Surfing took on its modern form around the middle of the 20th century, when lighter boards and fins gave surfers more control and introduced the sport to a wider audience. But as an activity, it has existed for hundreds of years.
In the following list of surf legends, we’ll look at the most iconic and legendary surfers of the last 100 years or so, from the old-school surfers tackling challenging waves with wooden boards to their modern-day counterparts.
Old School Surfing Legends
Surfing’s early legends were the pioneers that have made the sport what it is today. These were more than just the best surfers of their era. They were innovators, advocates, and they changed the game.
Duke Kahanamoku was born in 1890 and died in 1968. He lived through one of the most important eras for the sport of surfing and he was responsible for many of its biggest innovations.
Duke Kahanamoku was a champion swimmer who won Olympic gold medals for the US team. Between his appearances at the games, he was an avid surfer and would give surfing exhibitions all over the world.
He loved surfing with a passion, and he took that adoration to California, where his exhibitions were instrumental in making the sport a success. He is also thought to have aided with the growth of surfing in Australia after performing an exhibition in Sydney back in 1914.
Eddie Aikau is the one referenced in the “Eddie would go” phrase, which has been printed on countless t-shirts and other merchandise over the last four decades.
The idea behind the phrase is that Eddie would always go where others wouldn’t, tackling waves that scared others away. He was a legendary surfer and a lifeguard on the North Shore, and his efforts saved hundreds of lives.
The most remarkable fact about the Hawaiian-born Eddie Aikau is that he died at the very young age of 31, and yet he still achieved amazing things during his short time on this planet.
In 1978, Aikau was on a boat that capsized. He paddled to shore on his surfboard to get help, but he didn’t make it and his body was never found.
The surfing world would be decidedly poorer without the efforts of Eddie Aikau and the culture that surrounded his demise.
Kathy “Gidget” Kohner Zuckerman
Kathy Zuckerman was born in Los Angeles in 1941 and began surfing aged 15. Her father wrote a novel about her journey that he dubbed “Gidget: The Little Girl With Big Ideas”, creating a fictional character that was based on Kathy.
It was a hugely successful novel and was later turned into a TV series featuring Sally Fields.
In 2011, the real Gidget was inducted into the Surfing Walk of Fame as the Woman of the Year. She was also given a spot in the Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame several years earlier.
Modern Day Surfing Legends
A modern pro surfer has more opportunities than the old-schoolers mentioned above. They are surfing in a world that has fully embraced the sport, a world of competition, sponsorships, and lots of opportunities for skilled surfers to make money.
Some of the athletes who have earned legendary status over the last few decades include:
In every sport, you’ll find a debate about the best athletes. In soccer, it’s all about Messi vs Ronaldo, and if you look at the historical context, it’s all about Pele, Maradona, Best, Cruyff, Zidane, Di Stefano, and Puskas.
In the world of pound-for-pound boxing, most point to Muhammed Ali, but others chime in with Mike Tyson, Joe Louis, and even Floyd Mayweather, Jr.
Where surfing is concerned, pretty much everyone agrees that Kelly Slater is the GOAT, and it’s easy to see why.
No one has come close to matching Slater’s dominance. He is both the youngest and oldest ever champion and he has won over 50 major titles throughout his career. He is also behind some of the most revolutionary wave pools in the world and continues to have a massive impact on the sport even after his retirement.
Although Bethany Hamilton isn’t on par with Kelly Slater in terms of skill and accolades, she deserves a spot on this list for her sheer determination. She’s also done a lot for the sport, introducing it to more people, putting it in the spotlight, and funding programs that encourage kids to surf.
Bethany Hamilton had her arm bitten off by a shark when she was just 13. She continued to surf despite the accident, and she later wrote a book (Soul Surfer) about the incident that was turned into a film of the same name.
For a time, it looked like Andy Irons was going to surpass records set by Kelly Slater, but his untimely death prevented him from further cementing his status as a legendary surfer.
Irons was just 32 when he died. His death came 6 years after he was ranked as the world number 1 for the third year in a row, earning close to $1.5 million in his career.
Despite surfing for just 10 years, he had a huge impact on the sport and will always be remembered as one of its greats.