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Heather Corcoran stands dripping wet and shivering slightly near the lifeguard tower south of the Huntington Beach Pier, her brand-new, cream-colored Rusty surfboard tucked under her arm.

It's 6:30 a.m., the sky is the color of mother-of-pearl, and late arrivals at the Huntington Beach High School surf team practice trudge past Heather, 16, on their way down to the surf. Instead of a greeting, one passing surfer dude wryly observes, "Heather's got a new board."

Heather, who smiles ever so slightly at the remark, isn't the only one with a new board. She's part of a new wave of female surfers who are taking up "the sport of kings" in growing numbers.

Part Gidget, part Riot Grrrls, they're reshaping the image of the surfer girl. She is no longer the bikini babe who waits on the beach. Now, she's a female athlete who surfs, surfs well - and, yes, surfs wearing a bikini.

"Women have always been credited with having this natural affinity with surfing. It's only been in this generation of surfers that women can go out and shred waves, too," says Elizabeth Glazner, editor of Wahine, a 5 - year - old magazine for female surfers.

Already, the new breed of surfer girls has breathed new life into the multimillion-dollar surf clothing and lifestyle industry centered in Orange County.

This season, aloha shirts, floral prints and other mainstays of surf fashion are showing up everywhere from Old Navy stores to Vogue magazine, and the surfer-girl look is fast becoming as popular in Cleveland and Chicago as it is in San Clemente.

And surprise, surprise, the image reflects reality: Some surfers say the critical mass of women in the water is changing the male-dominated sport itself in a range of ways.

"It's the coolest thing to happen to the sport," says Michael Marckx, editor of Surfing Girl magazine and a surfer himself. "It reduces the amount of inappropriate, testosterone-driven behavior."

"When women are out, men tend to behave themselves more. They're gracious, for the most part. It's pretty cool to see."

To see just how far the surfer-girl culture is, flip through the current issue of Wahine, with headlines trumpeting "Gidget is 40!," "Bodyboarding A Go-G0" and "Upper Body Workouts."

The ads feature radical photos of professional surfers such as Prue Jeffries, Megan Abubo and world champion Layne Beachley who are making waves - and earning top dollar - on the worldwide surfing circuit. (Beachley earned more prize money than 43 of the top 44 male surfers.)

"Who doesn't love a surfer girl? It's almost mythical, what she is," Glazner says. "The sport of surfing is extremely romantic, there's a romanticism about being on the ocean.""There were always women who surfed. Always women who paddled a canoe. Always women who bodyboarded. Always women who did these things. Bit there was never attention paid to them."

The spotlight began to shift in the early '90s, when lighter surfboards and the re-emergence of the long board made it easier for women to take up the sport.

Surfers say many girls were introduced to surfing by baby boomer dads who rode the waves in their youth and rediscovered the sport when the long board came back.

It didn't hurt these girls, who were born after Title IX made discrimination against women in school athletics illegal, probably had competed in team sports and skate-boarded alongside the guys afterward.

"My dad forced me to go out on his board. It took two days, but I finally stood up," says Heather Corcoran of Huntington Beach, who started surfing at age 14.

Tim Sowers, who heads the surf team for the shoe manufacture Vans, compares surfing's increasing popularity among women to that of skateboarding and snowboarding, also individual sports that combine style with athleticism.

"A lot of girls don't want to play team sports, they want to do their own thing," he says. " 'I don't want to be told what to do,
I don't have to worry if I'm sitting on the bench or not. I get to go and have fun."

"'I can go surf with my boyfriend, or I can go surf with my girlfriends.'"

Whatever the reason, female athletes hit the surf in big numbers in the '90s. There are about 1.9 million surfers nationwide. About 15% - up from 10% in 1995 - are women.

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