05/09/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT
She didn't just endure the storms that lashed California this winter, Debbie Melville-Beacham, 29, found them "fantastic!" Bad weather means big waves, and she needs them for training to keep the title she clinched last December as the No. 1 female pro surfer. The diminutive (5'2", 105 pounds) La Jolla athlete has been spending three to six hours a day practicing the bottom turns, cutbacks and other moves she'll need on the 1983 circuit, which begins in July and includes a record 10 events in California, Japan, Hawaii and Australia. The sport, she says, "has just exploded. There are girls coming in from all over the world!"
Debbie started surfing at 13, when her lawyer father, then a Navy officer, gave her and her three sisters a board. "I was passionately in love with the sport," she recalls. Fortunately, passion begot talent, and she entered amateur competitions, using her high school lunch hours to practice. When the first women's pro event was held in Malibu in 1976, during her sophomore year in college, she entered it and never went back to school.
Today she heads Women's Pro Surfing, an association with 100 members. "Now kids come into the sport and there's a circuit," she says. "For me, it wasn't that easy. The few women who have been at it for five or six years were sort of pioneers." And though they've come a long way, pro surfing is still male-dominated: "We've got everything about half—half the competitors, half the prize money." The purse in a women's competition may total $10,000 (of which 25 percent goes to the winner). For men the pot may be $25,000.
Debbie, who lives with her contractor husband, Louis Beacham, in a house they built together, earns up to $10,000 a year from surfing events and a bit more from her sponsor, Hang Ten International, which makes sportswear and surfing gear. She plans eventually to be a full-time promoter of the sport, though she knows it will never rival women's tennis or golf. "There aren't millions who surf," she says. "Just the select few."