Head to any beach in San Diego and look out at the waves, and most likely you’ll see ponytails, pink rash guards and bikini bottoms in the lineup. More and more women are picking up surfing, and a big reason for this trend is Isabelle “Izzy” and Caroline “Coco” Tihanyi, founders of and alums.
La Jolla natives, Izzy and Coco started surfing in elementary school and began competing in high school. Izzy earned scholarship money to compete on the UCSD surf team and began teaching surfing while at UCSD.
“My education at UCSD taught me how to think independently. My degree taught me about packaging, how to put together an image, and the importance of looking at the media critically,” said Izzy.
After graduating in 1989 with a degree in communications, Izzy spent the next seven years running YMCA camps and holding various jobs within the surf industry. Coco, who is also a graduate of UCSD, worked for the San Diego-based Reef sandals brand.
In 1996, the first all-women surf shop, Watergirl, opened in Encinitas. That was all the encouragement Izzy needed to pursue her dream of an all-girl surf school. Coco quit her job and took over the business and marketing end of the business, while Izzy took on the surf school side.
When Izzy and Coco started Surf Diva, there were no permits or laws governing surf instruction. The twins were dedicated to building a successful, long-lasting business, so they set high standards for their school. All of the instructors wore red rash guards over their wetsuits, making them easily identifiable. They allowed no more than 25 students in every class, and all the equipment was carefully monitored for wear and damage.
Surfing took off as a more accessible, mainstream sport in the late ’90s, and more and more surf schools and instructors began to pop up on the beach. The city of San Diego took notice and decided it needed to intervene and establish a permitting system. “That’s when the city came to Surf Diva and told us we were doing everything right, and they wanted to model their permitting requirements after our business. Much of the surf instruction permitting requirements you see today—from the colored rash guards for the instructors to the class size and instructor ratio—comes from our model.”
The business grew steadily, expanding to locations in Los Angeles and Costa Rica, as well as summer camps and even coed classes. The Surf Diva boutique, which sells clothing, accessories and boards, opened its doors in 2004. The Surf Diva line is now sold throughout the U.S., Japan and England. In 2005, the sisters co-authored Surf Diva: A Girl’s Guide to Getting Good Waves.
“There is much more acceptance of female surfers, and I think we’ve had a part in that,” said Izzy when I asked her how the world of surfing has changed for women since Surf Diva was founded in 1996.
“More women are surfing, for sure, but professional surfing hasn’t changed that much. The surf industry just doesn’t sponsor women. Although they use male professional surfers to model their products, they don’t use female pros. They use models who don’t surf. Female surfers are sponsored by Nike, Target and Red Bull, but not by companies within the surf industry.” Izzy hopes that as more and more women become professional surfers, this will change. Surf Diva is doing its part, with lessons for kids starting at age five and coed summer camps.
Next on the horizon for Surf Diva is Surf FIT. Joining forces with Bootique Fitness, Surf FIT is a boot camp-style fitness class that incorporates a beach workout with surfing techniques. The 45-minute class includes dry-land workouts to fine-tune pop-ups, paddling and endurance. On Saturdays, clients can put their skills to use in a one-and-a-half hour in-water surf class, which includes instruction on timing and how to better read waves.
As the business has grown and changed over the last 15 years, the one constant for Izzy has been her sister, Coco. “I love working with my twin sister,” said Izzy. “We trust each other completely, we both work really hard, and we’re completely committed to growing our business and teaching people how to surf.”