Champion surfer Phyllis O'Donnell shares her incredible story

Bupa Aged Care resident Phyllis O'Donnell reflects on her extraordinary surfing career, smashing stereotypes and breaking barriers for female surfers around the world.


When Pottsville woman Phyllis O'Donnell decided to teach herself to surf 58 years ago, she didn’t see any role models in the Manly surf scene who looked like her.

“I was a late bloomer and don’t really know why I took up surfing but I did. When I first started in Sydney, I could hardly paddle,” Phyllis said.

That didn’t stop Phyllis, now an 81-year-old resident at Bupa Pottsville Beach Aged Care, from shattering the sun bleached male stereotype cemented in early cinema and pop culture.

"In those days when you were surfing with men, you had to be aggressive because there were only a hand full of women on boards at the beach," she said.

If a guy ever purposely rode in front of me then I’d push him onto the rocks.
Phyllis O'Donnell, Resident at Bupa Aged Care Pottsville Beach

Phyllis came a long way from struggling to catch a wave and made history at the age of 27 in 1964 when she became the first ever ISA Women’s Surfing World Champion at the inaugural World Championship title.

“I bought my first board from Nott and Kirby which was the equivalent of getting one from a supermarket but it was a Joe Larkin board that I won the event with.”

“There were 50,000 people on the beach that day and no one thought I could beat the American champ Linda Benson but I did.”

Phyllis went on to win the Australian national women’s titles in 1964 and 1965. It was a sign of recognition and progress for female surfers and paved the way for countless women and girls to follow in her footsteps.


Story continues after video. WATCH:

Surfing champ Phyllis O'Donnell

“I used to love surfing alongside dolphins and have always felt like the beach belonged to everyone, even if not everyone in those days had access to it.”

“If a girl or bloke needed help as a surfer, then I’d help them,” she said.

Phyllis spent some time living abroad in sunny California where she worked at the Dewey Weber Surfboards showroom.

In 1996, she became the second woman ever to be inducted into the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame. And In 2014 she sealed her spot on American soil by being inducted into Huntington Beach’s Surfing Walk of Fame.

Bupa Aged Care Pottsville General Manager, Letitia Quirk, said surfing had been a major part of Phyllis’s life and has created positive waves throughout the home.

“I know that I speak on behalf of all the staff and residents in our home when I say that Phyllis’s thirst for life has had a positive impact on the home,” Ms Quirk said.

“There isn’t a dry eye in the room when she recaps her stories from the past.”

“It is quite different today than it was for me. I’ve known Stephanie Gilmore since she was a young un’ and she is worth a fortune now.”

“Back in the day, we’d often get cigarettes and a trophy for winning an event, occasionally we’d also get money but you could guarantee you’d take home a pack of Craven As’.”


Find out more about Bupa Aged Care, or ​read more stories from our aged care residents