The endless swells of the ocean have produced surfing’s most iconic personalities, riders whose very names conjure up visions of radical turns, soaring aerials, and a fearless desire to challenge waves of consequence. From the hot-dogging pioneers of the 1960s to those pushing the limits of progression today, here are five legendary surfers that have left their mark on every beach their boards have graced. 

Get to know the lives, mindsets, and exploits of the best surfers in the world that defined surfing’s celebrated pioneers.

Key takeaways: five of the best

The Father of Modern Surfing: Duke Kahanamoku

An image of the father of modern surfing, Duke Kahanamoku
Duke Kahanamoku

Duke Kahanamoku is considered the “Father of Modern Surfing”, and for good reason. A Native Hawaiian waterman from Waikiki, he played a central role in spreading the sport of surfing from the isolated Hawaiian Islands to the rest of the world in the early 20th century.


Early Life and Hawaiian Sports Prowess

Born in 1890 in Honolulu, Duke grew up immersed in traditional Hawaiian ocean sports and cultural practices. From a young age, he excelled at surfing, paddling, and swimming. His swimming abilities were particularly remarkable—Duke shattered the world record in the 100m freestyle as a teenager in 1911 and went on to win gold and silver medals at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, becoming Hawaii’s first Olympic champion.

Taking Surfing to the Masses

While competitive swimming earned Duke accolades, it was the ancient sport of surfing that became his true passion and legacy. In the early 1900s, surfing was still relatively unknown outside of Hawaii. But Duke instantly recognized its universal appeal and made it his mission to introduce surfing to the world.

In 1915, the renowned “Duke of Surf” traveled to Sydney, Australia, as a swimming instructor. It was at iconic Freshwater Beach that Duke gave exhibitions of surfing, gliding gracefully across the waves on his longboard. The enthralled crowds were getting their first glimpses of the sport. Duke spent his free time promoting and evangelizing about surfing’s artistry, spiritual uplifting, and the athletic elegance required to excel on the waves. Thanks to Duke’s ambassadorship, Australia’s very first surfing community took root.

The Ultimate Competitor: Kelly Slater

An image of Kelly Slater surfing a wave
Kelly Slater
Photo courtesy of Vince Basile

Of all surfing’s modern icons and world-class talents to emerge, none burned quite as bright or achieved so much greatness as the legendary Kelly Slater. His competitive accomplishments were only outmatched by his driving desire to keep redefining the limits of what was possible on a surfboard. It’s clear to see why he’s one of the best surfers of all time.


Breaking Records and Setting Standards

Of all the best surfers of all time and surfing’s modern icons, none loom larger than the universally-celebrated Kelly Slater. Born in 1972 in Cocoa Beach, Florida, Slater ascended from prodigy to legend to achieve a record 11 World Surf League Championship titles between 1992 and 2011. This unparalleled competitive success transcended surfing itself—Kelly’s longevity and dominance are considered among the greatest athletic feats in any sport.

While his achievements are staggering from a pure numbers standpoint, it was Slater’s revolutionary approach that reshaped surfing’s boundaries. His powerful yet graceful style displayed an unmatched blend of speed, aggression, and innovation that seemed to defy physics. 

Taking full advantage of modern shortboard design, Kelly unleashed filmers’ wildest dreams with huge aerial maneuvers, seamless combos, and radical carves for which the judges created new high-score categories. Simply put, Slater raised surfing’s technical ceiling and pumped jet-fuel into the sport’s progression period.

Innovations and Environmental Advocacy

Never content to rest on his laurels, Kelly Slater’s desire to push performance limits extended beyond the jersey. Recognizing certain deficiencies in existing surfboard and wetsuit technology, Slater co-founded brands like Outerknown and Slater Designs to refine and innovate the sport’s equipment. His artificial wave pool concept, Surf Ranch, made major waves by demonstrating the viability of generating ideal practice waves in landlocked settings.

Moreover, Slater used his global platform to raise awareness about environmental issues like marine pollution, overfishing, and coastal erosion. Through initiatives like the Outerknown brand and Kelly Slater Wave Co., he championed sustainability and worked to reduce surfing’s environmental impact. The 11-time world champ recognized that preserving the ocean’s health is critical to the future of surfing.

Inspiration for Young Surfers

Even past the age of 50, Slater still competes against the world’s best surfers with the same competitive fire and unquenchable appetite for progression he’s had since he was a grommet. He’s become an inspirational icon to multiple generations of surfers: his longevity proving age is just a number, his championship focus demonstrating the value of total dedication, and his smooth power serving as the aesthetic blueprint for high-performance surfing.

For every young competitive surfer paddling out with dreams of making their mark on the sport, they need only look towards Slater’s paradigm-shifting career to understand the level of commitment, skill, and passion required to become an icon in their own right.

