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Who was the Queen of Surfing? Rell Sunn

Jun 5, 2008
Rell Sunn is one of the first and the most celebrated female pro surfers in the world. Sunn is known to have defied the macho-image of surfing during her time. She surfed her way through the gender barriers of the surfing world, riding the waves with her fellow male surfing contemporaries and even beating them in their own game.

Sunn is the epitome of the real aloha spirit. Perhaps it was fate itself that brought her to the sea as her middle name Kapolioka`ehukai means "Heart of the Sea". Her grace in the water makes her deserving with the title, "Queen of Surfing".

Early Life

Rell Sunn was born in July 31, 1950 in Makaha, Oahu, Hawaii being fourth among 5 children. She has a unique lineage, Hawaiian-Irish from her mother Roan and Irish from her father Elbert.

Because her home was close to the sea, she began surfing at an early age of 4 in 1954. What inspired her more to her interest in surfing is when she was able to get a taste of international surfing competition in the mid-1950s when surfers from all over the world gathered in Makaha.

Career and Achievements

At the age of 14 in 1964, she joined her first ever surfing competition. Because there was no category for women yet, she competed alongside with the boys and beat them all the way to the top. She continued to compete in the men's category until a women's category was set up later on.

In 1976, she founded the Menehune ("little people") Surfing Championships. Now, it is the biggest surfing competition for junior-levels in the world.

Sunn struggled as a young woman surfer amidst the male-dominated sport. That is why in 1979, she co-founded the Women's Professional Surfing Association along with other women surfing champs to give women a voice in the surfing professional community. It was triggered by a South African surfing competition incident, where she and her surfing buddies spent almost $2,000 to get there but only to find out that the prize for the women's was only $300 compared to the higher stakes in the men's division.

Sunn was a child of the ocean and an all water-woman. In her hometown Makaha, she learned to expertly swim, dive and canoe. Her talent in the water made her the first female lifeguard of Hawaii in 1977. Because she was a woman, at times, she would be ridiculed by the men whom she saves.

In 1982 when finally, an international professional surfing rating for women was established Sunn topped the International Surfing Association rating for women surfers.

Battle with Breast Cancer

In the same year while she was in California, during a pro tour, she noticed a lump in her breast. In 1983, a year after ranking No. 1 worldwide, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and the prognosis was only for a year. At that time, Sunn was only 32 years old and at the peak of her career.

Sunn spent the next 14 years of her life battling cancer into remission for three times. She also endured a number of operations including a bone marrow transplant. What appalled her the most when she had to undergo a mastectomy. She commented sadly that that she could never wear a swimsuit anymore, which according to her is Hawaii's ordinary everyday wear.

Cancer didn't stop her spirit as she engaged in different activities other than surfing like becoming a surf reporter, radio DJ, a physical therapist at a Wai'anae care home and a counselor at the Wai'anae Cancer Research Center, spreading awareness on breast cancer.

Death and Internment

On 1998, New Year's Day, her family and friends brought her to the shores in Makaha to take her last look at the sea, her second home. She believed in the Hawaiian idea of Auma Kua, that anyone who has died passing water shall form part of the ocean. The day after, January 2, 1998, Sunn passed away at the age of 37, leaving her only daughter, Jan.

At the memorial service, thousand of people flocked the beach. Her friends brought water and sand from all over the world and scattered them together with her ashes into the water, where people will always find her. A hundred surfers after the service took their boards and surfed the waves as a tribute to Sunn.

Awards and Tributes

Sunn is most famous for being the first surfer to rank no. 1 in the international women surfing category in the world. In August 1996, Sunn was one of the five women inducted into the Surfing Walk of Fame in Huntington Beach, California. She was honored with a granite stone for her contributions and achievements in surfing and placed along with the likes of Duke Kahanamoku.

In the same year, she also received the Waterman Achievement Award from the Surf Industry Manufacturer's Association. An award-giving body called the Rell Sunn-Queen of Makaha award was also named after her, which is given to an individual annually for efforts in fighting cancer.

The life of Rell Sunn was also subject of several publications including the 2001 book written by Andrea Gabbard titled "Girl in the Curl: A Century of Women Surfing." In 2002, film makers Charlotte Lagarde and Lisa Denker released the award-winning documentary film about Sunn's life, "Heart of the Sea."

Today, every time a woman surfs - Auma Kua - she rides the waves with Sunn, whose spirit will forever remain in the sea. To surfers all over the world, Rell Sunn may be just another surfing superstar. But in Hawaii, where she breathed her first and last, she will always remain a blue blood - a queen, the Queen of Surfing.
About the Author
Me-Shell Mijangos (http://www.swellwomen.com/founder/html) a surfer who first began surfing at the age of 30. She is the founder of an all inclusive women's surf camp called SwellWomen. Two years ago, she started SwellCo-ed, a Surf and Yoga Experience for women, men and couples. She hopes to surf with you in paradise soon! Visit her SwellBlog!
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