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Behind every great woman

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So you want to be a champion? Then who better to learn from than seven-times world surfing champion Layne Beachley? Beachley has defied the odds since the early 90s, making waves in a male-dominated sport and taking her first world title at an age many would class as veteran, before going on to claim another six. So, how did she do it?

To find out, Peter Switzer spoke with Beachley on his program SWITZER on Sky News Business Channel. 

A late bloomer

Beachley’s determination doesn’t end when she gets out of the surf – she’s launched a series of branded lines, turned her talents to event management, and sits on several charities, working tirelessly to help young women achieve their potential in sports, business and the arts.

Beachley, though, was a late starter – proving that it’s never too late to try.

“When I turned 25 I was considered a veteran. But I didn’t win my first world title until I was 26. You know, as women, we do tend to get better with age.”

What took her so long?

“I wasn’t ready,” says Beachley. “I wasn’t ready to win. I was still very distracted. I didn’t give it 110 per cent. Once I started to really focus in on it and take all the other distractions out of my life and make that my number one priority then I won and I stayed there for as long as I did.” 

Love of the sport

Beachley credits her then-partner, Ken, for the shift that sparked her success.

“He just made me focus in on surfing. I’m a real Gemini, I love variety and I’m really easily distracted and he just narrowed my focus.”

While she says he was “really suffocating and very protective”, he taught her many valuable lessons.

“He taught me about equipment, he taught me how to tow in surf, allowed me to ride the biggest waves of my life, taught me how to read maps. He also taught me a lot about my life and what my priorities were and how to narrow those priorities down and how to focus on what I really want.”

So what was it about Ken that pushed Beachley across the winner’s line? His desire to be a kept man and live off her spoils?

“No,” laughs Beachley. “He was really driven. I think, secretly, he vicariously lived through my goals. He was the one that actually set the goal for me to win a five world titles.”

And after she called an end to the relationship, Beachley won her sixth.

“I proved I could do it without him.”

Lost loves aside, Beachley says her support networks have been crucial to her success.

“Even though I’ve been perceived as being an individualist, I’ve always had a team of people around me that have allowed me to maintain my focus and have pushed me in a different direction if it looked like I was falling off the rails; have been honest with me, have been trustworthy; people I’ve respected and also have experienced things that I never have so I could learn from them.”

From good to great

What makes the difference between good and great? Surely not everyone can have a Ken. Switzer says Chris Evert, with her 91 per cent success rate in pro tennis – said it’s the wanting to win that makes it happen. Beachley agrees.

“To me it was actually a necessity. I had this desire that I had to prove something to the world; I had to prove my worth,” she says.

But Beachley’s push to be the best goes deeper than wanting a shiny trophy.

“I had to prove I was worthy of love. I was adopted at birth and the mother that adopted me died when I was six.”

This is when her father told Beachley she was adopted.

“I felt isolated, I felt alone and I thought if I’m not worthy of my own mother’s love, whose love am I worthy of? That drove me to be the best in the world. Because I thought if I’m the best in the world, then everyone will love me.

“But then it went beyond that, it went onto my love of winning and my love to be the best of the best and I was incredibly driven and motivated to succeed on different levels.”

Work out

Then Beachley had to work out what it took to win – blessed with an athletic physique, Beachley had never focused on fitness. This, she says, made the world of difference – seven times over.

“I’d never focused on my training or my physicality. I’d always thought that just the only thing you need to do is surf.”

She looked to those around her – including four times world champion Wendy Botha and Australian surfing legend and fellow world champion Pam Burridge – for advice.

“I basically became a sponge,” says Beachley. “Anyone I could see that had achieved what I really wanted, I asked for their guidance.

“Wendy was super fit and mentally strong and … she introduced me to her personal trainer. I started training with him, I still do today. He really activated the mental side of it. And that’s what I was lacking. I never truly had the ability to be a world champion, but what separated me from my competition was my mental application and my mental strength and my never-say-die attitude.” 

Winning edge

Switzer says many great business performers freely admit that they copy the best and they try and get an edge to get ahead. Beachley, however, denies this was her tack.

“No. I always identified what the best were doing, and I found a way to do it better. I never copied anybody. And that’s what Kieren Perkins has always said, too.

“If you want to stay ahead of your competition, you have to find ways to reinvent yourself; you have to be willing to improve and you have to be willing to learn and acknowledge that you don’t know it all. There’s always another way to do something.” 

New frontiers

Beachley has learnt many lessons in the business world since her retirement from professional surfing – launching several branded surfwear lines with only small success.

“It’s been incredibly challenging,” she says. “You could consider it to be a failure – I’ve tried five different ways of launching a clothing brand associated with my name, but I consider those to be learning opportunities. I know I haven’t got it right yet, but when I get it right, I know it’s going to work. I’m very passionate about it. And I’m still learning. I am a fish out of water as far as building a business is concerned. But I’m enjoying the challenge, I’m enjoying learning a whole new thing.”

Her recent venture – a women’s surfwear label, Blue Kiss by Layne Beachley – is stocked in department giant Myer.

As most male surfers are backed by the big names – Billabong, Quicksilver, and the likes – Beachley says few girls experience that level of support.

“The level of support for women has definitely grown, but there’s so much more that the industry can still do. My desire was to create a brand that would grow and succeed and become big enough to support female athletes the way I wish I was supported.” 


Beachley says there are more opportunities for women than ever before, but many are still reluctant to take them.

“There’s plenty more opportunities for women – more so than there ever used to be – but we tend to be more insecure, to beat ourselves up, to put a barrier between us and the men – we never feel like we measure up. Comparisons always lead to inadequacies.”

She says many women tend to believe that they’re not capable of doing something until they see a woman do it first, and praises the likes of Gail Kelly and Julia Gillard for “stepping into a man’s world and succeeding and gaining the respect and the recognition that they so rightly deserve”.

“All these pioneers and groundbreakers are incredibly inspiring and motivating. I’ve always been considered to be a pioneer and I’m proud of the legacy I’ve created and I’m always about giving back to women and inspiring them and motivating them and making them believe in themselves because I know that if it wasn’t for my self belief, I wouldn’t have achieved the success that I have.”

So, what is Beachley’s advice to women? What are the words they need?

“I’m worthy. I can, I am. It’s about, firstly, having a really positive attitude, having a goal that you can work towards. It’s really important that you have a goal. Write it down. I stuck it on my mirrors in my bedroom and just looked at that through the toughest times in my life. You’ve got a purpose to get yourself up in the morning, that will give you the motivation to overcome any obstacle you can ever encounter.”

For more from the best brains in property, shares, superannuation, the economy, financial markets and business head to Also check out Peter Switzer’s SWITZER on Sky News Business Channel, Monday to Thursday from 7pm.

Published on: Monday, November 23, 2009

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