In the latest instalment of our Diving In series, we spoke to surfer and equal rights activist Lucy Small, who made waves in the sports industry in 2021 for calling out the organisers of a Sydney surf contest when they provided her with less than half the prize money compared to the men's competition prize.
Since this pivotal moment, Lucy has been campaigning for equal pay and standing up for women athletes everywhere, demanding change. We spoke to Lucy about her journey to becoming a self-professed "accidental activist", how surfing shaped her relationship with her body and how we can all, individually, drive change.
Hi Lucy, it’s so good to meet you! How’s your day going?
It’s been really good! I’m in the Philippines for an all-girl surf contest called Queen of the Point, which I’m looking forward to starting on Friday.
As part of our Diving In series, we talk to people who are doing incredible things. Could you tell us more about what you do and your journey to becoming a surfer?
I grew up in a small town in southern West Australia called Denmark, about five hours south of Perth. It’s a pretty isolated area, but on the coast and close to the beach. It was here I spent all my summers, just body surfing. I didn't start surf-surfing until a little later in my childhood when my Dad got me some lessons for Christmas. After three lessons, I was completely hooked. My whole reality started to circulate and be determined by what the waves were doing. Some of my fondest memories are of meeting my friend, Ash, in the pitch-dark night, suiting up and getting out there. At that time, we didn't have social media, and there weren't any female pros or anything to look up to in the surf magazines we bought. We were kind of just in our own little world. It was amazing.
When I was 16, a state comp came to Denmark. I remember this Daft Punk song playing; the girls were out surfing, the waves were beautiful, and I thought, oh my God, I want to do that. I went to the Eastern States for the first time to surf in an event, which was really formative because I was surrounded by these older women who were hard-core surfers; they didn't take any shit but were very caring and took me under their wing. That’s where competing began.
I’ve always been a very keen writer, and English was my favourite subject at school, so I decided to study Journalism and went to Deakin University in Geelong. I looked at a map of Australia and thought, okay, where is there a university and surf? It’s here I began writing about surfing and ended up having my first article published in Pacific Longboard — this awesome Australian longboard magazine.
Growing up, there was such little representation of girls in these big magazines like Tracks, which I found frustrating. I suddenly had this fear when I thought about Tracks running for around 40 years and all these stories of women surfers doing these cool things which had never been written down. This collective history had just been erased. So I was determined to write it all down to stop that from happening. That’s how I became a surfer, writer and feminist.
This year, the theme for International Women’s Day is Digital: innovation and technology for gender equality, which feels particularly harmonious with your campaigns. What do this day and theme mean to you?
My campaign and activist path is all about equity because, at the moment, there isn’t even equal opportunity. Female athletes almost always operate from a place of less support and less access to facilities, money, opportunities, trainers and sponsorships. Even getting to a place of equal opportunity still feels like a long way off for sports.
In surfing, we see some cool and innovative ideas moving us towards equality. Things like having all-girls surf events, creating a different future for women surfers, moving away from the idea that women are just smaller men, and there’s something unique that we can achieve.
This digital innovation theme is cool because it can be interpreted as unlocking access across sports. In terms of my work, there are so many sports where we have a shared experience and goal of furthering access to women's sports, physios and facilities, and it can be a career rather than part-time or a vocation. This is exciting. We’re on the verge of a women’s sports boom because men’s sports are maxing out, whereas women’s sports are more in their startup phase, and there’s so much growth potential.
Today there is still much disparity between athletes' earnings because of their gender, with many female athletes receiving significantly lower prize winnings and fewer sponsorships than their male counterparts. What do you think needs to happen to change this?
This is the crux of the issue. How do we make this change? Sports is still one of the industries left where big multinational corporations, governments, and sports clubs are openly allowed to discriminate against women. I can't speak for everywhere, but [Lucy’s home state] New South Wales's sports industry is completely unregulated, and no oversight exists. So if you’re subjected to sexual misconduct, bullying, or discriminatory practices in your contract, you can do nothing. You cannot report that outside of your organisation.
