An image of Mary Mills likely doesn’t come to mind when you think about surfers. In fact, Google “surfer women” and see how many non-Black women show up on the page. But Mills and the small population of wave-riding sisters like herself believe the tide will change on that. The Southern Californian mom, who surfs five days a week, talks to CRUSH about conquering fear, the “hair issue,” and the power of that Black girl magic…
I was captivated by it as a kid when I’d see surfing on Wide World of Sports. I wanted to surf back then, but had no way to make that a reality. I had straightened hair and had a fear of the water. Nonetheless, I tell people that I’ve been a surfer since childhood, but didn’t start surfing until decades later.
How did you start?
Before my son was born I was a competitive cyclist. I’d ridden and raced bikes for years. So I was always on the bike paths at the beach. I remember being on a rather long ride, part of which went down the bike path. In El Segundo, I saw a table to one side of the bike path. The table was for a company called Surf Academy, which was owned and run by Mary Setterholm. I stopped and took some of their information. While I’d intended to contact them about lessons, my intuition told me to wait. As it turns out, I was pregnant. I contacted the academy the following year when my son was a few months old. I started with some Saturday group classes, but eventually started paddling out on my own, not knowing what the hell to do in the water. It took me several years before I was actually proficient.
How did you overcome your fear of the ocean?
It took a while for me to face down the fear I always had each time I’d walk into the water and try to make it out to the lineup. Even though I was a good swimmer by that point, I was scared of the ocean. I was scared of trying to get past breaking waves. They just unnerved me. You’d probably never know it if you saw me during a surf session today. As with anything, if you spend enough time doing it, you begin to understand what’s in front of you and how to approach it. I surf leashless 80 percent of the time now. When I get in the water, I’m more worried about stingrays than I am about getting out to the lineup.
What does surfing feel like?
Surfing is magical for me because my brain shuts down. I usually forget a wave within a few minutes of riding it. Surfing allows me to be completely in the moment. I’m not thinking about the experience of riding waves. In the grand scheme of things, it’s somewhat empowering as a black woman. Most of the time, I’m the only black person in the water. And 98 percent of the time, I’m the only black woman. I’ve surfed long enough to be a decent surfer. I feel like I’m representing like a queen. Black girl magic is in full effect, in my mind. You know, people know you’re there. It’s not like you can be black, female and anonymous. Being able to represent my people and my sisters is powerful. I’m not always thinking about being Black when I surf, but I never forget it. I’m the one with the best tan. I’m the one who has no use for sunscreen.
Teach us some surfer slang.
The word “kook” is universal. If a good surfer identifies someone as a bad surfer who lacks etiquette and has a bad attitude, that bad surfer is labeled a kook. It’s also an epithet. When good surfers piss each other off in the water, one of them is likely to call the other a kook. And then the confrontation gets even more heated. Generally though, the word is used to refer to someone who isn’t very good. For years, I wouldn’t use the word. Now I usually use the term when talking about a dangerous surfer that we all need to stay clear of. I’ve never called someone a kook in anger though. I don’t beef with people in the water. I follow a simple mantra: shut up and surf.
What do you do when you’re NOT surfing?
The only job that matters to me is that of mom. That’s my primary focus out of the water, especially now that divorce has made me a single parent. (Don’t cry for me, Argentina. I’m the one who filed for the divorce.) I also lift weights. I play the drums. I started that when I was in my late 40s. I stopped playing about a year ago, but I’m about to get back behind the drumkit again. I used to jam with a few folks here and there. But it’s hard to keep that up when you’re grown since we all have responsibilities that limit our free time.
Why aren’t more of us surfing?
I think more of us aren’t surfing and swimming because of our insistence on straightening our hair. I place no judgment on that. I opted out of that drama—and that’s how I view the hair issue—when I was 23 and cut all of my hair off so I could learn to swim. I truly believe we are held back by our hair. I realized I could not enjoy life, especially being as athletic as I am, if my hair determined how I lived my life. I think you will see more black women surfing in subsequent generations. I’m already seeing photos of women in Jamaica, South Africa and Brazil surfing. We just need the Black women in America to recognize that natural hair enhances our beauty. Once they realize that, it’s on. You’ll see more sisters in the water.
What does it require, equipment wise?
You don’t need much to surf: a surfboard, a wetsuit, a leash and some surf wax. Once you’ve invested in a board and a wetsuit, you’re pretty much set. Depending on how much you surf, the board can last forever if you take care of it. The wetsuit, if you get a decent one, might last a year or two. I can’t fit the wetsuits you find in surf shops. Seriously, most women can’t. I guess they use runway models for the sizing or something. A lot of my friends can’t find suits that fit well either. I wear custom wetsuits. That’s why you’ll usually see the colors red, black and green on most of my suits. When I was growing up, those colors represented Black pride. So I usually have them in my suits. Most wetsuits are just plain black.
What does it require, physically? Balance? A strong core?
It requires a strong upper body and a strong core, yes. People always think surfing is all about standing up and riding the wave. You actually spend more of your time lying prone on the board and paddling. That’s why surfers have such well-developed shoulders and back muscles. Your upper body does the bulk of the work. It also requires that you learn what waves do. We don’t just randomly go to the beach and surf. We look at surf forecasts, determine the swell direction, decide which beach will have the best waves, etc. Then you need to know the tides for that beach. I can’t even tell you how much time I spend each day checking the forecast and the tides. I don’t have many apps on my phone. The majority of them are related to surfing.
Does your surfboard have a pet name?
I have five boards. There’s one that I ride almost exclusively. It doesn’t have a name. It has a message though. On my 52nd birthday, I painted a message to myself and the world on the bottom of my board. The message says, “I regret nothing.”
Do you have a goal maneuver?
I can’t do anything athletic without having a goal. That’s just the way I’m hard-wired. My goal is to comfortably hang ten. And I don’t seem to be close to reaching that goal at all! (Hanging ten is when the surfer positions the surfboard in such a way that the back of it is covered by the wave and the wave rider is free to walk to the front of the board and hang all ten toes over the nose of the board.)
Highest wave you’ve ridden?
I’m not really sure. I’m going to guess that the biggest wave I’ve ridden was about eight feet high. I remember going to a popular break a little further south and paddling out on a big day. I wasn’t as good then as I am now. I was really scared even though the waves were mellow — and big. I seem to recall someone paddling up to me and telling me to just take one and not be afraid. So I took a wave. There were two of us on the wave. I was at the bottom of it. He was at the top of it. His board was level with my head. And we were both on the wave! He got off the wave, telling me to go ahead and take it.
What do you want sisters to know about what you do?
I live my life out loud. It’s the only way to live your life, I think. If there’s something you want to do or try, make it happen. Don’t let your gender or your race hold you back. Don’t let your stereotypes about yourself hold you back. If you spend all of your time in your comfort zone, or in a comfort zone someone else has imposed on you, you’re not living. You’re simply existing. Black girl magic is a powerful thing. You have it. I have it. Put it to use. Go do your thing!
Stacy Julien is editor in-chief of CRUSH Magazine, and can barely swim let alone surf. But she has no qualms with getting her hair wet. Find her on Instagram at @StacyJs_fitlife.