First Lady of Surfing
by Terry Eselun
Marge Calhoun is a surfer. At ninety years old this surfing icon no longer physically rides waves, but she will always be a surfer. The ocean swirls in her veins; “Inside,” she says, “I am still sixteen.” At three years old she remembers rolling around in the surf at her home beach in Santa Monica. Her parents couldn’t keep her out of the water and were forced to give her swimming lessons so she wouldn’t drown. It’s a love affair with the sea that exists today.
Her career is well-documented and legendary. Blonde, statuesque, and physically strong, Marge was a competitive diver, swimmer, and part-time stuntwoman before she discovered surfing in the mid fifties. She even trained for the 1940 Olympic Games when they were cancelled due to World War II. She was the first women’s world champion at the 1958 Makaha International surfing event. She is the matriarch of the Calhoun family. Her daughters, Candy and Robin, are both athletic water women and were once champion surfers.
Recently, I had the opportunity to visit with this gracious and generous woman about some of her thoughts on women’s surfing. When I reached her on the phone, she sounded glad to hear from me, but reluctant to do an interview citing health concerns. The more we talked, however, the more she opened up as we mined a few of her surfing memories.
Marge states matter-of-factly, “I was always a fine athlete.” It’s in the voice of a woman who is comfortable in her body. She remembers walking on the beach at Topanga with her husband, Tom, in the fifties while a surfer glided along the point. Tom looked at her and said, “You can do that.” She knew she could. After that, she was hooked. Marge says, “I didn’t plan my life as a surfer; it just happened.” She knew it was a man’s world, but she didn’t pay any attention. Once, she remembers, she was paddling out at County Line, trying to go around a boy riding in. He fell off and blamed her, “Girls don’t belong out here!” She just looked at him and kept paddling out. She says, “I didn’t fight with anyone, I just maintained my focus and honed my talents.” Eventually, the boys came around and “thought of her as a heroine.” But Marge didn’t surf for the boys; she surfed for herself. It didn’t matter what the culture dictated, or what boys thought, she was only there for the waves. Even before she started surfing, Marge remembers that as a little kid she wanted to climb the tallest tree, to experience the fun and challenge in everything. She did what she wanted to do.
Marge has always persevered and followed her passion. In 1958, going against cultural norms of the day, she set off for Hawaii with Eve Fletcher. When I asked her how she managed that as a suburban housewife with a husband and two young daughters, she said, “At first I thought, ‘My god, I can’t leave my family, my girls!’” But, that’s exactly what she did. Her husband managed, taking care of the girls and the house. Even her mom pitched in, stopping over to help out. At thirty-two, Marge left for Oahu with Eve to live for a month in a paneled truck purchased from Fred Van Dyke. She exclaims, “I never had a bad day in Hawaii!” She and Eve surfed Makaha and the North Shore. No women had ever come over to Hawaii and lived like that. The two haole women were such a rarity that she remembers driving around the island as they listened to the “native radio” while the announcer talked about the “wahines living out of their van.”
She says she wasn’t afraid of the Hawaiian surf because she didn’t realize what she was getting into. And, Marge thrived on a challenge. She remembers first paddling out on a five-foot day at Makaha. The whitewater hit her hard, and it was bam! The wave’s force shocked her. Undeterred, she says, “I always loved a wave that was dramatic.” Marge compares the perfectly-lined up waves of some point surf to “riding a train.” That wasn’t for her. She wanted a wave to “knock her around.” A large part of the surfing experience is being caught inside, but Marge craved it. She felt alive. Once, while surfing Sunset, she recalls breaking the nose off her board, but luckily George Downing took it to his shop in Waikiki and fixed it for her so she didn’t miss a day in the water.
Later in life, after living in Laguna Beach for over 25 years, Marge moved to Northern California and spent three years in Moss Beach so that she could be close to Mavericks. The wave and the set up still fascinate her. She believes if she had a coach like her friend, Jeff Clark, back in her prime, she would have tackled that fabled peak. She has always prowled the coast from Santa Cruz to San Diego, looking for big waves. Marge recalls that in the fifties and sixties, the boards were so bulky and heavy you needed a big wave to make it thrilling.
Now residing on the Central Coast, Marge can still see the surf on a big day from her window. She says, “I can’t imagine living inland. The ocean is magic. It is the basis for everything. I love the shore, the color, the smells, and all of its moods.” Marge gave up surfing in her sixties when she could no longer ride the waves with as much grace as she once did. She knew it was time to go, but she still surfs in her head. When she would stand on the shore, she’d be riding the wave mentally. When asked about life’s purpose, she says she doesn’t have any firsthand knowledge of a grand plan, but she believes there is. She says, “Man is only halfway there.” The sea has been Marge’s elixir. In fact, her advice to anyone feeling depressed, “Just go down to the shore, walk in the water, even if only ankle deep. Breathe. You’ll be amazed at what it will do for your sanity. The ocean is a healer.”
When I asked her what she would like to say to other women, she answered: “If you look out there and think, ‘Gee, I wish I could go out there.’ Just do it! If you have the desire for anything, do it!” Marge Calhoun has lived by this credo. She is a surfing pioneer, a boundary breaker who never saw any limits. She is a grand woman born with the sea in her soul and an innate knowledge of her place in the world.
Marge recently received a handwritten letter from Australian, Bob Cooper, which touched her deeply. He told her that when Marge showed up at Malibu in the fifties and sixties, the boys were in awe. He said she added a feminine touch to the line-up. Marge expressed her genuine shock to me that she was even noticed. “I was just doing what I wanted to do.”
HWS – This interview with Marge Calhoun was conducted via phone by Terry Eselun on June 18, 2014
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