SISTER SURF: Mary Osborne
By Amy Jones, Surf photos by featured photographer, David Pu’u, Portraits by Dina Pielaet

“So you have made it through several wipeouts, bruises in strange areas of your body, and continuous evenings with water dripping out of your nose…This is great! You may feel like a kid in a candy store every time you check the surf; you are stoked to be in the water and now you have the surf bug in you forever…Surfing is a meditation. One of surfing’s greatest lessons is about staying calm amidst the chaos. Remember to breathe and to visualize success on each wave…Sometimes we see surfers with a contorted face as they try to catch a wave—the kind of face one might put on for a battle. Surfing is about oneness with the ocean, not about battling it…”  - Excerpt from Mary Osborne’s book: “Sister Surfer: A Woman’s Guide to Surfing with Bliss and Courage”


This winter has seen some of the biggest swells the Central Pacific Coast has experienced in decades;  some surfers say they have never seen bigger waves. In between storms bringing up to 30-foot waves to the Ventura coastline this past February, we met up with Mary Osborne, ranked 8th in the World for women’s longboard pro-surfing. She met us in Ventura’s unofficial surfer’s uniform – jeans haphazardly cuffed to stay above the water line, T-shirt, flip flops and a puffy Patagonia wind breaker.  

 We had a chat at Mary’s seaside flat, a vintage 70’s-era surfer’s paradise pad with the classic shag carpet and wood paneling, yummy orange velour papa-san chairs, killer view of the ocean not a stone’s throw away, a collection of surf boards leaning in a corner of the living room all ready to go. Various beat-up foot imprinted flip-flops lined up at the door ready to hit the beach when the swells roll in. Her bungalow is in the same neighborhood where Mary grew up at Solimar Beach on the outskirts of Ventura just south of the legendary Rincon surf break. Mary’s mom, grandparents and other family members are just doors away…A scrap piece of paper on the fridge reads: Visualize the wholeness of everyone everywhere. BE kind.

Mary takes the same instinct she has developed in the water and applies it to life. Being a pro-surfer is a physical, economic and logistical challenge, but she rolled the dice and in 2003, became an overnight celebrity by winning the longboard division of MTV’s “Surf Girl’s” competition. She was selected from a pool of over 4,000 other women surfers for the hit reality TV series.  She reflected, “It was a very big time in my life. I had been struggling to go to school, but I wanted to travel and surf professionally. Convincing my parents that I was really dropping out of college…to pursue surfing…Initially it didn’t go over too well …So I was like give me two months; let me just see if I can do this…The same week I dropped out, I got the phone call to go do the MTV show… In 2003, Mary was also nominated for a Teen Choice Award as “Best Female Athlete,”   and was named the first “Action Girl of the Year” by Action Girl, Inc.

“I love the surf industry,” said Mary beaming. “It’s been my life for eight years, and I would still surf no matter what, but it’s so nice to have the opportunities. The companies I’ve worked with now for multiple years – Patagonia, Etnie, my surf board sponsor Robert August and other companies…I’ve been pretty fortunate to have them stand behind me...

‘I certainly think about going back to college one day to finish my degree; I majored in communications and going into broadcasting is a dream. [Mary has appeared as a host on the Fox Sports Network.]  But I’m getting so much hands-on experience in the field, writing and working with my sponsors that’s just as valuable. I’ve worked really hard to learn and try to develop a business mind about things, to walk the fine line and support myself, although I have been known to sell my soul here and there, you know when you’re really hurting [laughs] hey let’s be honest. “

Mary has done a lot of charity work independently and in conjunction with her sponsors. She said, “I’m drawn to athletes that take it out of the box, people who are out there making a difference…There are a lot of surfers, men and women, that give back and donate their time to help good causes and spend time with youth, and I love those experiences in my work. I went with the Free Wheel Chair Mission to Costa Rica to give people wheelchairs…and there were families literally carrying people to get their wheel chair. It really hit me what blessings we have in our own country. It was humbling and so nice to be a part of bringing the help to people.”

