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Layne Beachley on the relationship between world titles and self worth, loss and grief, and finding joy in surfing after retiring from competition.
By Michael Adno
Light / Dark
In 1993, Layne Beachley claimed her first world tour win. It stirred something in her that didn’t resolve itself until after she’d won her seventh world title in 2006 and entered the second act of her career feeling listless and bruised, sensations she’d been staving off for decades.
When Beachley was just 6, her mother died from a brain bleed, leaving Beachley, her brother, and her father lost. Two years later, she learned she was adopted. When she was a bit old- er, she found out that she was conceived when her birth mother was date raped. In 1999, the two met for the first time—the same year that Beachley won her second world title. She continued to dominate for another four years, accruing six titles consecutively between 1998 and 2003. And then, in 2006, she captured her seventh and final world title.
Throughout her childhood, a period marked by death, grief, and depression, Beachley grew into a competitor whose tenacity carried her through one of the most impressive pro- fessional careers of any surfer. When she retired in 2009, life felt hollow. But just as tenaciously as she’d built her career, she began to build a new life, establishing herself as a motivational speaker, becoming the chairperson of Surfing Australia, splitting her winnowing free time among other nonprofits and charities. In 2010, she married INXS saxophonist and guitarist Kirk Pengilly. Today, they live close to where Beachley grew up on the Northern Beaches of Sydney, Australia.
From 10,000 feet up, loss is not what you see in a flyover of Beachley’s life. Instead, it’s a big-hearted sort of faith that she’s hell-bent on returning to the world.
MA How do you see life after professional surfing? What has changed?
LB Everything. I retired in 2009. I have to say that the transition was challenging, because I lost my sense of structure, com- munity, belonging, identity, and really felt unfulfilled and lacked direction and purpose. Which surprised me, because after I retired I was staging every surfing event in the world, I had my own charity, I was building a clothing brand, and was already on the speaking circuit. So, my dance card was pretty full. There was plenty for me to focus my attention on and immerse myself in, but nothing really prepares you for life after sport when you’ve committed yourself to that particular endeavor for 20 years.
MA Do you feel that experience was at all like grief or felt like mourning?
LB It was hard to let go. I think it took me about four years to detach from the consideration of making a comeback. I had convinced myself that women’s surfing needed me. There were moments of grief and longing, and, because I convinced myself women’s surfing had needed me and it wasn’t showing that same level of need, I felt irrelevant, chewed up, and spat out.
MA Did you start to notice a difference in how you thought about success in surfing or how you even enjoyed surfing?
LB Yeah, it took me several years to surf without critiquing myself, without almost judging every wave that I surfed. And today I surf every day. I love it more than I’ve ever loved it. It takes some time to adjust to just surfing for the pure joy of it versus preparing for competition.
MA Do you think surfers today think of success differently than your generation did?
LB Absolutely. We all view the world through our own lenses, and the way that the surfers today view success is very different from the way I did. I know now that I wasn’t striving only to become a six-times-consecutive world champion and ultimately a seven-times world champion. Those six world titles were really wrapped up in self-worth. I defined success through becoming the most successful surfer in history, which was to be the only surfer to win six world titles back to back. But now I know all I was really striving for was validation and self-love. And I’ve done a lot of work to land on that realization, and that helps me detach from external validation today. It helps me detach from fear and it helps me realize that every one of us has our own personal driving force, and when we connect with that and have a deeper understanding of that, we can then focus on becoming more process driven versus outcome driven.
MA A lot has clearly changed for you. Did the pandemic alter the way that you think about spending each day?
LB Before COVID, I was back on the treadmill of life and it had sped up to quite a rate, where it was getting to a point that was unsustainable and I really needed to create some time and space to build my online academy and channel my attention and my focus to fulfilling that goal. Then, all the borders closed. Travel became impossible, and it really made me fall in love with home again. I really enjoyed the simple things in life, such as sitting down and having a discussion over the dinner table with my husband every night versus running off and getting to events and things like that. So it recalibrated my priorities and my attention, but it’s also made me go deeper into the work that I do and find different ways to support people.
MA Tell me a little bit about home. What were some of those things that you turned toward again?
LB Scheduling my day to incorporate things that I love to do. I mean, surfing is obviously one of them, but I love to have naps during the day. That’s so regenerative. I gave myself permission to have days off, which I never used to do. I put an awful lot of pressure on myself to show up and work each and every day. I have no idea why, other than to probably prove something. I prioritized reading more books. Spending more quality time with my husband. Our neighbors, they’ve got a pool next door and their little fence lines our fence, so we used to catch up every Friday afternoon. My dad, he was just down in Manly and came up here for Friday afternoons to have drinks over the fence. And connecting with neighbors and connecting with friends and just slowing everything down was just a really awesome stage. It was such a frantic life and a more frantic pace of life. My husband is a rock star who knows the importance of slowing things down, so he embraced it too. We just slowed everything down and kept it really simple and thoroughly enjoyed our connection with our own home, our space, and our time.
