Surfer Inspiration: Kathy Kohner

Born in the mid-50s in Brentwood, California, Kathy Kohner began surfing at the age of 15. She spent most of her childhood on Malibu’s beaches, becoming a sort of mascot for the local scene there. Her proximity to Malibu allowed her to befriend and surf with seminal surfer like Terry “Tubesteak” Tracy, Johnny Fain, Miki Dora, and Dewey Weber.

You may know Kathy Kohner by a different name: Gidget. According to David Rensin’s All For a Few Perfect Waves, Terry “Tubesteak” Tracy gave her the nickname as a kid, calling her a “girl-midget.” The name stuck around. When Kohner explained her exploits in Malibu to her father (and journaled about her trips privately), Frederick Kohner, a screenwriter, wrote Gidget: The Little Girl with Big Ideas. The novel was completed in a month and a half, full of young Kohner’s stories from the beach.

The book was eventually turned into a movie in 1959, spawning a surfing phenomenon. Malibu was taken by storm as armies of inland surfers moved to the coast in search of their chance to embody the surfer’s lifestyle. Most surfing historians consider this to be the true beginning of the surfer culture as we know it today. One year later, Surfer Magazine was founded. A year after that, the Beach Boys began their rise to fame.

In the following decade, Gidget’s father wrote and released several additional Gidget novels and films. She still surfs annually to benefit a cancer charity, and she was named Number 7 in Surfer Magazine‘s 25 Most Influential People in Surfing. In 2011, she was inducted in to the Surfing Walk of Fame in the Woman of the Year Category.

Surfer Inspiration: Duke Kahanamoku

If you’ve ever stepped onto a surfboard, you have Duke Kahanamoku to thank. Known colloquially as “The Duke,” Kahanamoku was born in Honolulu Hawaii in 1890. The first of nine children, Duke is responsible for spreading the love and compassion concomitant with the surfer lifestyle.

At age 20, the Duke broke the American short-distance swimming record for the 50-yard sprint, then beat the 100-yard world record by close to five seconds. In 1912, he set another world record, winning gold in both the 100 and 400-meter freestyle relay at the Stockholm Olympics. From a young age, Duke was a menace in the water. The popularity and global acclaim later brought him to the front of the public’s perception of surfing.

Between Olympic competitions, as well as after his Olympic retirement, the Duke began to travel internationally to give swimming exhibitions. This widespread travel and teaching experience allowed him to popularize the sport of surfing; previously, it had only been known in Hawaii. He incorporated surfing exhibitions into these visits, and his Australian show in 1914 is regarded as a seminal event in the development of surfing in the country.

Later in life, Kahanamoku lived in Southern California, performing in Hollywood as a background actor and character actor in several films. Though this may have been for personal interest, the connections resulted in his knowing and befriending people who could further publicize the sport of surfing.

Kahanamoku died of a heart attack in January of 1968 at the age of 77. The City of Honolulu commemorated his Waikiki Beach burial site with a 9-foot cast bronze statue of the Duke.