
title in San Clemente, Calif., and made the cover of Surfing
Girl, a two-year-old bimonthly with a circulation of 27,000. She
was riding the swell in women's surfing that largely had begun
with the emergence of stars such as Anderson around 1995. Within
months of her scholastic victory and only six years after she
took up the sport, Beck had signed deals with nine sponsors,
including Body Glove wet suits, Ocean Pacific clothes, Freestyle
watches, Rusty surfboards and Sector 9 skateboards. Altogether
Beck's endorsements pay her roughly $50,000 per year, and her
sponsors pick up most of her travel expenses.

Beck has never heard of Annika Sorenstam, the dominant LPGA
golfer, but she knows all about Anna Kournikova, the cover-girl
tennis player who is winless as a pro. "I hear that: 'She's the
Anna Kournikova of women's surfing,'" says Beck, whose direct
manner, modulated voice and rigid body suggest not a sexpot but
the tomboy she has always been. Beck is the idealized girl next
door, California-in-the-'50s version. "I'm ecstatic with all the
attention I'm receiving, but when I look at the person they're
advertising, I think, That looks like me, but it's not me. I hear
about the resentment from some of the other girls. It's, 'I surf
way better than her, and she has all these deals.' If I were
them, I would hate me too."

Before leaving for France, Beck competed briefly at the U.S. Open
of Surfing, in Huntington Beach, Calif. Through her own efforts
and the work of her publicist, Mike Kingsbury, Beck was trailed
by a crew from MTV and a crew from a new fall NBC show called
Life Moments. She was distracted and surfed poorly and did not
advance beyond her first round. When Beck emerged from the surf
after her heat, the NBC camera crew was waiting for her. She went
tearing down the beach, fleeing the crew, needing to escape to
the place she feels most at home in the world: in the ocean,
standing on a wave. "She was overwhelmed with the media
attention," Kingsbury says. "We threw too much at her."

Even though Beck bombed in the water at the U.S. Open, she was a
star on terra firma that week. The director and producer Kimberly
Wang, taping a special for MTV about women's surfing connected to
the opening of Blue Crush, found that Beck defies every
surfer-girl stereotype. "She's intellectual, she's a soul-seeker,
she's a hard worker," says Wang. "You look at her bookcase, there
are Buddhist texts. You look at her boyfriend: He's older, wiser,
not some flashy dude. That's a testament to the fact that Holly's
grounded. Holly has a sparkling personality. The camera comes on,
and she's herself, very natural, very relaxed."

She's very accepting, too. The Reagan Revolution is still alive
and well in the Beck house in Palos Verdes, and in high school
Beck was active in Christian youth groups, and somewhere along
the way, she says, she developed a slight case of homophobia.
She's cured now. "There are a lot of gays among the women
surfers," Beck says. "We share rental cars, hotel rooms, dinner
out. It makes us open with each other. You wake up in the morning
and hear toe rings clicking from two girls in the next bed. It's
not for me, but whatever makes you happy, right? One night, some
gay friends took me to a transvestite strip club. The clothes
were coming off, you didn't know what you were going to see next.
When I told my mother about it, I said, 'Mom, it was so wild.'
Just trying to freak her out."

What really freaked out Mom--the 1977 Homecoming Queen at L.A.'s
Hawthorne High, a school attended by the Beach Boys years
earlier--was that her oldest daughter took up surfing at all. Her
mother was Holly's dance teacher. Holly was all set to become a
star. Why give up all that to be on the wrong side of the beach?
"In my day," the mother says, "the girls put on bikinis and baked
on the beach, and the surfers flocked to us. I had tons of
boyfriends." The Becks live in a large white house, typically
suburban except for the horses out back, two roosters in the side
yard and a dining room with more than 100 amateur surfing
trophies, all with male surfers on the pedestal. "For years, I
couldn't understand why she wanted to be out there in the waves,"
Debbie says. "Now I think it's great. But I can't watch her. I'm
terrified the whole time."

So far, knock on fiberglass, Beck has been lucky. She has never
broken a bone, never been knocked unconscious, never even
received a stitch, a most unusual record for a professional
surfer, particularly an aggressive one like Beck. It's not as
though she's hanging ten on a nine-foot noserider, in a bikini,
looking like the picture of serenity. Beck is an eager, charging
surfer, always hoping the next wave will be bigger and faster and
heavier. Most of her competition boards are extremely light and
just slightly taller than she is. (Beck is 5'8" and 130 pounds.)
They're built for speed and turns.

Beck saw an advance screening of Blue Crush, and the truest thing
in the movie, she says, is how it conveys a surfer's fear. "It
captures that feeling of what it's like to be afraid of a wave,
the fear of putting yourself in a situation you can't control,"
says Beck, who recently had an epic wipeout in Tahiti, surfing on
waves so big and fast-breaking she had to be towed into them on a
Jet Ski.

In that wipeout she was held under for maybe 15 seconds--that long
in an ocean blender seems like an eternity--and didn't know which
way was up. But then she relaxed, reached for her leash and
climbed straight up it, just as she climbed the rope in gym class
as a schoolgirl. The surfer looked up and saw a silver hole in
the blue-green water. She popped her head right through it,
grabbed a tow from a Jet Ski and caught one in the next set.

"All I want is to make enough money so I can keep on surfing,"
Holly Beck says. At 21, she's got the whole thing figured out.
Very damn cool.

COLOR PHOTO: JIM RUSSI/PHOTORUSSI.COM [Inside T of C] LET HER RIP Surfing's It Girl, Holly Beck, is creating a commotion in the ocean BLONDE AMBITION Beck rejects comparisons to the winless Anna Kournikova. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM RUSSI/PHOTORUSSI.COM COOL IN THE CURL Athletic and aggressive, Beck uses lightweight, shorter boards built for speed and maneuverability. COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK MAKING A SPLASH Despite a clutch of endorsement deals and the interest of MTV, Beck prefers to deflect the attention. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: ROBERT BECK (2) CALIFORNIA GIRL Once an aspiring tap dancer, Beck (strumming with Holzenthaler, above), is seldom bored off the board.

"I hear that: 'She's the Kournikova of surfing,'" says Beck, "but
when I look at the person they're advertising, I think, It's not
me."

Beck defies the surfer-girl stereotype. "She's intellectual,
she's a soul-seeker, she's a hard worker," says Wang. "She's
grounded."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)