Four-time World Champion and Florida-born Frieda Zamba had no amateur record to speak of when she accidentally went pro at age 16. She won an event at Cocoa Beach and cashed the $500 winner’s check, not knowing the win caused her to lose her amateur status.
Influenced by the loose-limbed, fast-turning Hawaiian surfer Larry Bertlemann, Zamba brought something new to the sport: an aggressive female who knew where to find the speed and power in a wave. At 5’3”, 110 pounds, she was lean and springy, rode out of a wide stance, and didn’t lose momentum from one turn to the next.
In 1982, at age 17, Zamba won the Mazda Surfsport Pro, becoming the youngest female World Tour contest winner. She finished that season ranked sixth and placed second the following year, behind California’s Kim Mearig.
Zamba won five of the 10 events on the 1984 schedule and took the World Champion title by a wide margin. Upon returning to Florida, she saw banners declaring “Flagler Beach: Home of Frieda Zamba, Women’s World Surfing Champion” strung over State Route A1A. “The whole first week I was home,” Zamba later said, “I wouldn’t go uptown. I was just so embarrassed.” She was also given a key to the city.
In the showdown for the 1985 World Championship, Zamba came from behind to beat Australians Pam Burridge and Jodie Cooper, winning the final two events of the season. Her margin of victory was smaller in 1986, and she slumped in 1987, finishing third. She began a high-intensity fitness training program — even hiring a sports psychologist, a decision far ahead of the curve for pro surfing at the time — and came roaring back in 1988 to nab another title. Though Zamba later admitted, “After that, I kind of lost the passion. It was all competition. Even in my free surfing, I found I was doing it like competition. It took all the fun out of it.”
Zamba left the tour and opened Frieda’s Surfline shop in Flagler Beach with her surfer husband Bill “Flea” Shaw. Shaw had been her sponsor and shaper since she was 15, and later became her on-tour coach. When they married in 1987, their wedding cake was topped with a groom holding a surfboarding bride in his arms.
Zamba kept some distance between herself and the commercial surfing world, partly as a tactical effort to win events and partly out of a genuine disinterest in her becoming an international surfing celebrity. “If she’d been a bit more of an ego-tripper,” 1990 World Champion Pam Burridge said, “she could have been a giant star. But she didn’t pander to the surf industry much. She just liked to surf and win.” While Zamba wasn’t particularly interested in the spotlight, her dominance of the sport was enough to get her a 1987 Sport’s Illustrated profile titled “Queen of the Surf.”
Over the course of her career, Zamba won a total of 18 World Tour events. She was inducted into the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame in 2006.
Photos by Tom Dugan / ESM, Mez / ESM, Jeff Divine, Eastern Surf Magazine, Mark Ruherford and courtesy Freida Zamba