The Resilient Champion: Bethany Hamilton

Im image of Bethany Hamilton surfing a wave
Bethany Hamilton
Photo courtesy of Troy_Williams

When it comes to surfing’s biggest inspirational stories, few resonate quite as powerfully as Bethany Hamilton’s tale of tragedy, resilience, and then triumph against all odds to become one of the best surfers in the world. Her journey turned her into an international icon who personified the very best of the indomitable human spirit.


Tragic Turn and Triumphant Return

Bethany Hamilton had been surfing practically since she could walk. Born into a family of surfers in Kauai, Hawaii, in 1990, Bethany was a rising young star on the women’s amateur circuit by her early teens and seemed destined for a successful pro career.

That all nearly ended on October 31, 2003, when the 13-year-old was attacked by a 14-foot tiger shark while surfing off Kauai’s North Shore. The horrific incident cost Bethany her entire left arm. Most would have understandably become consumed by the resulting emotional trauma, physical pain, and seeming loss of their life’s passion. But within a month of the attack, Bethany’s resolute mindset shifted—she felt a renewed determination to overcome this unthinkable setback and return to the water.

Riding Waves with One Arm

With characteristic Hawaiian spirit, Bethany got back in the ocean just three weeks after her amputation, undeterred by the extraordinary challenges of learning to surf with just one arm. Using her custom-made board that allowed her to duck-dive and knee-paddle, Bethany refined her pop-up technique by pushing the board as she stood up. Once on her feet, she rode with her signature grit and stylish rail-to-rail carves, almost supernaturally maintaining balance and control.

By 2005, less than two years after the attack, Bethany’s perseverance had already paid off, as she not only regained her elite amateur standing but turned pro as well. Her triumphant comeback reached Hollywood three years later in the inspiring film “Soul Surfer.” Meanwhile, Bethany used her platform to promote inspirational messages and projects, authoring books, launching her own foundation Beauties in Waves, and advocating for amputees and shark attack survivors.

Impact and Influence

Over a decade and a half since losing her arm, Bethany Hamilton remains a beloved icon and role model in both the surfing world and well beyond it. Her resilient journey was certainly defined by its initial tragedy, but became one of the most transcendent, powerful comeback stories in all of sports. For multi-millions of aspiring surfers and fans around the globe, Bethany’s indomitable positivity, unbreakable spirit, and graceful athleticism in the face of extreme adversity solidified her status as a true champion for the ages.

No matter what future challenges she must confront, Bethany’s impact extends far beyond her commendable surfing accomplishments. By constantly exemplifying courage and an unyielding motivation to pursue her dreams no matter the obstacles, she has become an empowering symbol of perseverance and inspiration for people from all walks of life.

The Powerhouse of Professional Surfing: Layne Beachley

An image of Layne Beachley surrounded by cameras with a surfboard behind her
Layne Beachley
Photo courtesy of Eva Rinaldi

While men’s professional surfing produced elite talents like Kelly Slater, the highest echelons of women’s surfing belonged to Australia’s mighty Layne Beachley, one of the best surfers ever. Her competitive prowess and off-water advocacy made her one of surfing’s most impactful trailblazers.


Dominance in the Water

Hailing from Sydney, Australia, Layne Beachley emerged from humble beginnings to become a true force of nature in women’s professional surfing. After taking up the sport as a casual teen hobby, Beachley quickly developed an unwavering competitive drive and went on to claim no fewer than seven World Surf League Championship titles across an illustrious career spanning nearly two decades.

Beachley’s sustained competitive greatness is remarkable by any standard. She won her first World Title in 1998 at age 26, then rattled off five consecutive titles from 2003 to 2006 during the sport’s emerging modern era when the women’s side gained greater exposure. Even after an injury-marred slump, Layne fought back to win six consecutive world titles, her seventh title in 2008 at age 36, cementing herself at the time as the oldest World Champion in pro surfing history.

Driven by an insatiable competitive fire, Beachley was renowned for her effortless power-carving technique combining velocity, aggression, and precision. She pushed the limits of high-performance progressive surfing in her prime, throwing herself over the ledge into national wipeouts one moment, then somehow recovering to execute seamless combos of tail-riding snaps, killer snap-to-lip adjustments, and vertical reentries. 

Simply put, Layne brought women’s surfing out of the shadow of their male counterparts through sheer grit and consistently jaw-dropping performances in challenging conditions.

Advocate for Women’s Surfing 

While her exploits in competition were groundbreaking enough, Beachley left an equally profound mark on surfing through her advocacy for gender equality. Never forgetting her modest background and the challenges she overcame just to pursue her dreams, Beachley used her hard-earned platform to champion opportunities and fair treatment for women, both within surfing and in the broader sporting world.