MA Did you ever relate being a touring musician to being a pro surfer and just how similar those lifestyles are?
LB They’re both very transient, and I think in the first five years we spent more time apart than we did together. And that helped us grow stronger and fonder of each other. And I know Kirk was a little worried when we did move in together that he wasn’t going to be able to deal with my mess. But I feel that what really held us together the first several years was obviously communication. And what originally brought us together was a deep understanding [of] and respect for what it takes to be the best in the world at what we did. I went on tour with INXS after they reinvented themselves, and it’s not a very glorious lifestyle. I think being a pro surfer is way more fun, healthy, and enjoyable than being an international rock star. It’s quite intense, and it’s very nocturnal, and I’m very day-turnal. So the beautiful thing about Kirk and [me] is that while we have so many things in common, our differences are what make us stronger. It’s just a really beautiful bond that he and I have. It’s a mutual respect and admiration for each other’s work ethic, the compromises and sacrifices and the choices that we’ve made that have enabled each of us to become among the best in the world. Those are also the things that we love about each other.
MA How do you feel grief has shaped your life?
LB Well, my love of surfing is what drew me to pursue it and dedicate my life to it. And then a sense of grief drove me to be the best at what I do. And when I think about the driving force behind my surfing career—I wanted to become a world champion because I had decided that I wouldn’t be worthy of love unless I became a world champion. I was rejected a lot by my competitors, and that’s because I didn’t really understand what was driving me either. I was viewed as being a poor loser. I was viewed as being fierce. I was tagged as having the compassion of a tiger shark. And it wasn’t until I did win my first world title that I realized, Oh, I have a fear of success, because I judged successful people as being arrogant and obnoxious and that’s not what I wanted to become. Of course, then there’s obviously an element of me that did become that. But it wasn’t until I won my sixth world title that I realized that it was my desire to be worthy of love [that drove me]. I felt like if I didn’t become a six-time world champion—because no one else had done six world titles in a row—then I was never going to be worthy of love. So my definition of success was essentially a driving force. Very few of us have defined what success even looks like.
So when it comes to a sense of loss, yes, I’ve experienced an immense amount of loss in my life. I lost my mother who adopted me when I was 6 years of age. I felt the next sense of loss when my birth dad told me I was adopted, as an 8-year-old. I lost a lot of relationships due to my voracious and competitive nature as a professional surfer. I’ve compromised my well-being and pushed people away to pursue success. And now, at 60 years of age, I’m still in pain management because I didn’t listen to my body and didn’t honor it. What else? I mean, I lost my stepmother when I was 30 to breast cancer. And I lost my biological mother to ovarian cancer when I was 46. So, I’ve experienced a lot of trauma, a lot of loss, a lot of sadness. But on the other side of that coin, I’ve also experienced a lot of joy, a lot of happiness, and a lot of love. And I’m just extremely grateful that the sport of surfing has always been at the center of that. It’s my place of solace. It’s my place of connection. It’s where I feel like I truly belong. And if I didn’t have the ocean, I’d have to rely on the bush to keep me centered because it’s the immersion in nature that really brings us that sense of contentment and happiness and calm.
MA I guess now that you’ve had so much time to reflect on all that, what do you think is one of the most rewarding things about your life as a surfer?
LB Surfing saved my life. It’s presented me with an enviable lifestyle. It’s enabled me to become the best in the world at something. And I still get to experience it and immerse myself in it every day. It’s just something I keep running to. It’s an addiction, but it’s also a love and it’s a life force. So yeah, I’m just so grateful that surfing is a core part of my life, and I feel really blessed to have been able to not only become the best in the world at it, but still be able to do it every single day.
MA And do you think you would’ve pursued as many world titles now in the same headspace?
LB I would still have pursued the six consecutively. I just would’ve done it differently. I had that at-all-costs mentality and it cost me a lot. And as I said earlier, I’m still dealing with those consequences. However, I learned a lot from it too. So that’s the value in reflection. The past is not my future.
[Feature image: Beachley, in peak career form (and prime “day-turnal” mode), Mentawais, 2001. “Today I surf every day,” she says. “I love it more than I’ve ever loved it. It takes some time to adjust to just surfing for the pure joy of it versus preparing for competition.” Photo by Tom Servais]
[This interview was originally published in print in TSJ 32.5. Become a TSJ member today and receive 132 pages of pure surf storytelling delivered to your doorstep bimonthly.]
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