By Lance Tominaga, ESPN Honolulu Web Editor.
Next to the great Duke Kahanamoku, no surfer has been a better ambassador for the sport of surfing than Rell Sunn. The original beach girl helped pave the way for the wave riders of today such as Carissa Moore, Bethany Hamilton and Keala Kennelly. She worked tirelessly to promote surfing, even traveling to China to spread the joys of the sport. More than that, Sunn fought through discrimination, stereotypes and even cancer to touch others with her spirit. She was a pioneer, a champion and the every embodiment of aloha.
Here are 12 quick facts about Hawaii’s beloved “Queen of Makaha”:
♦ Roella Kapolioka‘ehukai Sunn was born on July 31, 1950 in Makaha on the North Shore of Oahu. Her middle name translates to “Heart of the Sea.” Her father Elbert was Chinese, and her mother Roen was Hawaiian-Irish. Elbert was a beach boy at Makaha Beach and the family lived just steps away from Makaha Point.
♦ Sunn began surfing at the age of four, using the family’s tattered and worn longboard. Her would later win her own surfboard at a surfing contest. Her love for surfing was inspired by her family as well as the encouragement of famed surfing pioneers and beach boys such as Buffalo Keaulana, Rabbit Kekai and Buzzy Trent.
♦ Sunn also caught the eye of the legendary Duke Kahanamoku. Recalled surfer Gerry Lopez, “Duke used to hang out on the beach with all of us kids during some of the events. He seemed larger than life, and he got a kick out of us. He was a big role model, and he recognized that Rell had something special about her even when we were young. She was a very talented surfer, even as a teenager.”
♦ In 1966, at age 16, Sunn competed in the World Surf Championships in San Diego. She was one of three women selected to be part of the 13-member Hawaii team.
♦ In 1975, Sunn became Oahu’s first female lifeguard and helped form the Hawaii Women’s Surfing Hui. Sunn was a fervent supporter of women’s surfing. She recalled selling her possessions to raise funds to compete at a meet in South Africa. “We sold our cars – everything – just to go,” she said. “And when we got there, they said, ‘Oh, no, there’s no money in the women’s contest.’ We said, ‘It’s a pro event, right?’ They said, ‘Oh, well, about $300’ – and we just fell apart, you know, because it cost us $1,700 to get there.” In 1979, Sunn was instrumental in starting the Women’s Professional Surfing Association.
♦ Besides her career in surfing, Sunn was also an expert diver, hula instructor, model and deejay. She also earned a black belt in judo.
♦ As a competitor, Sunn finished in the top eight in the world seven times and twice reached No. 3. At one point, she was regarded as the most accomplished waterwoman and best female longboarder in the world.
♦ In October 1977, Sunn organized the very first Menehune Surfing Contest (today known as the Rell Sunn Menehune Surfing Championships). “Aunty Rell” mentored many future surfing champions, including Sunny Garcia.
♦ Sunn was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1983 and given only a year to live. With determination and a champion’s spirit, however, she fought her disease and became a tireless advocate for breast cancer awareness. Sunn helped pilot a program for breast cancer awareness at the Wai’anae Cancer Research Center.
♦ In 1986, Sunn was one of four American surfers invited to communist China to teach surfing to the country’s youth. Their historic, two-and-a-half-week trip included surf classes at Hainan Island just off the South China Coast. Recalled Sunn to the Honolulu Advertiser: “We were the first American surfers in China. We took our surfboards to the Great Wall and played frisbee in the square in Beijing. Surfing is so new, so foreign, so alien to [the Chinese]. We were like amphibians who had dropped out of the sky.”
♦ Sunn lost her battle with cancer on January 2, 1998. She was 47. Her ashes were scattered at sea at her favorite surf spot at Makaha Beach, with nearly 3,000 mourners attending the ceremony.
♦ Sunn has been inducted in many halls of fame, including the Surfing Walk of Fame in Huntington Beach, California; the International Surfing Hall of Fame; and the Hawaii Sports Hall of Fame. Four-time ASP Women’s World Champion Carissa Moore, when asked who she would like to surf with if she could travel back in time, noted: “I probably want to go back two years and have a surf session with Andy (Irons) or go back to the early 90s and surf with Rell (Sunn). Both people are great ambassadors to our sport and role models to me.”