Whomping for Gold

Will the Olympics kick the soul out of competitive bodysurfing?

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For decades, bodysurfing contests have felt more like arcane rituals than high-stakes competitions. Most are local affairs—equal parts family reunion, swim meet, and interpretive-dance recital—where the judging is loose and the winners are awarded folk-art-style trophies. In the water, competitors are generally indifferent to the scores and cheer each other into waves. For spectators on the beach, the action can be as coherent as underwater hockey. Crowds of fans? Nonexistent. The idea of sponsors? Laughable. It’s hard to imagine a less likely candidate for the global sports stage, yet bodysurfing could soon be in the Olympics.

“We’re targeting 2032 in Brisbane,” says Vince Askey, who cofounded USA BodySurfing with Randy Gilkerson, USA Surfing’s director, to create a new “national governing body” for the sport. “But 2028 in Los Angeles isn’t out of the question. The idea is to piggyback on USA Surfing’s success in Tokyo.” 

USA BodySurfing held its first of three contests in 2022 at Huntington Beach in February. The event drew many of California’s best bodysurfers from across the state, but was dominated by four young Hawaiians: Wyatt Yee, Keali‘i Punley, Dane Torres, and Kaneali‘i Wilcox. The group, part of a team flown to the event by swim-fin company DaFiN Hawaii, put on a show in the Men Under 45 final, unleashing a flurry of progressive tricks honed at their powerful home breaks. They spun like ball bearings in the pocket, defied physics with seamless shifts in rotational direction, carved wave faces as if their bodies had high-performance rails, porpoised in dramatic underwater entries, and performed front-flip-to-barrel combos, sticking the landings with ease. Their joyful display of wave riding was as excellent an argument for bodysurfing’s inclusion in the Olympics as any. 

New and old guards align at the USA BodySurfing event in Huntington Beach. Photo by Ryan Masters.

“We only know one way to bodysurf,” says Torres. “Even during a final, we’re out there having fun like always. Talking and laughing and cheering each other on.”

All four said they’d be honored to follow in Duke Kahanamoku’s footsteps by competing in the Olympics. “I’d really like to see bodysurfing elevated to that level,” says Torres, “but also remain underground and soulful. There’s a beauty to its anonymity. It has its own subcultural space in the wave-riding world.”

“It’s more than just a sport to us,” says Punley. “It’s our lifestyle and culture. It’s a really important art form. But that’s also why I’m for the Olympics. Why not go show the world our bodysurf kung fu? Let’s push it forward and expand.”

Longtime bodysurfing ambassador and DaFiN Hawaii rep Mark Cunningham has participated in hundreds of “hokey, Podunk” bodysurfing contests over the past 50 years. In fact, no one has competed in—or won—more events than Cunningham, who placed fourth in the Men 45 & Over division at Huntington Beach. Having long called “competitive bodysurfing” an oxymoron, Cunningham is somewhat wary of it becoming an Olympic sport.

“Does bodysurfing need to be homogenized, pasteurized, and cut-and-dried like everything else?” he says. “I don’t think so. But if it can also be a path for these young men, if it keeps them off the streets and gives them an identity like it gave me an identity, I’m all for it.”

[Feature Photo by Ryan Masters]