“EVERYONE SAW IT BUT THEY DIDN’T WANT TO GET SMACKED IN THE HEAD”
Jodie Cooper: Big Wave Trailblazer, Stunt Woman, Crowd Favourite
By today’s standard, Jodie Cooper had a late start to surfing, first learning on the solid beachbreaks around Albany when she was 16. Three years later Jodie was a runner-up at Bells, went on Tour, was rookie of the year and finished at number six in the world. Jodie stayed on Tour for 11 years, winning seven events, never finishing below fourth on the ratings, and her best result was number two in 1985.
Although a much expected World Title eluded her, Jodie dominated in Hawaii, and was one of the first girls to regularly surf Backdoor and Off The Wall. She was a level above most of her peers at places like Haleiwa and Sunset Beach and went undefeated on the North Shore between 1992 and 93, winning her last ever pro event there in 94.
Jodie has a relaxed and fun approach to life and has always been a stylish individual. She even rocked up to Bells in the late 80s in a 1965 AP Valiant, complete with push button auto transmission. One of the first high profile surfers to come out as gay, Jodie has fought her fair share of battles over the years and that’s on top of having to deal with a shark attack, a punch in the head from Johnny Boy Gomes and some pretty horrendous online bullying during her time as an event commentator. But she also had plenty of classic highlights like stunt surfing for Lori Petty in the Hollywood surf blockbuster Point Break.
Not one to back down, Jodie has always been prepared to stand up for herself and women’s surfing, and as her 30-plus year love affair with surfing continues you can bet she’ll paddle out somewhere tomorrow with a smile on her face.
“Everyone knows someone who’s gay but generally in surfing there’s still alot of fear involved with it.”
The beginning. I was the only girl surfer when I grew up in Albany and I didn’t see another girl on a board until I’d been surfing for a year and a half. There were just a small handful of surfers. Tim Winton grew up in Albany, went to my high school and if you’ve ever read his book Breath, that’s pretty much what it was like, isolated with a few surfers. Everyone knew everyone – it was a great way to be brought up surfing. I was a late bloomer, it’s not like today where mum pops them out and they are on a surfboard when they’re six months old. I was a skateboarder and played every sport under the sun. I was a real sporty kid so I picked it up quickly and by the time I was 19 I was on the World Tour. It was a quick learning curve. I travelled with Pam Burridge and when I went on Tour in 1983 it was just her and me really. We were the only Australians on the Women’s Tour.
Enjoying big waves. I think growing up in Albany really helped, but the main thing was after my first year on Tour I went and hung out in Hawaii for three months and I did that every year. That’s the advice I’d give to any rookie, do the time in Hawaii – it’s the best thing you can ever do for your big wave surfing. I wanted to get better at riding big waves, so I had to put myself on the edge, had to put myself out there, so I’d go out when it was huge. I’d think even if I don’t catch the biggest wave at least I’ve gone out. You paddle out at maxed-out Haleiwa and that’s an experience because it is such a heavy wave and you can’t escape it. It’s not like Sunset where if you get cleaned up you are pushed in. At Haleiwa you’re stuck in the impact zone, you can’t get out of it and you can get eight waves on the head. But when I paddled out at 10-foot Sunset afterwards it wasn’t intimidating and I could get in there and take off on sets. That was my strategy and I got good results. There was a handful of us who surfed Sunset well but the other 80 per cent of the surfers on Tour went out there cause they had to. They were happy to put a contest singlet on and fluff around and catch ones on the inside.
