Born a water baby, Melissa Proud has been pulling sea shells out of her ears since she first set foot in the sand. Out at Ho`okipa, she learned to surf from Rick Irons, who pushed her into her first waves. From that point, surfing was to become her passion.
“I didn’t get into surfing until I was 14,” she said. “I had always been competitive in sports, but once I started surfing, I put all my energy into getting better.” Her early influences were Gerry Lopez, Donald Takayama, Rell Sunn and Brad Lewis, who took her under his wing and showed her the ropes to surfing big waves.
After high school, Melissa worked three jobs to save enough money to travel to Australia and Bali. She took a backpack and a 5’ 10” twin fin and set out to taste a variety of world class surf spots. She didn’t really feel the desire to compete until she happened to be at Ala Moana Bowls during a surfing competition; she entered and went three rounds to the final and she was hooked. Not feeling she had the natural talent that some are blessed with, practice and training are the tools she used to build her career.
Melissa traveled to Oahu for every contest, surfing just about all the amateur events that came to Hawaii. Even though her surfing attracted many sponsors and her results were impressive, she was unable to come up with the big money support it takes to travel and surf the world tour.
She found work in the restaurant industry to support her lifestyle while trying to make a name for herself. “I worked at Longhi’s in Lahaina, they used to pay for a lot of my travel expenses, which enabled me to concentrate on my surfing,” she said. In 1987, she won the United States Surfing Championships, and the following year she was chosen along with one other woman to represent the USA on the World Amateur Surf Team, an honor that was one of the highlights of her life.
Another was when she was practicing for an event at Makaha, and legend Rell Sunn paddled up to her and complemented her on her surfing. “I apologized to Rell, thinking that she might get mad because I was copying her style, but she was happy,” she said. Rell was thrilled to have Melissa’s admiration, and they became friends. Rell would put the Maui gang up at her house when they would fly over for the Makaha events. “She was such a big influence for women surfers, she gave back so much to the sport and the people.”
After doing well in a pro contest, Melissa decided to surf the entire Clarion surf tour, which is the United States professional surfing circuit. She proceeded through the ‘97 series, but suffered from health complications. “I was having real bad ear and sinus infections, and my equilibrium was off for most of the year. I knew I wasn’t surfing up to my potential, and it was very frustrating,” she said. She did manage to finish the year ranked an impressive tenth.
Melissa has had success in just about all levels of amateur surfing competition and has proven herself with the pros, yet she finds satisfaction in being able to surf for the fun and love of the sport.
She feels there are so many excellent women surfers on Maui that don’t get exposure because they don’t seek it. “I don’t think surfing can be judged by contest results. If its going to be judged at all, the winner is the one having the most fun. If you do want to surf competitively, don’t get discouraged, do your best, and practice”.
Her advice to people using the ocean is to join the Surfrider Foundation and keep Maui clean. “I’ve been so many places where the water is polluted, it makes me realize how lucky I am to be living on Maui,” she said. “Joining the Surfrider Foundation is a small part we can play to keep the ocean clean and safe for future generations.”
Longboarding or shortboarding, Melissa is at home in the ocean. She thanks all her friends and sponsors who have helped her to reach her goals and beyond. Sponsors like: Maui Girl, Planet Hollywood, Maui Jim Sunglasses, Freestyle Watches, and DaKine. Melissa is proud to represent the State of Hawaii, and women surfers all over the world.
This story originally ran in MauiTime’s March 3, 1998 issue.
Photos: Rick Leeks and Bob Torrez