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The waves returned to Waimea Bay for the 2023 Eddie Aikau Invitational. (Photo: Getty Images)

A Beach Lifeguard Just Won the Super Bowl of Big-Wave Surfing

Luke Shepardson took a break from the lifeguard chair to win the Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational

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Luke Shepardson took a break from his busy work schedule to win one of pro surfing’s most prestigious competitions.

No, really.

Shepardson, 27, is a lifeguard with the City and County of Honolulu, and on Sunday he was slated to work on Oahu’s North Shore. But Shepardson is also a top surfer, and had secured an invitation Sunday’s Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational, the Super Bowl for big-wave surfers that hadn’t been held since 2016. Shepardson worked his shift, and then paddled out into the thumping swell at Waimea Bay to participate in the event. He rode a series of monster waves—including a 30 footer—to record the highest score, earning 89.1 of a possible 90 points. He nudged defending champ John John Florence out for the win.

In a scene that appeared even too weird for Hollywood, a wide-eyed Shepardson stood on the stage clad in his work uniform—yellow lifeguarding shirt and red board shorts—to accept his win.

“I told myself I’m in it because I can win it,” Shepardson told a local TV news reporter, looking dazed. “That’s what I was telling myself all day. Super scary, waves were huge. It’s a dream come true to be a part of the Eddie, to just be on the alternate list, and then to be in it, I can’t believe it, f—— crazy.”

Shepardson then added that his workday wasn’t over—he had to get back to the lifeguard tower.

The storybook ending was a fitting one for the competition—known affectionately as “The Eddie” in surfing circles—due to its historical ties to lifesaving. Part surf tournament, part cultural event, the competition’s namesake, legendary Hawaiian surfer Eddie Aikau, is said to have been the first lifeguard to patrol the island’s dangerous North Shore. He died in 1978 while attempting to save the crew of a canoe, and the Aikau family began the competition in 1984 as a way to honor his memory. But the competition is only held when the waves top 20 feet at Waimea Bay for a long enough duration for top pros to arrive—conditions that require just the right combination of swell, wind, and sunshine. The 2023 event marked just its tenth edition since its origin.

Historically, the competition gives surfers 48 hours to get to Hawaii if the waves are good enough. That hadn’t happened for seven years, and it looked like the 2023 edition might be a bust as well. Shortly after the event announced in early January it would run this year, organizers called it off after the forecasted swell looked smaller than expected. Organizers delayed the event from January 10 until January 22.

The delay allowed the hype to reach a fever pitch, and according to multiple reports, approximately 50,000 spectators lined the beach at Waimea Bay to take in the waves. The lineup of surfers was equally as impressive, with Florence, father-and-son duo Mason and Michael Ho, and big-wave champions Billy Kemper and Kai Lenny, among others.

“We’ve all had the Eddie Aikau posters in our rooms growing up, so to have the opportunity to actually go out there for Eddie and his ohana, the Aikaus, was a dream come true for me,” Lenny told The New York Times.

These days, the Aikau family hand picks the surfers invited to compete. According to the North Shore Lifeguard Association, Shepardson was among three lifeguards selected, alongside Dave Wassel and Joe Cadiz.

The 2023 edition marked a historic first for the competition—six women were invited to surf: Makani Adric, Paige Alms, Justine Dupont, Emily Erickson, Keala Kennelly, and Andrea Moller. Kennelly was an alternate to participate in the 2016 edition, but 2023 marked the first bonafide lineup of women surfers. Moller paddled into a breaking swell during the first set to become the first woman to catch a wave in the event’s history. K Mindy Pennybacker, a columnist with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, told NBC News that surfing culture has assumed that Waimea was simply too dangerous for female surfers.

“To see women—not only women surfing Waimea but women and men sharing the same event together, with mutual respect and equality—I’m just really thrilled at the thought,” Pennybacker said.

Lead Photo: Getty Images

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