Few activities serve as such a ready metaphor for life as surfing.
One man or woman takes on a huge obstacle determined to take him or her down. Instead, expert surfers actually ride their obstacle back to safety on the shore. And when they are knocked down, surfing legends see it as a momentary setback. Even surfers who have been severely injured in the sport they love remain determined to tackle another wave. Whatever the wave is in your life, perhaps you can find some encouragement in the resilience of these surfers. We've taken a look at some of the sport's most inspirational figures for our list of surfing legends.
Surfing Legends Who Earned Hero Status on Their Boards
Any sport has its icons. Since surfing is generally a solo activity, though, individual surfers can earn some real fame. Maybe they aren't as well known as their superstar counterparts in basketball or soccer, they are greats. And among those surfing legends are some names that mean a lot to anybody who follows the sport.
1. Duke Kahanamoku
Most discussions of surfing legends begin and end with "the Duke." We decided to begin ours with him. This is the man often hailed as the father of what we commonly know as surfing. His advancement of the sport dates back to the 1910s in a way. Back then, Duke Kahanamoku was busy breaking swimming records. And we mean big records. He made it to the Olympics in 1912 at the age of 22, where he set a world record. Eight years later he brought home the gold medal in freestyle for the 100 and 400 meter races.
He maintained a fascination with surfing, though, and his easy access to the ocean gave him an advantage. By the 1960s, the Duke was long past his surfing prime but became the public image of Hawaiian surfing. He embodied the way of life through business marketing that really impacted public perception of surfing. When the 20th century came to a close, he earned the title of the surfer of the century. And in one of the surest signs he was a surfing legend, he received his own U.S. Postal Service stamp in 2002.
2. Kelly Slater
Moving forward to a surfer who wasn't alive when the Duke made a splash. But Kelly Slater's career picked up and advanced what his predecessors did. He started surfing at a young age and quickly moved up the ranks. On big waves in the '90s, nobody dominated competitions like Kelly Slater. We're talking about a total of five Pipe Masters wins between 1992 and 1999. He also earned the distinction of being the youngest world champion in the history of surfing.
He's also been able to turn success on the surfboard to success on the small screen. You might remember him from "Baywatch," where he portrayed the character Jimmy Slade. Kelly Slater also considered himself a rocker, creating a band named after his claim to fame. They were called The Surfers. But he will forever be known for one thing: his status as one of the all time great surfing legends. Among his cool achievements is Florida's decision to create Kelly Slater Day for the native hero. He was also named one of GQ's coolest athletes of all time. Plus there's a statue in his home state that stands 10 feet tall. Like the waves he's known for conquering, Kelly Slater's status is larger than life.
3. Laird Hamilton
Laird Hamilton is a controversial figure for some surfers. But he has made an obvious impact on the craft. He was born during the West Coast's huge surfing craze of the 1960s. From there, his family moved to a surf mecca: Oahu, Hawaii. The prodigy went on to lead his generation's approach to the sport. That led to a lot of innovations and a new approach. Though that turned off some purists, it also introduced surfing to a new batch of fans. There's no doubt he's one of the most recognizable surfing legends, even if he's not everybody's cup of tea.
So what made Laird Hamilton so controversial? It was his role in the creation and spread of tow-in surfing. After he decided to use a friend's boat to tow him out, he was able to surf bigger waves than ever before. Men and women have been using the artificial power of a watercraft ever since for big wave surfing. That happened sometime in the 1990s and is what he remains best known for. But fans also know he set speed records on a sailboard. He also pioneered a fad known as foil boarding, applying the approach to surfing in a new way.
And it was a feat in 2000 that really got folks talking in the surfing community. He mounted and successfully rode a swell known as the Millennium Wave. It was the largest wave ever conquered by a surfer and everybody took notice. Whether you think his approach has made the sport better or not, you can't deny the influence. And for tons of surfers, he has opened up a new realm of a classic ocean sport.
4. Bethany Hamilton
It is easy to see why Bethany Hamilton makes it on our list of surfing legends. While you might know the most dramatic part of her story, though, she wants to make sure you know the rest. In 2003, the then 13 year old surfer lost her arm in a shark attack. That did not stop the promising young surfer, though, and she went on to continue to dominate the sport. Her story inspired the hit movie "Soul Surfer."
She worked on another movie after that 2011 film, though. The surfer thought that was needed because of what she felt was undue focus on the attack. Bethany Hamilton said she believed her "raw, real life surf talent got overshadowed" by the narrative. "It feels weird telling my own story," she said of the more personal film. "But I think it'll be cool for people to see this side of me. I hope by now core surfers realize that I surf decent and I'm up there with the top girls."
A series of tournament wins and strong finishes in the 15 years since certainly proves that point. It's that combination of skill and attitude that has locked her in as one of the most inspiring surfing legends.
5. Eddie Aikau
One of the many surfing legends taken too soon, Eddie Aikau earned his reputation early. First of all, he made his mark as the lifeguard on the north short of Oahu. In fact, he was the location's first lifeguard. And he left quite a high bar for his successors. Not only did he use the opportunity to show off his surfing skills, he saved hundreds at Waimea Bay. He earned the 1971 title of Lifeguard of the Year. And legend says he saved more than 500 drowning people -- without one fatality on his watch.
Unfortunately, he would die at sea just a few years later. In 1978, he joined a volunteer mission to follow an ancient Polynesian migration trail. During the effort, though, the canoe began to leak and eventually capsized. After Aikau failed to surface, the search turned into Hawaii's most expansive air and sea recovery. He was never seen again, though, and his name became a rallying cry among his fans.
Throughout much of the next decade, you could find bumper stickers declaring "Eddie Would Go!" Historian Mac Simpson described the origins of the phrase. "Aikau was a legend on the North Shore, pulling people out of waves that no one else would dare to," he said. "That's where the saying came from." That daring spirit also led to a memorial tournament at Waimea Bay. Quicksilver sponsors what is known as "The Eddie," or the Big Wave International.
6. Mark Foo
Mark Foo is often mentioned for his tragic death as often as his inspirational life. Unfortunately, the way he was pulled under during a wipeout in 1994 did make a lasting impact on the sport. It led to a re-evaluation of the use of ankle leashes in big wave surfing. His leash was linked to some theories about what kept him from emerging from the water that day. But it was also Mark Foo who helped bring new attention to the art of tackling those giant waves.
He had been a professional international surfer. He quit the IPS World Surfing Tour in the 1980s, though. At the time, it was clear he wanted to take on big wave surfing in a big way. And he did exactly that until two days before Christmas on 1994. One of the surfing legends who left a record of passionate quotes, one stands out as particularly haunting. "It is not tragic to die doing something you love," he said. And there is little doubt he did exactly that.
Surfing legends define their own period in the fascinating sport.
Some helped pioneer the Hawaiian art. Others revolutionized it for later generations. But no matter where they came along in the process, their impact remains clear. We hope you learned a bit about some of your favorite surfing legends.
If you were inspired or moved by our list, share it with surfing fans you know. And let us know who your favorite surfer of all time is in a comment below.
Related Article: History of Surfing: Where It All Began & How the Culture Has Changed