East Coast, Australia, 1985
She’s standing on the riverbank, wading her feet in the tea-tree stained waters, waiting for a fish to tug on her line. It’s a sticky summer morning where the haze hangs low and the air smells thick of salt and seaweed and the trees stand paralyzed and motionless. Behind her in the trees, a cicada buzzes loudly, causing the leaves to shudder under the vibration of its wings. Jenny can’t hear it. Her mind is fixated on the cool line above her ankles where the water of the creek is lapping against her skin, distracting her from the raw heat of the Australian sun.
This beach is her backyard. She grew up here on its shores, a life revolving around the ocean, wind, and weather. Her father was a professional fisherman and had taught her how to fish. This morning they weren’t biting, and she could feel her stomach start to growl.
Thinking about what to have for breakfast, Jenny notices something out of the corner of her eye; something’s approaching her through the water. She turns her head, always wary of unidentifiable objects in Australian nature, but releases her breath as a blue piece of polystyrene foam floats over to her. Jenny picks it up and immediately recognizes the shape from her brother’s collection. It’s a foam surfboard. She pauses for a minute and considers throwing the board back into the water and making her way home, but there’s something about the way the board had gently floated over to her in the water, like some sort of religious offering. She thought she should at least take it home for her brother’s quality assessment. Maybe it would make a good toy for the dog.
Jenny packs up her gear and makes her way back into town, her rod in one arm, the board under the other, and in-between both arms, somewhere deep inside her chest, she feels a ball of curiosity mulling, growing.
The morning sighs a breath of air.
South Coast, Australia, 1985
1,200 kilometers south, the Cox family is awake in their house, clambering around through the cupboards and drawers, each trying to organize their belongings for the approaching day at the beach. Swimming gear, towels, umbrellas, books, pillows, surfboards. “Hurry up kids, we’re leaving in 5 minutes,” Christine cries from the driveway towards the house.
Serena hears her mother’s call. She was thinking about the previous evening where she watched the sunset from on top of the shed roof, the only place in the house that you can see the ocean in the far distance. She knows her mother doesn’t like her climbing on the roof but she needed to know the ocean was still there.
Serena snaps back to reality as she hears her father, Peter start the car. She runs down the driveway and clambers inside next to her brother, two sisters and the dog. They drive toward the ocean. In their wake, they leave behind their suburban home and with it the tiresome thoughts of work, school, and the modern family life.
Serena watches her mother through the rearview mirror. Christine was an extraordinary person in the surfing world although Serena didn’t know it at this age. In time she would realize that her mother was unlike her friends’ mothers, housewives, office worker, and teachers. Her mother went to the beach and traveled the world as her “daily grind.”
Serena stares out the window and watches the thinning houses and the thickening Australian bush, completely unaware that one day she would follow her mother’s footsteps. One day, her own path in the surfing world would be just as significant as her mother’s.
The Cox family pulls up to the South Coast beach and the kids scattered out of the car, running toward the ocean. They had arrived home.
Kuta Beach, Bali, 1995
Jenny is standing on the beach in Bali, competing in the Junior World Surfing Title. Feet in the sand, attentively watching the two floating bodies taking steep drops on the beach breaks of Kuta. It’s her first major test on the world stage and Jenny’s stomach is in a knot knowing that her heat is coming up, knowing her opponent is surfing her home break, knowing her coach is watching from the bleachers.
A whole year of training for this moment. A whole life of training for this moment. Early mornings, beach runs, duck dives, injuries, stitches, self-pressure, self-criticism, social pressure, sweat, pain, tears and laughter surmounting in this moment.
Jenny inhales and thinks back to the day at Belongil Creek when the old foam board gracefully surrendered itself to her. Exhale and her nerves subside. The horn blows indicating a change of heat and Jenny comes back into the present, ties on her leg rope and enters the water. Dogged determination.
Different beaches, different countries, different levels of exhaustion, but the moments remain. These moments are what she lives for.
The rest is history. She wins the Junior World Title in 1995 and becomes sponsored by Billabong, the only female rider on the team at the time. Australian Championship Circuit Champion 1996, World Qualifying Series 2000, 2002, Australian Women’s Champion 2007, 2008. The list continues.