The evidence of constant travel is apparent at Mary’s. Bags are never quite unpacked because the next destination is always just around the corner for the 26-year-old pro-surfer.

Mary saud, “With all the traveling I do, the most difficult habit I have is that I’m a night owl. I get on these schedules where I’m always up late and get up late. And, it takes me awhile to get going. People that travel with me totally know that I’m grumpiest in the mornings, and they’re like, ‘Drink your coffee Mary!’  And, when I’m in a hotel room I tend to spread my stuff out all over. I don’t even know how I do it; like in the first hour my stuff will just be everywhere, and now I have to warn people I’m going to be staying with…I don’t know if it reminds me of home or if it’s just a thing I do. I keep a journal
everywhere I go, and one of the sweetest things is that my mom
slips in some rosary beads when I travel...

‘Traveling as Americans, you hear a lot of comments. We’re often looked down on, especially with the war. I’m not one to preach, but I’m living this lifestyle where you spend a lot of time out in Mother Nature, and I think that the environmental aspect of things is going to be our major challenge. Working with a company like Patagonia, has opened my eyes to a lot of issues, and what we can do, from buying a hybrid car to living a little bit more environmentally friendly…In the water you notice changes – here and at places we travel to for surfing. I got a staff infection in my knee when I came home from surfing in Indonesia. My whole leg was giant, and I had to have surgery....

‘I still surf almost every day if the waves are good…Although I have the luck that if I’m supposed to be somewhere doing a photo shoot or an event or working with a sponsor, that will be the big wave day, and I miss it. Or I’ll be flying out somewhere and a big swell comes to Ventura. I was on this path and people would ask me if I was traveling again because they wanted the waves to get good...

‘I have surfed all over the world, but I have not surfed Mavericks or up the north coast of California, and I’ve been wanting to get up there. I did a San Francisco event and was stoked to see so many hard core women doing their thing. I’m not that into big surf, but if it looks like there’s a channel…Our local Maloy boys are hard core, tow-in big wave guys. I give people that ride big waves credit, because that turns surfing into a whole different kind of sport. Speaking of one of our locals – Davey Miller. He’s classic,  a big wave guy. He’s got some crazy stories. Davey plays drums with his jazz band here in town.  I went out one time and he was playing all the old school  Frank Sinatra stuff and it was just great. A lot of Ventura surfers are like that. They’re great surfers, but then they have this whole other totally cool thing they can do...

‘When it gets big, it gets scary. I was in Guatemala and there were a couple of big sets that caught us all off guard, just wave after wave…Getting hit in the face with a board…It can be intense.”
Mary Osborne is also a writer for a number of surf magazines.

About a group surf trip to Guatemala Mary writes about the inevitable wipe-out situation every surfer must face with courage and shake off with humor: “…We came from different generations, with various surfing backgrounds and have traveled to and surfed some of the best spots in the world, yet we were all discovering Guatemala for the first time ever together…As the swell got bigger and we became more confident and cocky, Mother Nature decided to do what she does best, throw us for a loop. We
all were caught off guard, especially Robert August,  and myself, as the biggest set of the day rolled up on the horizon...

“Mary, you want the first one?” Sammy asked me.  “No worries, I’ll catch the next one,” I answered in total confidence…All I remember is saying to myself, “Holy shit Mary, paddle faster, pick up the RPM’s!”  It didn’t seem to matter how fast Robert and I stroked because the wave crashed directly in front of us. We were basically in the exact spot you never want to be in when the largest set of the day rolls in. I heard Robert scream my name as I quickly stood on my board and jumped as deep under the water as possible. I felt as if I was training for the Olympics; I did five somersaults right off the bat. I opened my eyes underwater hoping to see some light, but darkness surrounded me in every direction. Trying not to panic, I reached for my leash, and I started swimming towards the foamy surface. As I gasped for air, I looked up to see another wave headed right towards my head, as well as Robert’s surfboard. I dove once again under as deep as I could. This time my longboard was dragging me with the wave further and further into the jetty. Before I knew it, my leash snapped, and I was able to swim freely to the surface. I looked around and saw this set nailed our entire group, some were in better spots than others, but it wasn’t over yet. Two more waves rolled in. Out of breath and my heart beating with adrenaline, I ducked under the last two waves and swam quickly to the boat. As my heart slowly calmed its self, I couldn’t help but start laughing inside. What the heck just happened?

