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On a warm November evening in 1986, a novice surfer named Andrea Johnson battled the six-foot waves at New Smyrna Beach on Florida's east coast. The 14-year-old rode the sets for three hours before a particularly powerful current ripped the ankle leash from her surfboard and tossed her into the jagged rocks of a jetty.
Troy Ather, 23, who was fishing on the other side of the jetty, rushed to his friend's aid. By hoisting herself onto the rocks, Andrea was able to grasp Ather's hand, but then she slipped on the slick surface and fell back into the roiling water. A minute passed. She was nowhere in sight. Ather began to cry.
Suddenly, Andrea resurfaced. Ather lunged, grabbed her bathing suit and dragged her onto the rocks. Clinging to each other and fighting the pounding waves, the two friends, bruised and bloodied, slowly crawled to safety.
"On the way home, we went to church and offered a prayer of thanks that our lives had been spared,"Andrea says now.
Her parents, Mary Nan and Davey Johnson, didn't find out about the incident until the next day. Davey, the manager of the New York Mets, and his wife were en route back home from an All-Star tour of Japan, following the Mets World Series victory over the Boston Red Sox. When they called home from Los Angeles airport, Troy answered the phone and told them the news.
"I cried for two hours straight," Mary Nan recalls. "Dave acted just like he did at World Series time—stoic. He kept saying, 'Don't worry. Everything's O.K. Nobody got killed.' He felt it was just part of the game, one of the risks we'd have to face sooner or later with Andrea's surfing."
The near-fatal accident gave Andrea a keen respect for the ocean, and now, at 15, she is Florida's best young female surfer. Her style is fearless, hard-driving and aggressive. She attacks the waves with her compact, muscular body (5'4", 120 pounds) and performs tricky turns and radical maneuvers to get the most out of her rides.
"She doesn't surf like a girl," says Russ Atwell, competition director of the Eastern Surfing Association (ESA). "In years past, women were doing stylish maneuvers with a board; they were tentative. Andrea has gone beyond that. She paddles right into the biggest surf and takes on the boys."
Says Andrea: "All the guys say I'm not like other girls. I'm willing to try anything when I'm surfing. Most girls kick out, let the boys take the best waves. I don't want anybody or anything to stop me from being the best I can be."
This year she has won three prestigious Florida amateur surfing competitions: the High School Championships, the girls' 13-18 category of the ESA Spring Break Open and the Platts, an ESA open sponsored by a clothing manufacturer. She also finished second in the ESA regionals held in Melbourne, Fla., in May. A year ago at the U.S. Amateur Surfing Federation Nationals in Corpus Christi, Texas, she placed seventh in the girls' 13-18 category.