An Interview with US Surfing Legend Mary Osborne

Vancouver, BC | Posted: November 30th, 2017

Mary Osborne is a champion professional longboarder from Ventura, California, that’s what she does. But that’s not who she is. Mary is a quietly fierce advocate for women’s and youth rights, as well as environmental conservation. She’s an ambassador for the UN’s Environmental Safe Campaign; a key figure in Project Save Our Surf; a successful entrepreneur, and the first woman to surf China’s 30ft Qiantang River tidal bore.

Holidays for Humanity CEO, Aaron Smith, recently had the chance to take a deep dive interview with Mary on what fuels her fire; asking her if she can remember her first wave; when she became passionate about balancing surfing with community service, and what advice she gives other female travelers.

Aaron Smith: Mary, you’re longboard surfing champ, you’re a TV star, a world traveler, a change agent for women, children, and the planet, a big part of Project Save Our Surf, and one of the most humble people I’ve ever had the pleasure of speaking with. Welcome.

Mary Osborne: Thank you, Aaron, so much, that’s a nice introduction.

Aaron: You’re very welcome. Listen, I want to get right into this, can you describe Project Save Our Surf?

Mary: Yes. We are a non-profit founded by actress and producer Tanna Frederick in Los Angeles area. We help with everything from water conservation, bringing water supplies and filters to different parts of the world. Everything from international giveback programs to helping here in the states when we have any type of drastic event that happens here. So we’re kinda all over the board. Everything that has to do with the ocean, water, conservation, and environmental impact.

Aaron: Mary, why do you think surfing is such a strong vehicle for environmental awareness and community development?

Mary Osborne: Well for one, I think just being out in mother nature in the ocean really kinda opens up surfers’ eyes. We want to preserve what has been given to us and what we use for a fun activity or sport. So I think it’s a no-brainer that a lot of surfers are really into environmental issues and conserving our beaches and our ocean, and really making sure that it’s a clean playground for us and of course our future generations.

Aaron: In what ways do you think Project Save Our Surf is succeeding?

Mary Osborne: Project Save Our Surf definitely has its hands in a lot of different projects, which I think makes it successful. We’re not just doing one project or one issue at a time, we really spread ourselves thin in terms of helping everything, from helping children to adults to awareness, plastic pollution. We’re involved in a lot of different issues, which I think really does make it successful, it just kinda has a broader audience.

Aaron: I understand. Now you have your own giveback trips that you’re running off of Can you explain a bit more about what those are?

Mary Osborne: So about two years ago I created these giveback trips with Dave Hall and AST Adventures, they’ve helped me create trips for teens that in Central America, we go down to Nicaragua and El Salvador. We fundraise with the children to gather their funds to go down on these trips and to help with supplies that we’re bringing down to different villages in Central America. Different schools, different communities that are in need. And they’ve been a big success, we’re going on year two with them now.

Aaron: What can one expect out of your giveback trips?

Mary Osborne: Oh they’re a lot of fun. For one, the nice thing is they get hours of community service for their schools. They learn how fundraising works, they really have to sell tickets, educate the community that they live in about where they’re going and why they’re going down there. Not only that but once they get down there, they get to surf great waves, which is always a big bonus for these kids since they’re big surfers and ocean lovers. And then they actually get to really see what these third world countries are about, they immerse themselves in the culture, and get to meet people from different parts of the world and see how they live, and come back and share with their communities and their schools back at home.

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Aaron: How would you suggest your giveback trips differ from other, whether they be church youth service trips or other missions that a similarly aged person would go on? What’s the big differences?

Mary Osborne: I think the major difference with these givebacks are that they are not a religious based organization. There really is no politics behind that, we’ve open to having every religion, every person, every age, every walk of life come join us. So it’s really a community of friendship and just a group of fun people going down and doing stuff that they love. Surfing is a big component, a part of it, so we are definitely big advocate of keeping our oceans and our beaches clean, and doing this giveback work. So it’s a little bit of both. And we always throw in a lot of adventure too, so not every day is we’re gonna go and be in a school all day long. They get to have a really fun morning out in the water, then we go and work in schools, and then they get an adventure component, whether it be jumping off waterfalls … Any type of fun activity that the country has for them. So it’s kinda all over the board, but I would definitely say that our biggest difference is that we are not affiliated with any type of religion or politic.

