Opinion: Bethany Hamilton wipes out on the wave of change

Surf Opinion
Kat Chodaczek/The Occidental

Heʻe nalu is the Native Hawaiian term for surfing — heʻe means “to slide” and nalu means “to ponder.” It’s a fluid term, one that is meant to mimic the water’s natural movements of ebb and flow and the surfer’s response and reverence to the ocean. It perfectly encapsulates the unconformity that the ocean brings, the adaptiveness that surfers must equip themselves with for any unexpected moment. Heʻe nalu inherently reflects a willingness to sit, wait, listen and change with the natural environment. Being born and raised in Hawaiʻi, I grew up surfing surrounded by “aunties” and “uncles” who personified the ocean as a being with mana or power. Surfing in Hawaiʻi is considered not only a physical activity, but a way of thinking about our natural environments in relation to our physical place in the world. For a surfer who represents Hawaiʻi in the World Surf League (WSL), Bethany Hamilton is not representing these core Native Hawaiian values of heʻe nalu.

If her name sounds familiar, it’s because Hamilton may be one of the world’s most well-known underdogs. At just 13 years old, Hamilton lost her arm in a shark attack but continued to surf competitively one month after the accident, going on to win national titles nearly two years later. She continues to be an active female surfer in the WSL today, but that may not be for long.

In an Instagram video posted Feb. 4, Hamilton stated that she will not participate in any WSL events if a new rule that allows transgender female surfers to participate in the women’s division if they maintain a testosterone level of less than 5 nmo/L for at least a year prior to the competition is implemented. The rule takes after the International Surfing Association’s policy on transgender inclusion in the women’s division. According to the video, Hamilton feels that it is an unfair match for female surfers who aren’t transgender, arguing that it would be fairer if transgender athletes had a separate division to compete in.

In her Instagram video, Hamilton asks the viewer to consider other sports like running and swimming as examples of competitive sports that have not implemented specific transgender policies in their respective professional leagues. But, these sports don’t have the same nuanced history as that of surfing — the sport of running was introduced in ancient Greece 2,700 years ago and swimming originated in ancient Greek and Assyrian societies before becoming a sport in 19th century London. Rather, surfing is rooted in the idea of inclusivity and change.

Historians believe that surfing dates back to the first Polynesian settlers in Hawaiʻi around 700 A.D. Chiefs and commoners of all genders participated in surfing around the islands and eventually it became institutionalized through temples, deities and lighthearted contests. Surfing was an integral part of Native Hawaiian culture until the 1820s, when Anglo-American missionaries settled in Hawaiʻi and condemned the Native Hawaiian practice. This coincided with the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 that completely stripped Native Hawaiians of the connections to their ancient past. The impact was not only on the activity itself — surf chants that had been passed down orally for generations, board construction rites that were carried out through craftsmanship and gods that were once followed for surfing all diminished. Heʻe nalu became a thing of the past.

That is, until Duke Kahanamoku garnered worldwide attention for Hawaiian water sports like swimming and surfing after competing in the 1912 Olympics. Mainstream Western culture appropriated surfing, commodifying it for competitions and creating a tourist industry off of its tropical past. Fast forward to more than 100 years later and surfing has become more popular now than ever before, especially with its introduction as an Olympic sport in 2021. But with its increased popularity and growing competitiveness, it is important not to forget where surfing came from in the first place and its cultural ties to an indigenous population.

Recalling heʻe nalu, we can relate our society’s cultural acceptance of transgender athletes into mainstream sports to the welcoming of change associated with this term. If Hamilton’s resistance shows anything, it is blunt evidence of neglecting the recognition of the ancient Hawaiian function of surfing.

Hamilton must reevaluate her role as a surfer representing Hawaiʻi and the history of her sport. Surfing continues to be a critical part of Native Hawaiian culture, and its origination coincides at a time when māhū, a people of a third gender whose spirituality reflects male and female characteristics, were not only present in society, but were revered. Surfing has and always will be rooted in its practice of inclusivity, using the ocean and its natural playground as an equalizer for people of all backgrounds. Excluding transgender women, especially given the foundation of heʻe nalu as a constantly changing and flowing practice, is misguided and perpetuates the neglect of ancient Hawaiian history that has so long been forgotten, specifically when it comes to surfing.

When my father moved to Hawaiʻi from New York to live with my mother’s family, he had little knowledge of surf culture. Equipped with a nine foot longboard rock n’ roll-ified with spray painted flames, his knowledge of surfing was to the extent of how to catch a wave. It wasn’t until he began surfing at the historic Queens surf break with a local coworker at his first job that he was able to understand its cultural importance, its history. He was an outsider and knew it too. But, being an outsider in a culture so deeply developed should not limit anyone from learning and respecting its history. Hamilton must do the same: she must reevaluate her place in representing the Hawaiian flag and reconnect with the origins of heʻe nalu. By placing a label on who gets to participate, Hamilton neglects the true meaning of wave riding and its connection to the indigenous people who embodied it. Surfing, no matter where it is now, came from a place of respecting the ocean’s unpredictability. Surfers, then, are responsible for yielding to this power not only of the ocean, but the changing times of surfing as a sport. Surfing capitalizes on a changing motion of a flat ocean. An incoming wave is on the horizon —let’s start paddling.

Contact Mia Anzalone at anzalonem@oxy.edu.


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