Lennox Head, 2005
Jenny finally retires from the professional tour and picks up a position as the head coach of the Billabong women’s team. She concluded a path of travel and adventure only to stumble across another, this time training some of the top young female surfers in the world. She does this in between running her own personal training business and working for Surfing Australia, the typical nine-to-five life.
She stands on the beach and watches her young student Paige Hareb in the water, preparing her for the qualifying tour this year. She speaks about her surfing career as though it weren’t a significant contribution to the history of female surfing. The tall-poppy attitude of a true Australian. She attributes her successes to the support she received through coaches, mum, dad, brother, sister, and the local community – even the male surfers in the Byron region were extremely encouraging of her professional pursuits. She attempts to put that same energy into her students now that she is a coach.
She watches the energy and determination of Paige in the water and knows exactly what she’s going through, life as a professional surfer wasn’t always glamorous for Jenny. The pressure of being in the public eye and competing at a high level, particularly with a perfectionist, high-achieving personality, lead Jenny into some heavier moments in her career. A fractured kneecap, a mild disease like Raynaud’s, an eating disorder, all become critical issues at this level of surfing. Add on the quality of wetsuits in the early 90s – and burst the bubble of perception that being a female professional surfer is all about having bikini photo shoots on the beach and occasionally standing up on a surfboard.
Jenny views these challenges from a distance now and knows that they have added to her plethora of life experience and knowledge that she can now pass onto her students. She ponders her eating disorder, the uncontrollable thoughts that preoccupied her mind in her younger years. She knows she could have achieved more if she wasn’t so consumed by her battles. She turns toward the hinterland and breathes in the cool evening air, forgiving and accepting herself for who she has become.
Byron Bay, 2005
Serena never returned from her East Coast road trip. Along the way she met an Australian man called Matt and started her own surf school business Surfing Byron Bay.
Serena walks down the path of Captain Cook’s carpark to check the conditions at The Pass. The wind is gentle and brushes against her nose as she breathes in the damp, lush air of the Northern Rivers. She’s thinking about the women she has to coach this morning, two mothers in their forties and a younger professional woman from Sydney, when she notices a young woman on her longboard walking gently up her board in the small peeling waves. Her elegance and grace mesmerizes Serena.
Serena realizes the girl isn’t wearing a leg rope. It’s a new trend, for longboarders to overtly display their competency by not needing to wear a leg rope, because obviously, they would never lose control of their boards. Initially, Serena rolled her eyes thinking about the dangers this trend can cause at one of the busiest point breaks in the world, when she hesitated and looked back at the girl still standing on her board, rails tucked into the face of the wave with full confidence.
This trend, this boldness, this audacity, even a touch of arrogance, is truly telling for how far females have come in this sport. She thinks about her mother, having to share a surfboard with her friend, the forced use of no leg ropes, and then quitting after having children, then watches this act of complete confidence and liberation, the girl on the surfboard more worried about how her cross-step looks in her short-cut wetsuit than whether she can carry her board or not, not to mention the safety of others.
Serena smiles and embraces how women’s surfing has developed.
Jenny and Serena now stand at the forefront of women’s surfing in Australia. Jenny at the elite end and Serena at the more commercial beginner’s end. Their crossing of paths was inevitable. With a combined experience of over forty years in surf coaching, the vantage point and power that they hold in their respective positions are insurmountable when united.
So when Serena and Jenny met in Byron Bay they decided their years of experience, coaching, traveling, surfing, could not be wasted. They opened their own coaching retreat business called Surf Getaways, a holiday business that offers women a space to improve their surfing in a supported environment. To learn, to improve, to perfect.
Serena and Jenny host their Getaway’s in Byron Bay, Australia, and Fiji. They emphasize that the holidays are not a spiritual retreat, they are not a concept of “the surfing life,” they are not about Instagram or imagery, they are for women who just need a break from being mothers, workers, women in this day and age. A time to be in the ocean with other like-minded females, to indulge in a surf holiday without thinking about schedules or chores or feeling guilty for taking the time out. The business is a reflection of the two women that run it; down to earth, true blue Australian women. No bullshit.
Jenny and Serena both have children now and attribute their successes to the support of their husbands and families. They take the humble stage and proclaim that behind every great woman is a supportive community and family. But upon meeting these women, it is clear that they are great in their own right. They are the two of the most influential women in Australian surf culture.
Note: Learn about Jenny and Serena’s Surf Getaways here.