Debra Swaney got her start surfing relatively late in life, during her adult years when she was already out of high school and engaged to be married. She was intrigued by the surfers she saw riding waves at her home break, Jacksonville Beach, Florida, and asked her soon-to-be husband Dave to push her into a few waves. She took off on her first ride, did a few turns, and was hooked for life.
During her more than 40 years surfing, Swaney has claimed numerous titles, including two-time U.S. Champion (1986 and 1988) and four-time Eastern Surfing Association (ESA) Champion — a contest she dominated four straight years, taking home the title from 1985 through 1988. In 1988, she also competed at the ISA World Surfing Games in Puerto Rico and placed 13th.
Swaney is heavily involved in the Jax Beach surf community. In her early days of surfing, she volunteered with Jacksonville’s ESA branch, helping to organize events, and today she helps run the EPIC Surf Ministries Summer Camps for Women.
Swaney is also a founding member of Sisters of the Sea. Launched in 1997 after a memorable all-women’s surf session at Dolphin Plaza in Jacksonville, Sisters of the Sea was designed to encourage more women to get out in the water. Now, more than 20 years later, the group has several hundred members and holds regular “all-sister” surf sessions.
In 1998, Swaney helped organize the first Sisters of the Sea Surf Classic to honor famed Hawaiian surfer Rell Sunn, who had recently passed away from breast cancer. Today, the event is one of the largest and longest-running female surf contests in the nation. In its more than 20-year history, thousands of females of all ages have surfed the classic, raising more than $100,000 for breast cancer patients.
Swaney still surfs at home in Jacksonville Beach and at the family surf house in Costa Rica. She was inducted into the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame in 2018.
Photos by Michael Baytoff and courtesy Debra Swaney.