When Owen Wright and the other first Olympic surfers wrote their names into the history books this past week, they were collectively channelling surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku, a three-time Olympic gold medal swimmer who hoped one day his sport of choice would also be at the Games.
One hundred and nine years later, it was.
“Duke Kahanamoku’s name was mentioned more times than I could ever imagine this past week,” Wright said after winning a bronze medal at Tsurigasaki Beach.
“You know, for him to have that dream way back then and for it to finally come into play, I can’t actually grasp what that actually means … how much history there is there.”
Owen Wright may never have been a surfer if it wasn’t for the Duke.
Australia would not be the nation with more world surfing champions than any other if it hadn’t been for the Duke.
A couple of years after the Stockholm 1912 Olympics, Duke travelled to Australia at the invitation of Cecil Healy, an Australian swimmer who finished second to the Hawaiian in the 100 metres freestyle event.
The two had become friends after he argued Duke should be allowed to compete in the final despite turning up late because of a scheduling misunderstanding.
During his trip to Australia people gathered on Sydney’s Freshwater Beach to watch him give a display of surfboard riding, picking local girl Isabel Letham out of the crowd to surf tandem with him.
Duke’s board from that day still hangs in the Freshwater Surf Life Saving Club.
Duke swam at three Olympic Games, collecting five medals, and was also a reserve on the US water polo team.
But it was surfing that he believed deserved a place on the world’s biggest stage.
“Think about how forward-thinking you are to even have that picture for surfing,” Wright added.
In 2015 Wright suffered a traumatic brain injury after a wipe-out on Hawaii’s north shore, notorious for its fast, powerful waves breaking over a dangerous reef below.
He had to re-learn how to talk and walk.
To then re-learn to surf and become an Olympic medallist is an incredible journey.
“There’s one word for it, resilience,” he said.
“I can tell you, what I’ve been through, I never want to go through that again.
“I feel like I’m standing here today because I’ve been through that … it made me who I am today.
“I had to learn to surf, I had to learn to walk, I struggled with memory, I’ve been on an emotional roller-coaster, there’ve been some really hard times.”
Wright said the talk around surfing becoming an Olympic sport brought new attention to it, and helped motivate him on his long recovery.
“There were moments where I thought this is going to be something for me … and with the Olympics coming on, and all the attention it brought, it brought in doctors, physios … and I ended up getting the treatment I needed.
“This Olympic dream was the light at the end of the tunnel.
“I cried after my first heat … to be sitting here with a medal, for me it’s just an incredible experience.
“There was a time in 2019 I was sitting in the car talking to my sister saying, ‘I don’t think I can keep doing this.’
“I had had multiple concussions after a major concussion … but part of me being here today is showing all TBI [traumatic brain injury] recoverees and concussion recoverees to don’t lose that light at the end of the tunnel.”
The Olympic journey, in many ways, has been a completely foreign experience for the Australian surfers.
Used to flying around the world on their own, spending more time in the ocean than on land, being part of a bigger team has been an emotional experience for them.
“Us as a surfing group have absolutely loved the Olympic experience.
“When we arrived at the Olympic village and we were walking down to where Team Australia was staying we kind of didn’t really know how we would be accepted there.
“And all of a sudden everyone started to come up asking for photos … we realised we wanted to get photos with all of them as well and that embrace, that was a special moment.
“I feel like they welcomed us with open arms and it was a beautiful experience.
“I have loved every part of this Olympics, I went to the opening ceremony, I’ve taken photos with all the different sport teams.
“Surfing has been on the outer edge of the Olympics for so long and now we just feel totally included … we’re very happy.”