Aaron: Okay. How experienced (a surfer) should someone be to sign up and join your efforts?

Mary Osborne: You know, we have had people join us that have never surfed before. So we have a complete range of young teens that come down, they’ve never surfed. And then we have some that are almost gonna be professional surfers. So it’s a really fun mix of teens, they all get along together, they’re all there for the same reason. And it’s across the board, it’s a wide range of abilities.

Aaron: As far as ages go, what would be the (ideal) age range for these youths that want to join you?

Mary Osborne: So typically when I started these, I wanted to keep the ages around 15-18. It definitely, attraction picked up and my youngest was 11, and my oldest was 21.

Aaron: Oh wow.

Mary Osborne: And that was all on one trip. So we’ve had quite a range or children, but I think the best part about it is that it didn’t even matter what age they were. We’ve even had some adults join with us, and parents that have wanted to come down. And everyone just gets along and has such a great time together regardless of the ages.

Aaron: What are the greatest challenges that you find in putting on your giveback trips?

Mary Osborne: There’s always some sort of challenge on the back end planning needs. I think really educating the parents and the communities and the children that are going of where we’re going, the itinerary, it is subject to change depending on natural disasters, the waves being too big, maybe different issues that are going on within the country that we are visiting. El Salvador is one of the places that I’m heavily involved in, and it’s definitely looked at as not the safest country in the world. However I have such a great team of people down there that the hardest thing is really having the parents trust in me and my team and allowing their children to have faith in me and let me bring them out of the country. I think that’s the most challenging part, is I’m gonna take these kids who’ve never left the country away from their parents. So really having trust in me and knowing that I run a tight ship down there is probably the biggest challenge.

Aaron: Mary, where do you see your giveback trips headed in the next five years?

Mary Osborne: My goal is to expand them a bit more. Right now we’re in Nicaragua and El Salvador, I’m looking to do some more environmental ones possibly down in Mexico area, and I’d like to even set some more up here in the United States. I think we have some really, our country is in a time of need that we need to stay together and have a good community and children facing different issues at such a young age that I’d really like to expand more in California.

Aaron: Okay, that’s a pretty amazing effort, Mary, and I think if I was between the ages and 11 and 21 it would be absolutely something I would certainly lean to, so I think you’re doing amazing things, and it’s absolutely inspiring to hear what you’re doing with Project Save Our Surf and your own giveback trips. I’m wondering if we could talk a little bit about your traveling past right now, and wondering if we could start off with, quite simply, does Mary have a favorite country that she’s been to?

Mary Osborne: Oh gosh, well being in California with warm water, any country that has warm water is really top on my list. I love El Salvador and I definitely love Mexico. But there’s a lot of places I haven’t been to as well that I’d still like to visit.

Aaron: And conversely, is there a place you’ve been to that’s not high up on your list of going back to?

Mary Osborne: Yes. I have been to Taiwan, that was not one of my favorite places, I don’t really ever need to go back there. It was really interesting to see factories and how much of our things that we use day to day is produced out there. But otherwise, I probably won’t need to go back to Taiwan anytime soon.

Aaron: Mary, do you always travel with a surfboard?

Mary Osborne: Traveling with surfboards is getting more difficult with the airlines, so if I don’t have to bring a board and I can just borrow one down there, or I’ve left supplies in certain parts of the world, I won’t. But you know, it is always kinda always fun having your favorite gear with you, and it always makes it a little more exciting if you do have your own equipment. But if I don’t have to, I won’t bring it.

Aaron: Do you often return to the places you’ve already visited?

Mary Osborne: I do return to places I’ve already visited. I think I’ve gotten really comfortable and I have great friends in these different countries now that I really enjoy going back and visiting them, and I really like now the easy travel where I feel comfortable, I feel safe, and these countries are the places now that I want to keep having the retreats and giveback trips. So I really do enjoy visiting the same places.

Aaron: What would you say was the first eye opening cultural experience you ever had? And did you think much of it?