Female athletes don’t have any power to leverage any change unless they speak out against whoever is perpetrating them, which is very difficult to do for any athlete, let alone a female one. The first instance you create any controversy, you risk termination of your sponsorship contract and potentially your career. In this industry, it’s not just about being good at what you do but also about being easy to work with. So the minute you speak out or do anything, you risk being pushed out of it and not getting any more work.
Athletes have to sign a non-disclosure agreement in their sponsorship deals, and while they might know about the disparity between sponsorships and prizes, they can’t speak out about them; otherwise, they risk their careers. That is a huge structural flaw. The most common reporting method is reporting to the peak body, but most of the time, the perpetrator is a senior person within it, and nothing gets done. If you look at this amazing, brave swimmer, Maddie Groves, who in 2021 came out publicly saying that a coach had sexually assaulted her, but when Swimming Australia was pressed on the issue, they said they had no records of the two reports she had made. What kind of accountability is that? There needs to be some sort of regulation in the industry that allows people to protect their careers and speak out. That could drive and change the culture that exists at the moment.
I think the government plays a crucial role in seeing these changes, and what we’re campaigning for with Equal Pay for Equal Play is breaking this sexism in the sports cycle. This is where women don’t get paid as much, which leads to a lower performance level, and then there are sexist attitudes towards women, leading to less media exposure. Because of this, they don’t get paid as much, and it just goes around and around.
We need the government to say this will be regulated more which would be a marker for a cultural shift and sends a message to these sponsorships and organisations. These beliefs that women's sports don’t bring in revenue are so engrained in the industry that it’s a long hard road to debunk these ideologies. For the last two Australian Opens, the viewers for women’s games have been far greater than the men's, and if you look at last year’s women's football final in the Euros, more people were watching than ever, men or women’s. People just use these same old tropes when actually they don’t even know what they’re fucking talking about.
It’s like putting men on thoroughbreds and women on Shetland ponies and wondering why they don’t run as fast. And then, even after all that, the women are just as good and on bloody Shetlands. It’s a testament to the resilience of these women.
Please tell us a little about the Equal Pay for Equal Play campaign you founded and how it came to be. Your Instagram bio says accidental activist, but your incredible work and campaigning make it seem like it’s now very much on purpose.
Equal Pay for Equal Play came about from something in 2021 when I won a surfing contest in Sydney, and my prize money wasn’t even half of the men’s winner despite our entry fee being the same. After over a decade of frustration with the little representation women have in surf, how often women are awarded unequal prize money and watching incredibly talented women give up surfing because they don’t have a pathway into the industry and can’t get the sponsorship support. It was like the last straw-that-broke-the-camel's-back moment.
I had also watched Girl’s Can’t Surf a couple of months before, which follows a group of women in the 80s fighting for their place on the world tour. It shows incredible surfers like Pauline Mescal, who suffered from painful arthritis the year she won the title and received no prize money as there was no prize money for the women’s title. I was at an event before winning, and there was a screening of this film. The MC was saying how he was so glad that’s all behind us now, and that doesn’t happen anymore, and then there I am three weeks later holding a $1500 cheque while the men’s winner is about to get $4000. I had just had enough.
With no planning, the words came out when I was up there. A few days later, I posted a video taken on the day, and it blew up. Soon after, I was on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald, and the headline was a quote, ‘We are not daffodils’. From that, it became this media experience I could never have predicted. At that time, I decided to use this platform to highlight the more significant issues we face and the wider culture.
A journalist called Kate Allman was writing a story for Tracks magazine, and I felt I needed this opportunity to make it something more. We joined forces, met with local MPs and devised an idea on how to drive change, which is where we came up with the concept of government funding. Since then, we’ve been sharing coverage on these issues and had our first motion of gender equality in sports passed by our local government, and we’ve been lobbying ever since to generate more change.
