Olympic Surfing Came 20 Years Too Late for the Surfer Girl Pop Culture Moment
Are we due for a Billabong renaissance?
In 1998, a 12-year-old surfer from Maui predicted the future.
"You know, the Olympics are going to have surfing," Lilia Boerner told Outside Magazine reporter Susan Orlean. "Either in the year 2000 or 2004, for sure."
OK, yes, her prediction was off by a couple decades. But in 2021, for the first time in history, surfing is an official Olympic sport. It just so happens that the Tokyo competition is too little, too late for surfing's moment in the sun.
While Boerner didn't get her shot at a gold medal, she got as good a consolation prize as any: In 2002, a movie based on Orlean's Outside feature was released. Blue Crush was a pop culture phenomenon. Seemingly overnight, every teen girl wanted to be Anne Marie Chadwick (Kate Bosworth) or some version of her — tanned, beautiful, and sun-bleached blonde.
The lead-up to America's surfer girl obsession spanned 30 years and multiple oceans, with the mainstreaming of surf brands like Billabong, Hurley, and Roxy, as well as the retailer that put the brands in malls across America, PacSun. But the surf girl aesthetic that culminated in the Blue Crush era dominated not just fashion and beauty trends, but entertainment as well.
The early aughts gave us Disney's Rip Girls, Nickelodeon's Beyond the Break, and MTV's Surf Girls. There was media centering on men surfers, too — 2005's Lords of Dogtown, 2008's Surfer, Dude; of course Point Break all the way back in 1991 — but there was something about women surfers. They were the embodiment of the "not like other girls" trope that every 16-year-old in the year 2004 aspired to become.
"To be a girl surfer is even cooler, wilder, and more modern than being a guy surfer," wrote Orlean in Outside. "To be a girl surfer is to be all that surfing represents, plus the extra charge of being a girl in a tough guy's domain. To be a surfer girl in a cool place like Hawaii is perhaps the apogee of all that is cool and wild and modern and sexy and defiant. The Hana girls, therefore, exist at that highest point — the point where being brave, tan, capable, and independent, and having a real reason to wear all those surf-inspired clothes that other girls wear for fashion, is what matters completely."
Through the years, surf culture and the surf aesthetic spilled over into the emergent genre of reality TV. MTV mined the California coast for tan teens who didn't necessarily surf, but looked like they might. In the mid-to-late 2000s, the network landed on the predominantly white, wealthy enclaves of Laguna Beach (Laguna Beach), Newport Beach (The Hills, Newport: The Real Orange County), and San Clemente (Life of Ryan). Fox simultaneously developed its own scripted series about the Southern California subculture, The OC. With this oversaturation of surf-adjacent imagery, it's no wonder that "beachy waves" and fake tans still proliferate! I blame Lauren Conrad and Marissa Cooper.
The impact of surf culture on American teens in the 2000s cannot be understated. Though surfing is a sport exclusive to the coastal US states (as well as other exclusionary factors, chief among them time and money), this inaccessibility is also what made the surf aesthetic so aspirational.
In 2007, I was a high school freshman in San Clemente, California, a world-renowned surfing town (and home to pro-skater Ryan Sheckler and his MTV show, Life of Ryan). Where other schools had jocks, we had professional surfers, groms who were sponsored by age 8 and competing in international surf competitions by high school. Even though I was so close to it, surfing still felt unattainable, achingly cool, a sport for the blonde kids (they were, and still are, mostly blonde) whose parents put them on custom boards as soon as they were able to swim. Did I still beg my mom to buy me Billabong T-shirts and Rainbow sandals? Absolutely I did.
These days, San Clemente — while still the surf town — is perhaps better known for producing a jock, Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold, than pro surfers like Kolohe Andino, a member of the US Olympic surf team. But as more and more Y2K trends resurface in pop culture, who's to say a surf culture renaissance isn't upon us? Can Team USA — Carissa Moore and Caroline Marks on the women's team, Andino and John John Florence on the men's — inspire us to ditch Brandy Melville tanks for Vans tees? Shein dresses for Roxy surf shorts? Balayage for streaky, sun-inspired highlights?
Whether the four surfers representing the US in Tokyo can reignite America's surf obsession remains to be seen. But I'm guessing Lilia Boerner will be watching.