East Coast surfing great Kathy Phillips continues to make an impact on the industry
Written by Alison Pappas | Portrait by Grant L. Gursky
East Coast Surfing Hall of Famer Kathy Phillips has made waves for the sport of surfing, yet most of her advocacy work over more than 40 years has taken place out of the water.
Phillips originally got into surfing after being introduced to the sport by her high-school sweetheart and now husband, Jeff. To be closer to the ocean, the couple decided to relocate to Ocean City after they both graduated from the University of Maryland.
The pair started their involvement with the Eastern Surfing Association (ESA) in 1978, when Jeff began competing in the organization’s local surfing contests. He became the volunteer district director in 1979, and together, the couple started running the ESA contests for the local district.
“That has been one of the best things in our entire lives — our involvement with the ESA,” shared Phillips. “A lot of surfers were just kids when we were running the districts, and now they are adults with their kids competing in the contests.”
In the early days of her involvement with the ESA, Phillips began assisting Dr. Colin Couture, who was the executive director of the entire ESA. She would manage booths at trade shows and assist Dr. Couture in representing the ESA on a national level, while Jeff continued to run the district locally.
Unfortunately, Dr. Couture passed away suddenly, and the ESA had to figure out how to keep moving forward. A year and a half later, in 1991, Phillips officially became the new executive director of the ESA.
“I opened an office in West Ocean City and began to manage all memberships for the ESA and bring in national sponsors to help run the championship programs,” Phillips said. “I also did a lot at the national level to make certain that the ESA got its due when it came to the U.S. championships. I worked to ensure that the East Coast surfers got their chance to go to California to compete in the national championships.”
Her extensive contributions to the sport were recognized when she was inducted into the Class of 2004 East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame.
“This award by no means stemmed from my surfing or bodyboarding ability; it was because of all my advocacy work for the sport on the national and international levels,” said Phillips.
In addition to her involvement with the ESA, she served on the board of the Pan-American Surfing Association. She also was involved with the International Surfing Association in its quest to get surfing into the Olympics.
Phillips continued her work with the ESA for 15 years before retiring in 2006, although her retirement did not last long.
“It was my intention to retire from everything, but some friends of ours approached me about running for county commissioner. So that was my next big adventure,” she said.
Though she did not win, Phillips did receive a significant portion of the vote, and the experience made her much more aware of concerns in the county, including pollution and concerns about the bay. This led her to take a position as the Assateague Coast Keeper, which she held for 15 years.
“I spent that time advocating smarter growth and holding polluters accountable so that our bays could improve in water quality,” Phillips said.
Just this year, Phillips was again formally recognized for her contributions to the sport of surfing by being awarded the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame’s President’s Award.
“This award meant so much to me because it was the Cecil Lear President’s Award. He was one of the three founders of the East Coast Surfing Federation, and he was a lifelong friend and a mentor to me,” she shared.
Today, Phillips maintains a connection with the sport and the local surf community.
“Our surf community is like so many surf communities on the East Coast. Whether they’re kids or adults, surfers around here just love to surf. We’ve always said that because East Coast surfers are challenged by surf conditions, they learn how to become better surfers in really small waves and have a great time doing it,” Phillips said.
“The local surfing legends have laid the groundwork for the next generations to not complain about the surf conditions and just get out there and enjoy themselves,” she added. “I think that’s why we’ve always had a very successful surf industry here in Ocean City — from surfers to board builders and shop owners.” CS