Gail styling her longboard in the mid 60s, she also transistioned to shorter boards to win Bells in the 70s.
Gail Couper said "it was about time" women were awarded equal prize money. Pic: ABC News: Nicole Mills
Said Steph Gilmore, "Gail's won more than any other person on the planet, even more than Kelly Slater, and it is so cool to think that was the beginning of female competitive surfing." Steph with Frankie yesterday, during the Rising Tides Girls Program.
17 April 19
Gail Couper is a retired school teacher from Lorne, on Victoria's Great Ocean Road, whose record of surfing wins at Bells Beach has never been broken — by a man or woman.
Couper won Bells 10 times across the amateur and professional eras in the 1960s and 70s.
Even modern-day champions like Kelly Slater, Layne Beachley, Mick Fanning and Stephanie Gilmore haven't rung the bell on the iconic trophy that many times.
But this humble legend, little known outside the local area, never thought she'd see the day when male and female surfers would be valued equally.
As the annual Easter event kicks off at Bells Beach for another year, it will be the first time men and women paddle out at this break to compete for equal prize money.
In 2018, the World Surf League became the first major US-based professional sporting code to commit to equal prizemoney for men and women at all its events.
The announcement came just months after a junior surfing competition attracted global attention after a photo posted to Facebook showed the female winner holding a cheque for half as much as the male winner.
For Couper, who missed the first ever professional women's surf competition in Malibu, California, because it was school holidays and there was no one around to sign her leave application, it's remarkable to see how far the sport has come.
"I think it was an incredibly positive move," she said. "It was affirmation of what women have been doing and their aims to make it a career. It gave them something to aim for and also a feeling of being valued."
The only woman in the winter waves:
It wasn't until she was 15 that Couper picked up a surfboard and began riding the cold water breaks around her hometown of Lorne.
She surfed alongside a handful of women in the local boardriders club, but outside the summer months it was rare to meet another female in the water.
Instead she spent most of her time surfing with another legend of the sport, Wayne Lynch.
"Most families in those days were one-car families so if you wanted to surf after school you walked," she said.
"We were lucky at Lorne because there were those little wooden bathing boxes like at Brighton and Wayne Lynch and I would leave our boards in it so you didn't have to carry them up the hill — because they were really heavy.
"On the weekends our parents took turns, his one weekend and mine the next. When we'd had a bit of success they took us to different waves."
While she heartily welcomes improving career options for female surfers, in a way this quiet achiever is also thankful she was able to surf at a time when the sport was in its infancy.
"Maybe I was more happy where I was at that time because you experience the 60s which was when we were all learning what surfing was," she said.
"It was just a whole lot of fun and I think everyone around you was having fun so there was no aggro in the water. There wasn't the expectation of the whole media crew following you."
But perhaps a little bit more media attention would have been welcomed:
"You'd get three or four pages of expansive description of what was going on in the men's event and there'd be one line at the bottom and it would say 'and Couper won again' and that was it," she laughed. "So there was no publicity, there was no anything other than local newspaper."
Inspiring the next generation of female surfers:
Reigning world champion Stephanie Gilmore has four Bells wins under her belt and said Couper was an inspiration.
"She's won more than any other person on the planet, even more than Kelly Slater, and it is so cool to think that was the beginning of female competitive surfing," Gilmore said.
Gilmore was joined by many of the world's best female surfers who paddled out at Bells Beach on the day before the competition window opened alongside the next generation of female surfers.
For Victorian surfer Sara Hickson, 11, taking part in the WSL's Rising Tides program was a dream come true.
"The pro surfers were so friendly and giving you waves and talking to you. It was just so much fun. It was such an amazing experience," she said. "I'd like to become a professional surfer and it would just be amazing to win a couple of world titles."
That dream has been bolstered by the sport's commitment to equality.
"When I heard about that I was so happy for all the girls on the world tour and hopefully I can be one of those girls one day," she said.
- AUTHOR: NICOLE MILLS
- SOURCE: ABC