With salt water flowing through her veins, Australia’s first female professional world surfing champion Wendy Botha never felt more at home than when she was paddling out to catch a wave.
A world-beating pioneer in women’s surfing, Botha’s contribution to the sport will be celebrated on Thursday 11th October 2018 at the sold out 34th Sport Australia Hall of Fame Annual Induction and Awards Gala Dinner as an Athlete Member for surfing. Membership is widely considered the highest national sporting honour that can be bestowed.
Botha joins friend and competitor Pam Burridge (1995) as one of only nine surfers in the prestigious Sport Australia Hall of Fame which also includes Mark Richards OAM (1985), Bernard ‘Midget’ Farrelly AM (1985), Wayne ‘Rabbit’ Bartholomew AM (1999) and Layne Beachley AO (2011).
“I’m super stoked,” Botha said in typical fashion.
“To me it feels like a lifetime ago but to be inducted is an honour because there aren’t many surfers. I really can’t believe it. To get that recognition is really special for me and my family.”
Winning four world championships in 1987, 1989, 1991 and 1992, Botha sent waves through the sport with her aggressive style of boarding – a result of growing up competing against men.
Describing her career as “fast and furious”, Botha was introduced to the sport in her native South Africa and said the moment she stood up on a wave, she knew she had found her calling.
“A few boys from school had invited me down the beach to hang out,” Botha recalled.
“They loaned me a board and I was out in the first whitewash, and I got up on my feet all the way to the sand until I jumped off. I was so hooked it was ridiculous.”
“I spent all six weeks of the school holidays from 4am to 9pm at the beach, just loving every moment of it. It was all I could think of.”
In the shark infested waters of East London, Botha’s surfing ability rapidly improved, at first allowing her to surf in the boy’s division to give her the opportunity to hone her skills, and within a year was competing at the South African championships.
“The SA champs were at Jeffreys Bay, but I went terrible. It was big, scary and the rocks were horrendous. But the next year, as a 15-year-old, I was more confident in myself and I won it and I ended up winning it four years in a row.”
“I used to just enter Open Men’s events. I would usually finish last, but I just loved it and I wanted to surf in every event that I could.”
As a 16-year-old, Botha flew to Australia to chase her dream as a professional surfer.
Landing in Sydney, a mix up in communication meant her sponsor family weren’t at the airport to pick her up. Stranded and crying for 3 hours, a good samaritan she had met on the plane returned to the airport, picked her up and housed her. Eventually learning she was meant to arrive on the Gold Coast, a bus was arranged for her a couple days later. Arriving on the Gold Coast, Botha immediately went for a surf, but no sooner than she had hit the water, another surfer collided with her, driving into her knee and sending her to hospital that required 12 stitches.
From luckless beginnings, Botha settled into her adopted country in the following years and rose through the global ranks to break into the top eight in 1985, before claiming her first world surfing championship in 1987, still representing South Africa.
“It didn’t sink in for a little while,” Botha said.
“I knew I had made it, and from then on all I wanted to do was win.”
As the professionalism of competitive surfing grew, Botha was ahead of the crest as she looked for a competitive advantage.
“I used to do whatever I could to get that edge. I saw a sports psychologist, I would do boxing, I would cycle 60km at four in the morning, go for a surf, come out, do weights and then go for another surf. I surfed two or three times a day and trained twice in between – It was pretty full on.”
Hitting her straps in 1989, Botha won seven of the 12 events during the season, setting a record and claiming her second world title as a freshly naturalised Australian citizen.
As her star began to rise, Botha became the face of the sport, thrusting women’s surfing into the mainstream and becoming a role-model for a generation of young surfers as a strong campaigner for gender equality.
Appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated and USA Today newspaper, Botha looks back fondly during her time in the limelight.
“I was living the dream, it was awesome,” Botha continued.
“There was a lot of recognition at the time – fans asking for autographs and getting mobbed on the beach. I probably got the most coverage out of all the girls.”
Finishing runner up in 1990 after battling knee troubles, Botha regained her spot on top of the podium in 1991 and defended her world title in 1992, equalling the then-record of four world titles with her American rival Freida Zamba. Her final professional victory at the Alternativa Pro in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 took her to 24 event wins, the most by any woman at that time.
Retiring at 27 – still near her peak form – Botha settled down to start a family with former New Zealand rugby league representative Brent Todd.
Now with two kids, Jessica and Ethan, Botha still finds the time to hit the surf and enjoy the unmatched serenity of the swell, as well as being able to pass on what she knows to a new generation.
“I love having a go with first timers,” Botha said.
“I get a real thrill of giving that first bit of direction and spending time in the shallows with kids who haven’t seen a surfboard before.”
Botha’s impact on the sport went beyond her spectacular ability, with Sport Australia Hall of Fame Chairman John Bertrand AO acknowledging Botha’s excellence and integrity both on and away from the beach.
“Wendy was a trailblazer in women’s sport and women’s surfing. For all those all years, practising and competing at the highest level we are excited to formally recognise her place in the Australian sporting landscape.”
A dynamic force in her sport, Botha’s radical time at the top may have been short, but in more ways than one, packed an everlasting punch.
Wendy Botha will be inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame on Australian sport’s “Night of Nights” – the sold out 34th Sport Australia Hall of Fame Induction and Awards Gala Dinner on Thursday 11th October at Palladium at Crown, Melbourne.
Established in 1985, the Sport Australia Hall of Fame plays a vital role in preserving and perpetuating Australia’s rich sporting heritage, whilst promoting the values of courage, sportsmanship, integrity, mateship, persistence, and excellence, all underpinned by generosity, modesty, pride and ambition.
2018 will mark the 34th edition of this event, with eight Australian sporting icons, from on and off the field, to be inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame.
In addition, one existing Hall of Fame member will be elevated to Legend status, becoming the 40th official Legend of Australian Sport.