“Mary you ok?” Shea, the videographer asked.  All I could come up with was a lot of profanity, followed by a laugh of embarrassment. I sat on the boat for a minute to regroup my energy and thoughts…and before I knew it I was back out into the lineup, this time leashless, but ready to catch one of those bombs, this time not on my head...”

Mary said, “There’s now a tour for women’s longboarding, so it makes it a little more challenging and a bit more serious…We have one of our biggest contests in France every year, and women come from all over the world.   The biggest cultural challenge has to do with not being able to speak the language, but in the water, everybody can just look at each other and know…

‘Ventura has a lot of great surf breaks from Silver Strand Beach to Rincon, and I remember my first idols were two older girls who surfed with my brothers…  and could hold their own in the water.  I was like ahhh I want to be them. And, when I started surfing, it was still very much a guy’s sport; the girls layed on the beach, but I wanted to be competitive in catching waves, to be accepted instead of just tagging along. My brothers who are all good surfers, taught me when I was 14, which means you had to be able to take a little bit of a beating while you learned by trial and error...  

‘When things were picking up for me in terms of competing, I used to train with Jama at Maverick’s; he’s a well known body builder like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Me and some other pro surfers worked with him, and everything we did was geared towards [building] core [strength]...

‘Popping up to a standing position from paddling out on our stomachs is the hardest thing, especially for women who have a little less upper body strength…Jama had us stand on a medicine ball and do the entire workout while balancing; it’s kind of like being out on the water when you’re surfing. Otherwise I get bored at the gym. I like to be outdoors, but I was out of control training twice a day, until I started traveling so much…But that workout totally helped me and, when the surf was good, well, we were out on the ocean. I think a lot of surfers cut a lot of classes when the surf is good. My family learned that dinner at
5 o’clock when there was good surf wasn’t going to happen. Dating,? Probably not going to happen if surf is good. [laughs]   If the waves are good you’re not showing up to a lot of places.”

Mary said, “Looking back to how I learned how to surf…I’ve seen couples come to the water, and… they’re pretty much broken up by the time they come out, and the guy is like, ‘Oh honey you’re doing great,’ as she’s getting pummeled. Or ‘Get up; it’s so easy; why aren’t you standing!’ So when I started teaching, I wanted to relate to all the emotions and fear that women can have in the ocean, and I didn’t want to hear their boyfriends yelling at them the whole time. There’s a different bond with women out there. When guys are around, you still find yourself wanting to be tough, but when it’s just girls, you feel like you can giggle more and just share. That’s the biggest difference. And, a lot of the fear with women in the ocean seems to come from those experiences with the guy thing in the water. I try to build up the women when we go out there so we can all just enjoy that feeling...  

‘It takes a lot of just being out there, watching and understanding the changes and timing of the water and elements, with the waves and where they’re breaking. Sometimes I just paddle out and watch the sunsets before I even think about catching a wave…That is beautiful, a totally perfect moment, but that’s part of the experience. You have a connection with Mother Nature herself when you’re out on the ocean.”

Pro-Surfer, Writer, Sports Commentator Mary Osborne

David Pu’u Photography/Cinematography

Local surf shop owner, former pro-surfer and photographer, David Pu’u has been working with Mary for over ten years. They often travel together, and one of his great shots secured Mary for a cover of The Surfer’s Path, a popular European surf magazine. It was the first time they’d featured a woman. Mary has also been featured in magazines including: Longboard, Surfing, Surf News, Wahine, Surf Life for Women, Surfing Girl, Entertainment Weekly and Spin Magazine among others.

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