Back in the mid-70s, without her parent’s permission, Alisa Schwarzstein paddled out at Thalia Street Beach on a surfboard she had purchase at a local consignment store. “It was a really horrible board,” said the now retired pro and Woman of the Year who recently had her name enshrined on the Surfing Walk of Fame in Huntington Beach.
Having just moved to Laguna Beach from New York with her family, the intrepid 9-year-old had no idea what she was getting into. “I didn’t grow up with it, so I didn’t know what the ocean can do,” she said.
She wound up catching a mouth full of that “horrible board” and landed in the dentist chair with a broken tooth. Banned by her parents from returning to the break, Alisa spent the next two years trying to figure out a way to stay close to the sport she had fallen for so quickly and completely.
She began watching the local skim boarders, looking for a “table top” or anything she could ride back into the beckoning waves. “I think I was pretty determined to go out there,” she said.
The young girl turned to skateboarding to hone her balance and perfect the moves that would make her a force on the pro circuit in the ‘80s and ‘90s. She finally got the opportunity to return to the break when, at age 12, she attended a surf camp taught by Laguna lifeguards at Doheny Beach in Dana Point.
With the reluctant support of her parents, who saw surfing as just a “hippie thing”, the lone girl at the camp went on to beat the boys in a camp-ending competition. It was the first of many victories for Schwarzstein, a pioneering pro who later helped drive the growth of the women’s pro circuit.
Schwarzstein married her coach, Ian Cairns, a successful pro in his own right, and the two are raising twin boys very near where she ventured into the Thalia break as a young girl.
Today’s female pros are “taking it to a completely different place,” said Schwarzstein-Cairns. But she “didn’t imagine the tour would get smaller.”
Up until the last two years, the women’s tour concluded with two events in Hawaii. Now “they end the tour there in Huntington Beach in, like, two foot waves,” she said, referring to U.S. Open held earlier this month.
In spite of efforts from former pros like Schwarzstein-Cairns and Debbie Beacham, who served on the ASP board for 10 years, a weak economy has made it difficult for the women’s tour to secure the sponsors it needs to add events.
The help keep the pipeline full of aspiring pros, Schwarzstein-Cairns began coaching Laguna’s high school surfers back in the late ‘80s. She continues to work with the program today, helping Taylor Pitz develop into the 2011 LBHS female athlete of the year and a successful junior-pro. “It’s really exciting when you see a girl come along like Taylor,” said Schwarzstein-Cairns.
“There aren’t that many other women [pro] surfers that have come out of Laguna,” said Pitz, “so it was nice to have her to look up to growing up.”
When Pitz had to decide between Stanford and UCLA, she sought her mentor’s advice. Schwarzstein-Cairns faced a similar decision and chose UCLA to be close to good waves, something the aspiring pro knew was key to her own happiness. “I talked to [Taylor] a bit about that, and she’s there and she’s really happy.”
At 19, Pitz isn’t sure what role surfing will play in her life, but she credits Schwarzstein-Cairns with helping her get through a early slump in high school by telling her to “stay focused on the good things and more good things will happen.”
Good things began to pile up early and often for Schwarzstein-Cairns. She won the world amateur title in 1980 at age 15, and the ASP Rookie of the Year in 1985. The following season she finished fourth on the tour and remained in the ASP top eight for four years. She later won two consecutive U.S. Pro Championships in the mid ‘90s.
Schwarzstein-Cairns recently competed in an ISA World Master team event in Nicaragua. And though she won her heat, the conditions proved challenging. “My big wave skills are lacking these days,” she said.
A huge contingent, including two sisters and her once-skeptical parents, cheered as Schwarzstein-Cairns received her Woman of the Year honor at the corner of Main and PCH in Surf City USA. Having her name carved in stone beside the likes of Kelly Slater, Eddie Aikau, and her husband Ian, Schwarzstein-Cairns said she can now show her sons that, “I’m not just mom.”