Pro surfer from Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia; electrifying in the water, mannerly and easygoing on land; the first person to win four consecutive world championships (1979-82); described by Australia's Surfing Life magazine as the country's "surfing saint."
Richards was born (1957) and raised in Newcastle, an industrial city located 100 miles north of Sydney. Ray Richards, Mark's father, was a surfer and used car salesman who, in 1961, opened Newcastle's first surfboard shop. The younger Richards was in the surf as a toddler, soon graduated to a surf mat, and began riding a surfboard at age six. He placed second in the juniors division of the 1972 Australian National Titles (losing to future tri-fin innovator Simon Anderson), and made the national team for that year's World Surfing Championships in California.
The following year Richards won the national juniors title, and in 1974 he placed fourth. A nonaffiliated set of professional contests were in place by 1975, and the 18-year-old regularfooter made a splashy international debut by traveling to Hawaii to win both the Smirnoff Pro-Am at Waimea Bay and the World Cup at Sunset Beach, earning a total of $9,000—a nearly unimaginable sum for a pro surfer at the time.
Surf filmmaker Bill Delaney was in Hawaii at the time shooting his debut movie, Free Ride. The film had been conceived mainly as a showcase for Australian Wayne Bartholomew and Shaun Tomson of South Africa, both future world champions, but Richards—riding a flashy yellow-and-red board and wearing brightly colored surf trunks—was too good to leave out. Free Ride showed a generational change in the sport, as the established Hawaiians (Jeff Hakman, Gerry Lopez, Barry Kanaiaupuni, and Reno Abellira) were overshadowed by the newcomers from Australia and South Africa; Richards, Bartholomew, and Tomson and a number of their peers have long been collectively known as the "Free Ride generation."
Richards had a peculiar surfing style: knees often braced together, even through sharp turns, hunched shoulders, long arms fully extended, with both hands frequently bent up at the wrist. He was nicknamed the "Wounded Gull," and his unorthodox body mechanics were mostly ignored by the next generation of surfers. But the lines he drew across the wave face were fast, balanced, smooth, and flexible, and punctuated often with spectacular, deep-set turns.
Richards also came to be loved in the surfing world for being confident (wearing a silver wetsuit and decorating his boards with a giant Superman logo), but also humble and self-effacing. He also looked different from other pro surfers: large (6'1", 175 pounds) but unimposing, with a baby face, thin shoulders, and an extra-long torso. When Surfer magazine asked, "What's makes you happy?" Richards endeared himself to thousands of young wave-riders with his sensible reply: "Sex and tuberides."
Richards was thought of as unstoppable during his world title years. In 1979 he skipped four of the scheduled 13 events (two in South Africa, two in Florida), and was ranked fourth going into the World Cup in Hawaii, the final event of the year. In what would turn out to be the decade's most thrilling title finish, the three front-runners faltered one after the other, and the 22-year-old Richards won both the World Cup and the championship. He won four of 10 events in 1980 to easily defend the title. The 1981 and 1982 seasons were closer, but without the drama of 1979. Australian Cheyne Horan was Richards's main rival, finishing runner-up to the championship in 1979, 1981, and 1982.
A key to Richards's world tour success was his re-fashioning of the twin-fin surfboard. He'd been shaping his own boards since age 15 (in 1977 he had a two-month-long shaping seminar with Hawaiian board-making guru Dick Brewer, whom Richards credits as having inspired his designs for twin-fin boards that could be ridden in larger surf), but was struggling to keep up with smaller, lighter pros when the waves dropped below three feet—which happened often on the world tour. Richards took note in 1976 when Hawaiian surfer Reno Abellira came to Australia with a wide, blunt-nosed 5'3" board with two fins; the following year Richards produced a longer and more streamlined version of the twin-fin, saying later that the boards were "fast and maneuverable," and that he "felt like he could do anything on them." Twin-fin fever swept through the surf world in the late '70s and early '80s, then was stopped cold by the 1981 introduction of the tri-fin surfboard.
Richards retired from full-time competition surfing at the end of the 1982 season. He'd won Rip Curl Pro at Bells Beach four times (1978–80, 1982), twice won the Stubbies Pro (1979 and 1981), twice won the Gunston 500 (1980 and 1982), been a four-time Duke Kahanamoku finalist (winning in 1979), and a four- time Pipeline Masters finalist (winning in 1980). In 1985 he entered and won the Billabong Pro, held at Waimea Bay and Sunset Beach, and in 1986 he defended his Billabong title—a competitive surfing career epilogue that has no equal.
Richards won the Surfer Magazine Readers Poll Award in 1979, 1980, and 1981, and was selected as Surfing magazine's Surfer of the Year in 1979, 1980, and 1982. In 1985 Richards and pioneering surfer Charles "Snow" McAlister were the first two inductees into the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame; in 1994 he received the Order of Australia medal (similar to a British knighthood), and was elected to the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame. Richards finished runner-up in the grandmasters (42-and-over) division of the 2000 Quiksilver Masters Surfing Championships; the following year he placed first; in 2002 he was runner-up. Surfer listed Richards at #5 in their 2010 "Greatest Surfers of All Time" feature.
Richards appeared in dozens of surf films and videos during the '70s and '80s, including A Matter of Style (1975), Playgrounds in Paradise (1976), In Search of Tubular Swells (1977), Fantasea (1978), Wizards of the Water (1982), and Ocean Fever (1983). He was also featured in the American-made cable TV series 20th Century Surfers (2000) and the Australian-aired documentary Legends: An Australian Surfing Perspective (1994). The Mark Richards Tapes, a video biography, was released in 1987. Mark Richards: A Surfing Legend, written by Sydney Sunday Telegraph journalist David Knox, was published in 1992. Richards also co-starred in the 2008 documentary Bustin' Down the Door.
The Mark Richards Newcastle City Pro, a World Qualifying Series pro tour event, has been held annually since 1995.
Up until 2012, when the doors closed for the last time due to a still-faltering economy, Richards continued to own and operate the family surf shop in Newcastle that his father opened in 1961. He continues to shape boards. Richards is married and has three children.