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Water Proof: Pro-surfer Mary Osborne Goes Big On and Off the Water

By Sarah Higginbotham on April 30th, 2006 •

Meet Mary Osborne, who has carved out a professional career as a surfer.

Mary Osborne dances on a surfboard. Walking up nine feet of foam and hanging 10 toes off the edge, she is riding a self-propelled wave of success. She might have traded ballet class for a surf lesson, but she hasn't missed a cue yet. Channeling the momentum from her success on MTV's 2003 reality show Surf Girls, and now a published author, she's proving she's been a pro all along.

Mary's strong sense for the business side of surfing gives her a panoramic view of professional opportunities and keeps her riding more than just the longboard circuit. In 2005 alone, her co-authored book, Sister Surfer, was published and she traveled to Samoa, France, Ireland, Hawaii, Mexico, Australia and New York. Mary took second place in the Red Bull 5X in Malibu, wrote a column for Surf Life for Women and signed on with her sponsor, Patagonia's WaterGirl. She's an "out-of-the-box surfer" putting the soul back into the sport – and the 24 year old means business.

"No wave is ever the same," she says, clearly motivated by the unknown. "When you get in the water, you leave all your problems behind."

And you'd likely have to if you hoped to stay focused in a sport that has typically kept women on the beach in bikinis, off the boards and out of the financial surfing sessions. Her most beautiful maneuver yet: carving a career as a professional female surfer. Her style is both "graceful and smooth" in an industry that primarily finances the sharp and radical maneuvers of guys on shortboards.

"It's extremely hard," Mary says of a professional career, both as a longboarder and as a woman. "There's not much backing in it. Luckily, I have great sponsors that help me out, but it is tough."

Tough, but not impossible.

She's been growing her own style since she started. While most beginners use bigger boards and work to shorter styles, Mary went the other direction.

"For some reason, I went bigger," she says – a sign of things to come. The Ventura native says her attraction to surfing was inevitable growing up on Solimar Beach in Southern California, but even in a well-known breeding ground for surf champions, most of the surfers in the lineup are still guys. Mary is one of a few female surfers to actually take the pastime to a professional level.

She was 14 when she decided to ditch her boogie board for a longboard, envious of her three older brothers who surfed almost daily. Her big bro, Dave, taught her the basics of wave riding and it wasn't long before she was teaching herself, surfing everyday, and bailing on dance classes and team sports.

During high school, Mary found a job at a local surf shop owned by David Pu'u, a former pro-surfer hoping to establish himself as a photographer. When the two saw a want-ad for surfer girl photos, a partnership began that still exists today. David got images of Mary into the surfing world and she filled his portfolio with action and portrait shots. A testament to both their talents, Mary found herself on the cover of Surfer's Path, a widely read European surf magazine.

In the photo she was standing tall on her longboard as the magazine's first female cover.

Gradually, Mary got her feet wet in the business of surfing. She promoted her image diligently by attending tradeshows, participating in competitions and seeking out sponsorships. Her desire to make surfing more than a hobby was clear, but her family pushed for college.

Earning her associate's degree from Santa Barbara City College, just seconds from the beach, Mary took many of her classes online. She studied broadcasting and communications, hoping to merge her passion for surfing into a sports broadcasting career. Transferring to UCSB, Mary hesitated briefly and her professional surfing dreams threatened to sink under too many obligations.

"I almost gave it up. I was like – 'is this what I want to do? I'm already two-years into college; I might as well just give it up already. It hasn't happened yet.'" However, after a break from school in Australia, and an honest look at her commitments, Mary had a fresh take on her situation. She recognized her deep-seated desire to try professional surfing full-time and served it to her parents straight: she wasn't happy and she didn't like college.

"I told them, 'Give me three months and I'll have a job. I'll figure it out," she says. Today she radiates the same determination: sure of the future, but unsure of how she will get there. Mary's prior surfing accomplishments paid off and that same week MTV called. They wanted her for a reality pilot series she had applied for and nearly forgotten about, called Surf Girls.

She spent the next few months traveling around the world for the TV show, competing in exotic waters and staying in extravagant hotels. However, Mary knew it wasn't an endless summer and she kept things rolling by winning the longboard division. She proved she had professional credibility, and a grace-under-fire composure for the stress of both camera and competition.

After the series finished filming, Mary continued to compete and got involved in various projects. She set up her own meeting with a television producer and secured a spot as a field correspondent on the Fox extreme sports show, 54321.

Aside from competitions, Mary regularly participates in sponsorship events and continues to instruct at surf camps worldwide. Her view of surfing as a multicultural, healing and bonding experience is the force behind her book, Sister Surfer: A Woman's Guide to Surfing with Bliss and Courage. Co-authored with longtime surfer Kia Afcari, it is an inspirational guide for women surfers of various skill levels – including Mary. As a freelance writer and a columnist for Surf Life for Women, she says it takes a lot of focus to put her thoughts on paper.

"To have your name on a book – it is just unheard of to me," she says. "I never even thought that would be something I did."

The well-received pages, like her career, have many layers. "It's not necessarily about surfing," she says. "I think it's just the ocean in general. I think it has that affect on people."

And Mary is mindful to pay homage. Her devotion to her hometown sponsor WaterGirl by Patagonia, a company that is pushing boundaries in environmentally conscious surf equipment, ocean preservation and gender apparel is apt.

Also backing and buying into Mary's ethos are Etnies shoes, Freestyle watches, Robert August Surfboards, Surf-One skateboards, Angel Eyewear, Bettybelts, Sexwax surfboard wax, Jamcore training and Wet 'n' Wild cosmetics. She has earned a significant piece of the professional surf world by putting in a soulful peace of her own.

"There are so many good experiences," she says. "Every day in the ocean is a good one."

This blissful outlook keeps her paddling out despite shady conditions and an unbalanced industry standard – professional male surfers continue to rake in significantly higher salaries than women. With the increasing number of women surfing Mary forecasts a change, but in the meantime she is appreciative of all her opportunities and accomplishments.

Being rich, Mary says, is all about how you live your life.

"I like the challenges of doing tons of projects at once and accomplishing little goals," she says.

Today, she's off to Baja for a girls' road trip to surf in Mexico. While she doesn't yet know what big project she'll work on this year, the next month is already full.

"I just kind of jump on it as it comes," she says. "I have a couple things lined up, but I'm not sure yet."

According to her book, the lineup is really where it's at anyway. It is the place where surfers wait outside the breaking waves, and choose which to go for and which to let pass by. As chill as Mary is though, she doesn't just go with the flow. She learns how to ride every wave – a practice that will give her a wealth of opportunities in the coming years.

Inevitably, you will find her out in the lineup, jumping on the big breaks and enjoying the ride.