A Brief History of Women’s Surfing: Phyllis O’Donnell

It’s widely known that “Midget” Farrelly became the first Men’s World Champion at Manly one afternoon in 1964. What is less well know is that 27 year-old Phyllis O’Donnell was crowned winner of the Women’s title earlier that day in front of a crowd of around 65,000 and so proudly bears the honour of being both Australia’s and the planet’s first EVER surfing world champ. And for the prize? Well, she was rewarded with £250, a surfboard and a cartons of cigarettes.

The first ever World Champion Surfer

Born in 1937, Phyllis began surfing as a teenager in the 1950s. At a time when the sport of surfing itself was considered to be on the fringe, women’s surfing was even further out on that fringe. Phyllis fought hard for acceptance on the Australian breaks and earned a reputation for being tough and aggressive among the leading male and female surfers of the time.

In 1960 Phyllis moved to Tweed Heads with her parents where she quickly became a regular at Kirra.

Winning the world title was no ‘one off’ for Phyllis, she had was already the holder of the Australian National Title at the time and would go on to win the national title again in ‘63, ‘64 and ’65. She also won eight Queensland titles as well (including, as is her way, the inaugural one).

After wining the 1964 World Championships she remained a fierce competitor both nationally and internationally and added a 3rd at Makaha in ‘66, a 1st at Newcastle in ‘67, a 3rd at Puerto Rico in ‘68, and a 2nd place finish at Bells Beach in ’69 to her trophy haul.

nat and the girls larger
Kim McKenzie, Micha Mueller, Phyllis O’Donnell, Nat Young, Judy Trim, Carol Watts and Alison Cheyne at the Australian Surfing Championships, Sydney, 1972 Pic: John Witzig, courtesy National Library of Australia.

Phyllis mastered both long and short boards , winning in Manly in ’63 on a shortboard.  “I think I first felt like I’d mastered the short board when I surfed in the Newcastle in 1968.  And it took me ages to get used to leg ropes”.

Phyllis retired from competition in 1974 and became the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame’s 16th inductee in 1996, onlythe second woman after Isabel Letham.

She now lives in Kingscliffe and is still a strong supporter of women’s surfing. She remains totally connected to the sport through her friendship with the leading female players on the World Tour.