Layne Beachley: Surfing and serving the waves of life
Layne Beachley AO is a world surfing champion, entrepreneur, champion of women, chair of Surfing Australia and ambassador for many charities. She has battled demons along her road, but through it all she has developed a powerfully down-to-earth philosophy that she is willing to share with those searching for a better life and a better world.
Layne Beachley is the most successful female surfer of all time and seven-time world champion. In fact, she is actually an (unofficial) eight-time world champion, because having retired from professional surfing in 2008 she returned to the water in September 2018 to become the first female winner of the World Surf League’s (WSL) World Masters Championship. Although surfing sits at the heart of her life, there is so much more to the Beachley manifesto.
“Ultimately I realised that chronic fatigue was my body calling out for a break so I gave it one.”
Never one to opt for a quiet life, Beachley has been involved as an ambassador, spokesperson and volunteer for many charities and organisations, including UNICEF, the National Breast Cancer Foundation, Planet Ark, Club Speranza, Surfrider Foundation and WWF Australia. In 2003 Beachley created the Aim for the Stars Foundation to support the cultural dreams of young women across Australia. The Foundation wound up in 2019, but now she has developed the aptly named Awake Academy, aimed at assisting people to achieve their dreams. So far-reaching has Beachley’s positive influence been that in 2015 she was awarded with an Officer of the Order of Australia for her distinguished service to the community. Now happily married to Kirk Pengilly from rock band INXS, the life of Layne Beachley has been rich and diverse, but it has not been easy.
Catching the wave
Any background on Beachley that you read tells you that at school she was into surfing, tennis and soccer, “And cricket, hockey, basketball …” she adds with a laugh. What then, made surfing stand out above the other sports options? “My dream to be a world champion surfer crystallised after I won my first amateur surfing event at age 15,” she says. It was not, however, that she was an immediate success.
“I competed in my first event when I was about 14 or 15 and came dead last. I was incredibly nervous and disappointed. I’d invested so much time and energy into preparing for that event but it taught me so much. It taught me a lot about myself; about how much I really wanted it, how much pressure I put on myself unnecessarily, how immense my expectations were, but also how much I loved to compete and measure myself against others.”
Beachley started competing at surf events in 1989 but turned pro full-time in 1991. She did not win an event until 1993. She has always been a dogged, determined person, but her failure to do well early on must have been difficult. She was recognised as having talent but was also thought to be overeager and erratic. So did she think about quitting at this point?
“I had been declaring I was going to be a world champion from the age of eight and a world champion surfer at age 15, so I had to substantiate my claims. In 1990 I had a couple of decent results which gave me the confidence to keep going. In 1991 when I joined the tour full-time was probably the hardest couple of years because I was so out of my depth. I didn’t know where I was going, how I was getting there, where I was staying. I had no help. No tour manager, no assistance whatsoever. I was working three or four part-time jobs. It was torture.”
She overcame that torture and in 1998 she made good on her 15-year-old boast and won her first world championship. She won five more world titles consecutively from 1999 to 2003 and then won her seventh title in 2006. You can’t look at the life and achievements of Layne Beachley without recognising a vein of determination running through all that she does. The question becomes, what drives that determination?
Driving Ms Beachley
In characteristically frank self-appraisal Beachley reflects, “I never really realised what was driving me until the question was asked of me after my sixth world title. The only thing that I could put it down to was being adopted and the feeling of loss that is associated with being adopted. That feeling of being abandoned and my fear of rejection really drove me.”
“I can invest in intention and detach from intensity and still achieve the outcome that I’m striving for.”
Having lost her adoptive mother at when she was just six years old, Beachley then discovered that she was adopted at age eight and says, “There was a constant need to prove myself. I had to prove a point; I had to prove something, all the time. Realising I was adopted made me feel that I was not worthy of my mother’s love. If you are not worthy of your mother’s love then whose love are you worthy of? I thought that if I became world champion then I might be worthy of love from everyone.”
Although this need for acknowledgement was deep, Beachley has always sought to grow and transcend her limitations. She says, “Being in a loving relationship with Kirk has allowed me to feel nurtured, but it had to come from within me as well. I had to open myself up. I’ve gone through so many different forms of self-exploration and have found the value of forgiving myself and giving myself credit, which I don’t think very many of us do.”
Chronic fatigue and depression
It is perhaps surprising that this enormously energetic, driven woman, with so many commitments, has been a sufferer of chronic fatigue and depression. In fact, Beachley suffered bouts of chronic fatigue during her pro surfing career. “The 1996 episode one was the bad one,” Beachley recalls. “It was a gradual decline, and I chose to ignore it. I realised that I wasn’t feeling right when I started asking people for constant feedback, validation and reassurance. I’m not the kind of person who asks for that. I was a fierce competitor so asking my competitors to reassure me clearly indicated there was something wrong. I had symptoms: I had bloating, I couldn’t concentrate, I couldn’t remember things and I had trouble focusing. I was really down on myself and I was doing bad things to my system with all of the beer, wine, sugar and dairy I kept consuming.”