She fought for equal pay, media exposure, sponsorship opportunities, and competitive events for female surfers. Her foundation, the Awaanahey Board Meeting, sought to inspire young girls through surfing clinics, empowerment camps, and outreach initiatives. Beachley’s tireless efforts shined a brighter spotlight on women’s professional surfing, creating a legacy that continued elevating women professional surfer’s recognition, support systems, and pathways for success long after she hung up her competitive jersey.

A Role Model for Future Generations 

More than just an elite athlete, Layne Beachley embraced being a role model for girls and women across Australia and around the globe. Her story of rising from financial hardship fueled her relentless drive to succeed and blaze a trail for women’s athletics. Both in and out of the water, her tenacious spirit, professional accomplishments, and philanthropic vision continue inspiring the next generation of female surfers in the world and empowering young girls to courageously pursue their passion projects no matter the odds.

Paying her success forward became just as important as collecting World Titles and iconic waves. Like many surfers of all time and enduring legends, Beachley’s influence extends far beyond any single performance. She created a template for young women to confidently pursue their surfing dreams while simultaneously affecting positive systemic changes in their communities.

The Big Wave Maverick: Laird Hamilton

An image of Laird Hamilton at a surfing event
Laird Hamilton
Photo courtesy of Global Sports Forum

In surfing’s death-defying discipline of big wave riding, one name stands as the true master: the legendary Laird Hamilton. His courage, innovation, and full-circle ocean philosophy made him one of the most iconic and multifaceted figures the sport has ever witnessed.


Chasing Giants: Laird’s Big Wave Conquests

From the feared, towering monsters of Peahi (“Jaws”) in Hawaii to the mutant-sized swells of Mavericks near San Francisco, Laird Hamilton has long been universally hailed as one of surfing’s definitive big wave chargers. This larger-than-life American icon often seemed superhuman in his ability to conquer unfathomable liquid behemoths. 

Witnessing Hamilton’s blend of high-skill tube-riding and death-defying bravado at mythical big wave breaks left surfers of all abilities simply awestruck. At Teahupoo and other waves of maximum consequence, Laird commanded the avalanche drops, threw huge sprays, and showed unbelievable mastery of his equipment while going deeper and kicking out harder than any of his contemporaries. He pioneered the use of tow-in inflatable surfboards, unlocking entry into unprecedented and respected big wave surfers in realms unimaginable with traditional paddle techniques.

Laird’s spirit for hunting and conquering the biggest rideable swells on the planet was matched only by his preparation. Pushing limits and escaping staggeringly heavy wipeouts became his signature, fueling fans’ obsession with his ability to continually survive and thrive in situations that seemed unfathomable.

Innovator and Waterman 

Driven by his unquenchable desire to unlock the human body’s potential to harmonize with the ocean’s power, Laird collaborated on innovations like the modern-day big wave gun, allowing surfers previously unthinkable accessibility to rides of calamitous strength. 

His Laird Standup equipment and experiences promoted the physical and mental benefits of reconnecting with the ocean through conscious breathwork techniques. Hamilton’s full-circle mentality emphasized both sustainability and safety—his big wave upbringing gave him insight into the ocean’s raw danger, further fueling his advocacy for young surfers to build proper foundations.

Fitness and Philosophy

Now in his late 50s, Laird Hamilton continues pursuing an elite physical regimen that underscores his life-long commitment to riding surfing’s cutting-edge. Whether it’s grueling breath holds, underwater weight training, or arduous calisthenic circuits, his daily disciplines still leave athletes half his age in awe. Hamilton’s distinct philosophy focuses on developing functional, explosive full-body strength and flexibility conducive to dynamic ocean activities.

This never-stagnant approach mirrors his overarching life credo of constant self-improvement and expansion of human limitations. Hamilton has authored books and delivered motivational speeches further championing the spiritual connection between movement, breath, and harnessing the ocean’s primal vitality forces. Following his lead, a new generation of cross-training surfers continue emerging to tastefully blur the boundaries of optimal big wave surfers and human performance.

The mental aspects of Laird’s approach further ensure he’ll be remembered as surfing’s ultimate waterman. From championing ocean sustainability to embracing surfing’s spiritual communion with the natural world, his character and philosophies transcend just being a stellar wave-rider. 

The Legends of Surf

These five favorite surfers and icons—Duke Kahanamoku, Kelly Slater, Bethany Hamilton, Layne Beachley, and Laird Hamilton—represent surfing’s driving forces of creativity, athleticism, resilience, and spirituality. Their triumphs, innovations, and philosophies continue inspiring future generations to push boundaries in and out of the water while honouring surfing’s sacred soul.

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