Frieda Zamba – Biography
A shy girl learns to surf in the tiny waves of North Florida and goes pro by mistake. Not a bad idea for a screenplay, but not exactly the most promising first step for an aspiring world champion. Yet that begins the Frieda Zamba story.
While Florida produces very few waves it does, however, churn out a surprising amount of record-breaking champs. And Zamba was the first woman to charge out of the wave-deprived peninsula and into professional surfing’s record books. A goofy footer with an aggressive style, a shy demeanor, and a name that might be better suited to the leader of an African liberation movement than a surfer; Frieda Zamba, described by one writer as “…the world’s first surfing Slovak,” was the youngest female to win a pro tour contest and the youngest surfing world champion ever. She went on to win three titles in a row and then fought back to win a fourth. Outright dangerous in small to mid-size surf, Zamba crossed the performance chasm that separated male and female surfers in the 80’s and, based solely on performance, is regarded by many as the greatest female surfer ever.
Born Anna Lynn Zamba in 1964, Frieda (as she was called by her friends) was raised just a few blocks from the ocean in the sleepy surf town of Flagler Beach, Florida. With little to do, most kids in town turned to the waves for fun. At 9 years old, Zamba was first introduced to surfing by her older brother Alan, but didn’t surf regularly until 12 at which point she became devoted to the sport, “…from there on, it was like the most important thing in my life,” Zamba told a local reporter. She began competing in local contests the following year. But the shy Zamba wouldn’t let her parents watch. Undeterred, they would instead sneak to the beach and watch in secret. Zamba was even supported by her grandmother who would reportedly ask, “How are you doing on your ski-boarding?”
As a teenager, Zamba was surfing everyday and with only one real surf spot in walking distance, Flagler Pier became her classroom where mostly male surfers were riding waves with the new found aggression of the late 70’s. Surfing performance was experiencing an obvious gender gap, as men’s surfing had become more progressive and visually dynamic.
Zamba baby-sat and cut grass for a year to save the $90 cash for her first board. But at 16, she had little contest experience and was serving up pizza and fettuccine at local Mama Mia’s restaurant. This allowed her pocket money and plenty of water time but was not an indicator of imminent international success. Zamba had no idea what would happen next when she entered and won a pro event at nearby Canaveral Pier, earning $500. By cashing said check, she unknowingly launched an historic professional surfing career. In the 80’s, surfers remained amateur until they officially accepted money for their wins. Therefore, by accepting the winnings, Frieda Zamba had relinquished her amateur status and thus any hope for garnering much needed contest experience in the numerous local amateur events. So with one (unexpected) professional win under her belt Zamba, with the urging and support of her board sponsor and future husband, Flea Shaw, made her way to California to compete on the Women’s Professional Surfing Tour.
She quickly made waves nationally by winning the 1982 Mazda Surfsport Pro in Solana Beach, California. She rode her 5’7” twin fin against an all-star list of 43 surfers including former world champ Lynne Boyer, national champ Jericho Poppler and Hawaiian natural Rell Sunn, pocketing $2000 and becoming the youngest female ever to win a professional tour event. A few months after graduating from Flagler Palm Coast High School, she placed 5th at the OP Pro, winning $450. At the end of her first year as a professional, the quiet Flagler girl had gone from a “no name” on the tour to a respectable 6th place in 1982. She finished runner up in 1983 and in 1984 she achieved the first of her four world championships. During that year she not only crushed the competition with 5 wins in the 10 events, she became the youngest ever world champion at only 19. American surfing was at a fever pitch. With Californian Tom Curren dominating men’s professional surfing and the Op Pro at Huntington Beach serving as the zenith of surfing excess and exposure, Zamba led a stellar field of athletes both seasoned and rookie to literally rule the 80’s era in women’s surfing.
Slight and feminine on land at 5’3” with classic bleach blond hair, she was a different creature altogether in the water. Her wide stance and muscular legs accented her low center of gravity and aggressive down the line approach. From the beach, her presence on the wave was obvious. Her deep cutbacks and speed pumps distanced her from the pack. But the rest of the tour wasn’t ready to just lie down and let her dominate. Of her competition, Zamba said, “They’re all tired of seeing me win it. That’s made them more determined.” She reached only as high as 3rd place in 1987, and at 23, Zamba understood the transient nature of professional sports, “…if I don’t do it (win the title) within 2 years, I don’t know if I ever will.” At that, she began a training regime, something uncommon to surfing at the time. A daily routine of swimming, jumping rope, lifting weights and surfing helped her regain her footing and thus win her record breaking 4th world title in 1988, a record at the time matched only by Aussie Mark Richards. During this time Zamba was interviewed on the Today Show and appeared on the The Will Shriner Show alongside LA Law’s Susan Ruttman and stuntman Super Dave Osborn.
Throughout her career, Zamba spoke of the realities of professional surfing in that there was very little money – especially in comparison to the men’s division. “Even with (sponsors’) help, unless you are living at home and not having to pay rent, you are just scraping by,” she admitted. So by 1989, Zamba retired back to Flagler to run Frieda’s Surfline Surf Shop with her husband Bill “Flea” Shaw.
Besides being a talented and tactical competitor Zamba was incredibly popular during her reign. She won 5 straight Surfer Poll awards from 1985 to 1989 and was profiled in a 1987 piece in Sports Illustrated titled “Queen of the Surf.” She was inducted into the Huntington Beach Hall of Fame in 1998 and is still hailed as a bonafied hero in her home town, being the obvious namesake for the Frieda Zamba Aquatic Complex in Flagler Beach, Florida.
Frieda Zamba’s surfing blurred the edges between male and female wave riders, and while that may be a cliché used when describing great women surfers, she proved it by regularly out-surfing male competitors. At a time when surfing finally demanded a global audience, Frieda Zamba was the undisputed queen of professional surfing.