Eventually, Beachley sought advice from a naturopath and was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. She remembers, “It was a really hard time because I was forced to do things to treat the condition and I disliked being forced to do anything. I wasn’t allowed to surf, I had to go on a really strict diet, I had to take loads of supplements, I had to sleep 14 hours a day, I wasn’t allowed to work. Basically, my life came to a grinding halt. Everything that I had taken for granted I wasn’t allowed to do. It was a really difficult time for me because I’m such a lover of life and love to be able to defy the odds and to keep moving but my body defied me.”
Typically, Beachley has a philosophical view of what happened. “In hindsight,” she muses, “it was my body saying, ‘Think about me.’ It was my body teaching me to give it what it needs. I went on a very strict diet, but I have slowly weaned things back into my diet. I still binge on hot chips and have red wine on occasion, but in the end it was a real lesson for me to listen to my body, give it a rest and not push myself so hard. Ultimately I realised that chronic fatigue was my body calling out for a break so I gave it one.”
Along with the chronic fatigue came depression. Beachley remembers, “The depression caught me by surprise. It took some time for me to willingly acknowledged I was depressed. I have no qualms in speaking about the fact that I still do get depressed from time to time. It’s all because I’ve been unnecessarily hard on myself and have been unrealistically expecting too much from myself.”
To cope with the depression when it comes along Beachley says, “When the depression comes I talk to people. I either talk to Kirk or friends or professionals who have dealt with it before. I don’t like to live in a false illusion, I like to keep moving, keep growing. You know we are all onions — just because you think that you have got rid of one set of emotions that used to tie you down there is always another one ready to surface.”
Beachley readily admits that even now, although she thought she was on top of her chronic fatigue, “I recently went for blood tests and found I’m in complete adrenal exhaustion. I have no hormones!” She laughs and then immediately drops into self-analysis mode. “I have several improvements I need to make in my life and one of them is stress management. I need to give myself permission to have more time off and have more fun with less intensity aligned with the fun. I am willing to let my intensity go now that I know how it is controlling me. When I think about my seventh world title, I’ve proven to myself there that I can do it without intensity. I can do it with intention, I can invest in intention and detach from intensity and still achieve the outcome that I’m striving for.”
Awake and aware
Despite her persistent challenges along the way, Beachley has been ever creative, always achieving and usually philosophical. Not surprisingly, publishers have been after her to write another book distilling that philosophy of achievement, but she reveals, “I really wanted to do the book, but when it came to sitting down to write I didn’t find it enjoyable.” All is not lost though, because the lessons she was creating for the book have now been brought together into an online course that Beachley is calling the “Awake Academy”.
“A lot of people are looking for a silver bullet or the magical drug to cure their problems. But these things don’t exist. You have to have the courage to look at yourself in the mirror if you want to shift your reality.”
The Awake Academy is an online, self-paced combination of video and workbook modules that Beachley describes as “a centre for self-empowerment”. “The idea,” she explains, “is to help people detach from fear, take control and design a life they love. We help people develop self-awareness of their stories, strengths and judgments. We then establish alignment with their core beliefs and their dream team before awakening their spirit with practical tips and tools for daily life.”
Beachley is quick to point out, however, that she isn’t preaching easy fixes. “Don’t expect any fluff,” she warns. “I have done the work and I expect you to do the work too. A lot of people are looking for a silver bullet or the magical drug to cure their problems. But these things don’t exist. You have to have the courage to look at yourself in the mirror if you want to shift your reality. It’s going to be uncomfortable at times, but any true self-reflection or self-exploration is going to be occasionally uncomfortable. It’s about teaching people that learning to be comfortable with discomfort is where growth occurs.”
The course is about “owning your truth”. Beachley says that means knowing who you are, knowing what you want and living life according to your own rules. That invites the question, of course, as to how do you know what you want? “Start where your feet are,” Beachley answers easily. “Acknowledge where you are and determine whether it is all working how you want it to be working, and whether there are areas of dissatisfaction. It’s about identifying the feelings you resonate with on a day-to-day basis. If you don’t feel excited or happy or whatever it is you want to feel, then you need to look at what choices you are making or how you are thinking. But you can’t shift a feeling without first recognising the feeling, or acknowledging the feeling or feeling the damn feeling,” she observes with a smile.
Facing the future
When turning to think about the challenges we face now and the way forward into the future, Beachley typically weaves optimism with pragmatism. “For a start, hope is not a strategy for dealing with life,” she says. “We tend to hope things will change before we do. We put our health and happiness into the future and hope things will improve before we personally take responsibility. Hope, to me, is an acronym for Heaps Of Plausible Excuses. You are projecting responsibility for your life. I’m guilty as charged. Before I became aware of the power of conscious choice and of owning my baggage, I was the queen of self-sabotage.”
As far as what we all need right now, her answer is clear and concise: “The world needs courage. It needs to be woken up. We need more connection, connection with our environment and each other, and then the courage to make change. Connection and courage are what it is all about.”
When pressed on personal goals Beachley reveals, “I want to keep things simple. Surfing every day, enjoying a happy thriving marriage and a strong healthy body, helping people and serving the world in my own unique way.”
Whether it’s surfing or serving, the Layne Beachley way is a way forward that has lots to recommend it.