Date: November 23, 1969
Location: Santa Cruz, California
Moment: Margo Godfrey wins Smirnoff Pro-Am and the first prize money ever collected by a female surfer.
There are ten really famous male surfers in the world, and one really famous female surfer. That’s me. I want to ride the biggest waves any woman has ever ridden.” – Margo Oberg to People Magazine
Women in surfing don’t get enough respect. Period. And it’s been that way for quite some time, too. However, one sunny winter day in 1969 at Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz, California, one woman won the Smirnoff Pro-Am and collected the first paycheck a female surfer has ever been handed. Her name is Margo Oberg, and she set women’s surfing on a new trajectory – one that saw the possibility of women being paid to ride waves.
Originally from Pennsylvania, the Godfrey (Margo’s maiden name) family moved to La Jolla, California, in 1958 where Margo caught her first wave at La Jolla Shores five years later, at age 10. While her parents, who were both tennis players, pushed her towards the hardcourt, Margo insisted on dragging an 11-foot, 40-pound log to and from the ocean daily. It wasn’t long before she decimated the local competition – including every boy – at the Windansea Surf Club Menehune Surfing Contest. In the same event, she took out the Open Division as well. The very next year, she made the final at the Makaha Invitational and finished in second at the US Surfing Championships. She was only 13 years old. It was only three years later that she received her (and female surfing’s) first paycheck.
Unfortunately, it seemed Margo had peaked a little too quickly. She had reached the zenith of her surfing popularity by age 17 and decided to retire with two years of high school still to complete. She moved to Kauai with her then-husband, did some free surfing and played housewife. During that time, she adapted her style to suit the bigger waves found around Kauai’s rugged coastline and was then comfortable in waves around 15 feet. She was also a regular on Oahu’s North Shore and frequented Sunset Beach when big swells pulsed nearby (like in the below video).
In 1975, she was bought back into surfing by Lightning Bolt via a lucrative contract that put her back in a jersey. Immediately, she won the IPS Championships in Malibu, and when women’s events were added to the tour schedule, she went off, winning a slew of contests.
Four times a world champ – once at the ISF World Surfing Championships and three times on the IPS World Circuit – Oberg was one of the sport’s greatest catalysts for progression. However, in an article for Surfline in 2000, she denounced such progression by saying, “Except for Layne Beachley and maybe Rochelle [Ballard], they are all small-wave pros. It’s not required to surf big waves to be a world champion anymore.” But that didn’t matter as her surfing, and winning, at the Smirnoff Pro-Am laid the groundwork for the aforementioned surfers, among many others, to compete and win prize money for years after, and for more years to come. With any luck, the prize purses in women’s surfing will catch up to those in men’s surfing. On that day, we can all look back and remember Margo Godfrey and how far we’ve come from that moment.
The video below shows footage from the 1969 Smirnoff Pro-Am at which Godfrey won women’s surfing’s first paycheck.