LAYNE BEACHLEY had it all: more surfing titles than anyone in the world, a loving rock star boyfriend, sponsorships, investments and a lucrative, nourished life. It was the perfect time to retire on a high. So why did it feel so hard?
"After 19 years as a professional athlete, I felt a deep sense of loss because I no longer had a title, a clearly defined role or a purposeful reason for getting out of bed each day," she tells the Northern Beaches Review, when we meet to chat near her home in Queenscliff in northern Sydney.
It wasn't the first time she'd been low. She had suffered depression, anxiety and also chronic fatigue at various times in her life, conditions she tried to manage with nature, water and exercise.
But out of this malaise came inspiration: she began a successful career as a speaker and, pre-COVID, she was speaking at an event a couple of times a week. She is now seeking even bigger audiences with her new empowerment platform, Awake Academy. It has taken almost a year of "blood, sweat and tears", but it's a career move that makes sense. "I've always been called a beach psychologist and the ability to break things down, psychoanalyse, reflect and learn was a real competitive advantage as an athlete," she says.
Her seven-round online course takes anywhere between 10 to 20 hours and is aimed at anyone seeking to transform their lives. "A lot of people are going through some really challenging shit right now," she says. "It's a really unsettling time and the premise of this course was to bring more certainty to people's lives and that starts with the stories they tell themselves."
I felt a deep sense of loss because I no longer had a title, a clearly defined role or a purposeful reason for getting out of bed each day.
Ultimately, she hopes to see a million people through a series of courses. "But it starts just with one. And that's my goal, to know that I've left a legacy, that I've made a positive impact on people's lives and given them the tools to own their truth and live a life by design and not by default."
It's not hard to be inspired by Beachley's enthusiasm: she bounces around excitedly and her whole face lights up when she talks about the course, which is completely crafted from her own experiences and life lessons.
"It's very personal, raw, candid, honest," she says. "That's how I've rolled my whole life. Lots of passion and energy but lots of honesty and candour. I teach what I've experienced, it's not textbook knowledge, it's knowledge that I've endured and learned from. It comes from a very heartfelt and genuine place but it also triggered a lot of stuff in me so I've had to go through a couple of therapy sessions."
The 48-year-old has a lot of life to draw on. At the age of eight, her father - Neil Beachley, who was last week awarded Life Membership of Manly Life Saving Club - told her she was adopted, and then, years later, she met her birth mother and found out the pregnancy was a result of date rape.
It's one of the reasons, she says, she is so open about sharing her story, warts and all. She says the "worthlessness" she felt on learning of her adoption drove her to train hard and become world champion in order to receive the love she so craved. But as an insecure and lonely teenager, living alone in a Manly unit, she came "dead last" in every race she entered when she turned pro. She turned it all around to win her first title at 21, then her first world championship at 26, and she was on her way, eventually retiring in 2008 at the age of 36. No surfer - male or female - is yet to break her record of seven world titles.
"I'm so hungry to share those lessons with people. That's what drives me now," she says. "And building this course has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I've had as much passion working on this course as I have had investing myself in becoming world champion. I've really loved the journey and the process. It has been an eye-opening, awakening process."
She met INXS guitarist Kirk Pengilly, in 2002, on a "disastrous" blind date; they married eight years later in the Kangaroo Valley. There's a 14-year age difference, something that she appreciates as she embarks on her journey of reflection. "I'm where his career was when it was really getting reignited with the new INXS lead singer. They were reinventing themselves and so am I, I'm going through a transformational period," she says.
"He totally understands and I honestly would not be here without his support and his unwavering love and patience and compassion through this process. He's very honest, he's a great sounding board, he's very generous with his feedback. It takes a very humble, grounded, connected human to go from standing on stage in the biggest band in the world at one point to then sitting in a car at Ho'okipa in Maui at a girls' surf contest."
She admits that nothing - not public speaking to huge audiences or even her wedding - will trump the feeling of winning a world title or an event. "There's nothing that can replicate standing on a podium holding a trophy above my head being sprayed with champagne," she laughs. "Kirk knows nothing can measure up! But he had girls throwing themselves and their underwear at him! Things are a little different now. We've both lived pretty amazing lives and if we're ever having a bad day or a self-pity party, we just walk into the trophy room full of our own memorabilia."
I'm where his career was when it was really getting reignited with the new INXS lead singer. They were reinventing themselves and so am I, I'm going through a transformational period.
She doesn't miss her old surfing life, and the hard work and training, discipline, commitment, travel, stress and anxiety that came with it. Besides, she gets to surf every day, at Freshwater Beach, on her terms. What motivates her these days, she says, is the "relentless pursuit of growth and improvement".
"When I first started public speaking, I really wanted everyone to like me. So, I'd walk off the stage completely exhausted and feeling like I'd just thrown up all over my audience. 'Here I am, here's everything I know, take it, quick! Go! Apply it to your lives! It will be amazing!' What a mistake that was!" she laughs.
"I was overwhelming them with information. I'm still learning, I'm still growing and I still have so much room for improvement but that's what I love about it. It's a project that I'm passionate about, but it's a skillset that can never be mastered. It's surfing but in a different form."
She is surprised by how regularly she is stopped in the streets and surf breaks of the northern beaches streets she has lived in all her life. A few weeks ago, in the Freshwater waves, a man paddled out to thank her: he had been inspired to surf bigger waves than ever before by an Instagram post she'd done a while back. "I thought, 'that's really nice'," she says.
"I've invested my life - especially post surfing - into helping people shortcut the struggle and inspiring them to view life through a different lens and take ownership of the choices they make. It has emanated from becoming successful - the most successful surfer in history - and wanting to help people become the most successful they can be. I easily could have rested on my laurels but awakening others awakens me. I draw a lot of strength and inspiration from talking to other people and hearing their stories and connecting. It all comes from wanting to bring more joy and happiness and connection to the world because quite honestly the world needs it."
Northern Beaches sweet spots
Layne Beachley has lived on the Northern Beaches her entire life - and although hubby Kirk Pengilly initially resisted it, he now loves it too. It's where she went to her first Blue Light Disco, met her first boyfriend (working security on the door of the Charlton Bar - now Daniel San), got her first job at the Manly Boatshed. She skateboarded along the beachfront all day every day, rock-hopped off the point at Manly, and learned to surf at Manly - at first harbour-side, aged 4. "Manly is my home ground, my spiritual ground. All the familiarity creates an immense amount of comfort," she says. "It's like a furry onesie on winter's day. You're just wrapped in warmth."
Here's where these "social homebodies" go out:
FOOD AND DRINKS: Hugos Manly (Manly Wharf), Ruby Lane Wholefoods (Pittwater Rd, Manly), Waka (Pittwater Rd, Manly). And we love Pilu (Freshwater) - it's a great place to celebrate.
COFFEE: I don't drink coffee (can you imagine me and caffeine?!) but Kirk does and his favourite is La Piazzetta in Freshwater - he goes there every day for his daily coffee fix.
FRESH AIR: Surfing at Freshwater, walking Freshwater to Dee Why around the windy drop and Freshwater to Queenscliff around the rocks. And I'm so embarrassed to say that we just did the Manly to Spit walk for the first time a few months ago!
'Own Your Truth' is the first course (with more to come) on offer through Awake Academy www.awakeacademy.com.aufor $297.