Slowly but surely, we’re gaining some traction. I feel like I’ve gone from feeling frustrated and unable to make much change to now being in a position where I’m meeting with these ministers. So it’s been a journey of finding creative ways to keep the pressure on and the public engaged.
A big moment in this journey was when the editor of Tracks magazine wanted to interview me. I felt reluctant to do it and couldn’t help but think, where the fuck was Tracks magazine when I was 15 and needed women’s stories to read. But Kate persuaded me when she said, “You have to do it because these are the minds we have to change”. During this interview, I spoke openly with Luke about the lack of representation, and it felt like he took it on board. It was such a massive moment for me when I found myself on the cover, thinking about when I was fifteen and had always wanted to see someone like me on the cover, and thirteen years later, it actually was me on the cover.
What can we all do to call for more equity in sports?
Everyone, everywhere, can stop saying women’s sports don’t get as many viewers, that it’s not worth as much, and that they deserve to be paid less. We can just get rid of that sentiment completely. We can all follow women athletes, follow women sport’s teams, and watch women’s sports. That’s a huge one. We can become members of our local women’s team and write to our MPs to inform them that it’s an issue and keep it on the agenda. And then, of course, we have to do our best to call these things out as much as we can and recognise if someone is in a position where they can’t call something out, and if you are, then you should take the opportunity to do so for them.
Has surfing shaped your relationship with your body in any way?
It’s always a challenge with women athletes and their bodies, and I speak for women, certainly in surfing, that you see so much advertising from brands showing bodies of a very thin and particular body shape, but the reality of being a surfer is that there is no way your body can look like that.
You get these scrapes on your skin from the wax on your board. You get these ridiculous tan lines, and your eyes are red from being in the water and sun all day. You get bruises all over your body from lying on this hard surface, and you get big shoulders. You just cannot look like that. The reality of having a body that can surf is that you have to eat a lot to sustain yourself, you’ll be muscular and strong, and your skin will be exposed to the elements. That, at times, has given me a complicated relationship and perception of my body. It’s like a friction because I’m told that to be a female surfer, I need to look this specific way, but as a surfer, I can’t look like that. Because you surf in swimwear, I think there’s an extra layer of vulnerability, which can be particularly hard for young people.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve just stopped caring about these things so much. I had malaria about five years ago when I was so sick and lost a lot of weight. But I lived and thought, thank you, body, for getting me through it. It gave me a whole new appreciation for the function of my body and its ability to survive. Almost turning 30 has made me think of it another way. My body has become this wonderful thing that takes me places, allows me to ride these waves, and the pressures of being thin have gotten less.
We’ve noticed more coverage in the media about periods and the potential effect they can have on an athlete’s performance. What has your experience been with this and surfing?
I’m so glad this conversation is happening more in sports and general life and how our cycles impact our ability to do things. We’re incapacitated with pain and just expected to take a panadol and get on with our life. When it comes to sports, there seems to be little understanding of how our cycles affect our performance and whether there are times in our cycle when we’re better athletes and times when it’s harder.
I’ve always thought that tennis would be the most challenging sport for this reason, you’ve trained your whole life for this point. You’re playing in the Australian Open finals, it’s the middle of summer, and you’re just about to play a 4-hour tennis match, and you’ve just got your period. Like how are you supposed to perform at your best ability with that? You’re not feeling your best, and your hormones are whacked out.
I feel like that’s just never been in conversation before. I’m really glad because there are days when I’m surfing or climbing, and some days I feel so heavy, and I guess it’s down to my cycle, but I’d love to know. It would also be great to know things like on day 15 of my cycle, I can do this and that to perform as best as I can and learn how to accommodate my feelings.
Watch the trailer for Yama, Lucy’s new film with Maddi Meddings, which follows the activist as as she travels to Ghana to meet with a group of pioneering female surfers and skaters who are reclaiming their aquatic surf culture.
Text: Chelsea Covington
Photography: Ellen Virgona