Mary Osborne: My first eye opening experience would definitely have to be in Panama. It was one of my first trips out of the country in a third world country at the time. And I remember having the biggest eye opener when I had to go to the bathroom of all things, I was traveling with a group of men. In the middle of nowhere, it took us about 48 hours to get to where we needed to be on public transportation, which is extremely difficult when you have seven board bags on a public bus in Panama City getting to the coastline. But I just remember the first time we had to pull over and go to the bathroom and just seeing how people lived and how different it was from what I was accustomed to here in California and how I grew up. And I think that’s really where my passions stem from, from that trip, was just really being such in shock of seeing other countries and how people live. I had no idea, I had seen pictures and things, but really being able to walk into this person’s house that I’ve never met, and try to figure out even how to use their toilet, which was like a hole in the wall, was a big eye opener for me.

Aaron: The qualities of restrooms and bathrooms the world over certainly change from place to place, that’s a pretty common shocking eye opening experience for most. Mary, if we’re to circle back to surfing a little bit here – when did you become passionate about surfing?

Mary Osborne: I started surfing when I was bout 12, 13, 14, and we grew up boogie boarding and playing in the water, my parents had a beach house in Ventura on the beach. And I have three older brothers, so I kinda just always loved it. But I really got passionate about it from about 16, 17, 18, I started competing up and down the coast, and realizing how much fun it was. And I was always used to playing team sports, so this was an opportunity for me to kinda express myself without having to have a coach on me or a team with me. It was a place that I could go explore and be in mother nature alone, and that’s when I really started loving it when I was getting good. It was just a whole different experience with the sport that I never had.

Aaron: Do you remember the first time you stood up on a surfboard and what that feeling was like?

Mary Osborne: Yes. I don’t think a surfer ever forgets their first time standing on a board. I was at Solona Beach surfing out in front of my parents’ house, and I was with one of my brothers, my brother Dave, and he helped me get on my first wave. And I remember actually riding it totallY in shock that I was going down the face of the wave heading into the shore. And I remember running on the beach, my mom was there, and I was like, “Did you see me?” You know, I was so excited, and she’s like, “No, I thought you were a guy.” She had no clue I was out there, she knew I was there but she didn’t see the wave and I was so sad. But I’ll never forget that feeling of riding my first wave, it’s such a high adrenaline rush.

Aaron: So other than surfing, ’cause you can’t be in the water 24/7. What other activities offer you the most amount of balance?

Mary Osborne: I love sports. I loved playing volleyball and basketball throughout my teens and into college. So any type of activity that gets my body moving I’m pretty much in love with. I played tennis with my friends and family a lot. I’m definitely into the whole fad of spinning a whole SoulCycle, ride to the beat stuff I love, doing things that are high adrenaline and get my heart rate up. So pretty much anything, as long as my body’s moving I’m pretty much into it.

Aaron: Now Mary, you’ve conquered some big waves and some pretty big issues. What are your biggest challenges right now?

Mary Osborne: I would say for big waves, I don’t really surf that big of waves anymore. I try not to, I don’t hold my breath very long. I think the biggest challenges maybe right now where I’m at with everything is I’m transitioning out of surfing professionally but I’m still working with some major companies, such as Patagonia and Maui Jim, and doing more work with them. So it’s kinda been an interesting transition from a pro athlete into working and running separate businesses that have to do with the surf industry. I don’t think there’s a whole lot of opportunity anymore for young girls in especially longboarding which was the world I was in. I think it’s hard for these young girls to get sponsors and to be able to really succeed in their sport. So there’s a lot of challenges that I think we face, and for me, every day it’s just keeping my passion going and learning more business, and really applying both the passion and the business side into the surf world.

Aaron: Well so then that begs the next question, which is as an entrepreneur, as a business person, what similarities can you draw from your time in professional surfing to where you are right now, which is busy with commercial and business activities?

Mary Osborne: Well they’re so similar. It’s funny when you’re training to do well in surf events and contests, you have a one track mind, that’s all you want to do is succeed. Get the best waves, get the best swell, you’re chasing swells in places all over the world, and you’re really determined in that area. And I think it really crosses over into business for me, I’ve always really tried to work hard and take my career outside of their typical pro surfing route. And that takes a lot of determination and a lot of self motivation, which I think those two right there cross over hand in hand easily.

Aaron: Mary there’s a common phrase that says people always ‘find themselves’ while they are traveling. What does ‘finding yourself’ mean to you, and what have you found?