Johnny Boy Gomes. I knew Johnny Boy when he was positive and I knew the dark side as well. The day we had a run-in it was a typically packed day, north swell at Beach Park, everyone getting barrelled, and everyone was out. Bud Llamas was on a wave and Johnny Boy dropped in and then Bud rode around Johnny Boy, was in front of him and Johnny Boy flicked his board at Bud’s head, nearly killed him. They both came up next to me, their boards were tangled and Johnny started punching. Everyone just put their head down and paddled away, as they do, like chicken shit. I just thought he should stop and I said, “Oi, Johnny Boy, leave him alone! Stop it, leave him alone, chill out.” That sort of thing, cause I thought I knew him. He was about to smack Bud in the head and he just looked at me, let go of Bud, paddled over and whacked me in the head. Everyone just took off, no one stood up for me – you name it, they were out there – everyone saw it but they didn’t want to get smacked in the head as well. He hit me and tried to humiliate me, and said get out of the water you stupid F-this C-that. I thought, “Fuck you,” so I stayed out there for another half an hour and caught a few waves just to satisfy my own ego and pride. Then he harassed me for two years after that. It was so heavy. Once at the 7-Eleven in Haleiwa he came up and threatened to kill me. Finally I’d had enough and knew I had to sort it out. The next time he confronted me was at Sunset car park and I lost it. I was like, “Are you gonna stab me or are we going to deal with this?” I just let it rip. He didn’t say or do anything and from that day on he left me alone. But it was a heavy two years.
Coming out. When I was competing there was never a time when I thought surfing was tolerant enough to accept my sexuality. Certain individuals were fantastic, didn’t care at all, but in general, no way in the world – surfing was the most bigoted, closeted sport. It was terrible. I made a decision very early on that I didn’t want to be in the closet, needed to be true to myself and I was going to wear the consequences of that. I came out when I was still pro surfing with sponsors. I didn’t come out with a banner saying, “Look at me, look at me.” But if someone asked me I didn’t hide from it. I was proud of my partners, that sort of thing, which is healthy. I honestly thought if I didn’t take a stand then I’d be a hypocrite, and I thought what happens in the future if my kids are gay or a niece or nephew? If I pretended or lied about it, then nothing’s going to change. Surfing may be a bit more tolerant now, but I think people are still fearful of the repercussions. Individually people are relaxed and they don’t care – everyone knows someone who’s gay, but generally in surfing there is still a lot of fear involved with it, people worried about being judged, not getting sponsorship. It’s still rife – but it’s so Neanderthal. Surfing has a long way to go.
Dealing with the trolls. I just love surfing so when I had the opportunity to do the commentary it was awesome. When I started doing some of the men’s events as well though, far out… I copped it. I know it was from a minority of haters but some of the comments that used to come up when people could write in during the webcasts, they’d make your hair curl. At the end of the day they are always going to be out there. Ignorance is in every dark corner of whatever we do, every facet of life. You develop a thick skin, but it starts to stick. You have to shut that out, and you have to realise what is truth and what’s not truth. At times it did really hurt me, bitterly. I remember being in tears, walking out of the commentary booth, sitting in a corner and having a bawl. But you have to dust it off. I had the attitude that I could go two ways with this – I can fall in a heap and let this person be victorious or try and be better than all of that and just have faith in myself.
Women’s surfing now. The new WSL admin is like a breath of fresh air for women’s surfing. A lot of the previous decisions were being made by old school, old thinking cronies; nice people, but their opinions and ideas in regard to women’s surfing were of the old boy mentality. The only way women’s surfing was going to get a decent go was with a fresh administration and I think this is going to be really good for women’s surfing. Fresh opinions and fresh ideas and a new outlook on what can be achieved to realise its potential. It’s fantastic to see events in Fiji, Trestles, Honolua – events where women’s surfing is going to be showcased, women ripping in great waves. That’s what people want to see, they don’t want to see people floundering in small shifty beachbreaks, in crap. It’s like you give a plant sunshine, water and food, nurture it and the plant gives you something beautiful in return. If you starve a plant of food and no water and shove it in a corner, it’ll start looking saggy and ugly – it just wilts. You give women the opportunity to shine, whether it’s equipment, support, encouragement and the opportunity in good waves, you are going to see the sport and individuals flourish and improve; the standard will rise. Basically the girls are being given the opportunity to be as good as they are.