Mary Osborne: I’ve been really fortunate to travel and to travel on these company’s dimes really. You know I was getting paid to surf and travel the world, but for me, what was so purposeful, was I would go surf and I would get the job done where’ve I was at. But I really loved going and immersing myself with cultures, and learning, and going into these villages, putting war paint all over your face and dancing with the local people, and really learning the other side to traveling, which I think is really purposeful. And I think that’s the type of travel that I’m trying to give back and be able to have people come down with me to certain places and show them these different cultures. Because I think those are the times when you’re completely letting yourself go, you’re letting everything in your day to day life that’s affecting you kinda leave your brain, and you get to come down and really create friendships, create memories, feel adventure.

And that’s what I’ve always loved, and that’s the type of stuff I’m trying to really show people now, is we can have purposeful trips. We can go and we can sit at the spa and we can have a relaxing trip. But at the same time, you could take that one day and go into a village and really learn something, learn something that you’ve never seen before. And connect with someone’s heart to heart, and make a difference for them, and it makes a difference for you. So those are the types of things that I’m into that I’m noticing, that more people are really drawn to nowadays. Instead of just doing your typical surf trip, why not go and really do more. You’re not surfing 24/7 out there in the water, so why not try and learn something new and really feel something different that’s gonna stay with you forever.

Aaron: That’s terrific. Do you have any advice for female travelers or aspiring women adventurers, as they embark on new journeys?

Mary Osborne: Well I always say for females traveling, be safe number one. I’ve done a lot of traveling alone and I’ve been extremely lucky that nothing terrible has ever happened to me. But for female travelers, I think go for it. It’s a really exciting world that we live in, and it’s changing rapidly every day, and you never know who you’re gonna meet when you’re traveling, and I think that’s the joy of being a female traveler, you never know what you’re gonna come across, you never know who’s gonna come into your path and how your world is gonna change. Or maybe that one experience that you have for 15 minutes in the middle of nowhere, that will really open your eyes and your heart to life and community and passion.


Mary Osborne

Aaron: Mary, this is our rapid fire section, it’s a chance to ask you some quick questions and get your answers without too much thought behind them. Mary, what’s your favorite book to take with you while you’re traveling?

Mary: My journal.

Aaron: What’s the most valuable tool you take with you when you travel?

Mary: My passport.

Aaron: Your favorite food that you’ve eaten while abroad?

Mary: Pupusas.

Aaron: What’s your favorite thing about traveling?

Mary: Culture.

Aaron: What’s your favorite animal to see in the wild?

Mary: I want to see a giraffe, but I haven’t seen one yet!

Aaron: What’s your favorite beach in California?

Mary: My home, Ventura.

Aaron: Ventura. And what’s your favorite beach that’s NOT in California?

Mary: The East Cape in Mexico, on the Baja.

Aaron: Alright. If you could have the last meal on earth, what would it be?

Mary: A ton of Mexican food.

Aaron: Who’s the one person you would pay to see, or your favorite person you would pay to see either speak or perform?

Mary: The Dalai Lama.

Aaron: Mary- wait, you’ve got more? Carry on.

Mary: I don’t know, I’m trying to think, I was like who else, there’s so many great people I’d love to see. I would have loved to have seen Prince perform.

Aaron: Fair enough. Mary, Breaking Bad, breakdancing, or breaking glass ceilings?

Mary: Breakdancing.

Aaron: Alright. Mary this is the last question and it’s not so much a question as it is a time for you to give the listeners a challenge, something that they can take forth and accomplish on their own, or pass on to others. If you could challenge everyone who’s going to be reading this, what challenges would you give the audience?

Mary: Well I would love to challenge the audience to do something really simple. Try something totally new. And another one that I think could be harder for people is to make a new friendship outside of the box. I think both of those you can do every single day, but I think sometimes it can be hard for people to really challenge themselves, and meet someone new, make a new friendship, and try something you’ve never done before.

What an incredible human being, and although Mary chose Breakdancing it’s safe to say she’s made a life of breaking glass ceilings. Respect, Mary, respect.

To learn more about Mary’s efforts with Project Save Our Surf and her giveback trips, click here.


Aaron Smith

Aaron Smith. CEO of Holidays for Humanity.