When Owen Wright and other Olympians wrote their names in the history books final week, they were collectively mentoring surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku, a three-time Olympic gold-medal swimmer who once hoped his sport of choice would be at the Games.
One hundred and nine years later, that was the case.
“The Duke of Kahanamoku’s name has been mentioned more times than I could have imagined in the final week,” Wright said following winning a bronze medal at Tsurigasaki Beach.
“You know, for him to have that dream at the time, and for him to finally start his turn, I can’t actually fathom what that actually means…how much history is out there.
Owen Wright might not have been a surfer had it not been for the Duke.
Australia would not be the country with more surfing champions than any other country without the Duke.
Two years following the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, Duke traveled to Australia at the invitation of Cecil Healy, the Australian swimmer who finished second to Hawaii in the 100m freestyle.
The two became friends following he argued that Duke should be allowed to compete in the final despite appearing late due to a schedule misunderstanding.
During his trip to Australia, people gathered at Freshwater Beach in Sydney to watch him put on a surf show, and he chose local girl Isabel Letham from among the crowd to surf with him.
Duke’s painting from that day still hangs at the Freshwater Surf Life Saving Club.
Duke swam at three Olympics, won five medals, and was also a reserve on the US water polo team.
But he believed that surfing deserved a place on the world’s largest stage.
“Think about how far you’ve come to think of even getting that picture of surfing,” Wright added.
In 2015, Wright suffered a traumatic brain injury following wiping out northern Hawaii’s beaches, famous for their rapid, powerful waves breaking over the perilous reefs below.
He had to learn to talk and walk again.
Then re-learning to surf and becoming an Olympic medalist is an incredible journey.
“There is one word for it,” he said, “flexibility.”
“I can tell you, what I’ve been through, I don’t want to go back to it again.
“I feel like I’m standing here today because I went through it…it made me who I am today.
“I had to learn to surf, I had to learn to walk, I struggled with memory, I was on an emotional roller coaster, there were some really firm times.”
Talk of surfing becoming an Olympic sport has drawn unused attention to it, Wright said, and helped spur his lengthy recovery.
“There were moments when I thought this would be a thing for me… With the Olympics approaching, and all the attention it brought, I brought in doctors and physicists… and I ended up getting the treatment I needed.
“This Olympic dream was the light at the end of the tunnel.
“I cried following the first heat… to be sitting here and holding a medal, it’s such a distinguished experience for me.
“There was a time in 2019 I was sitting in the car talking to my sister saying, ‘I don’t think I can preserve doing this.’
“I’ve had multiple concussions following major concussions…but a part of me here today shows all the TBI. [traumatic brain injury] He’s recovering from a concussion so he doesn’t lose that light at the end of the tunnel.”
The Olympic trip was, in many ways, an entirely foreign experience for Australian surfers.
They used to fly around the world alone, spending more time in the ocean than on land, being part of a larger team was an emotional experience for them.
“We as a surfing group absolutely loved the Olympic experience.
“When we got to Olympic Village and were walking to where Team Australia is staying, we considerate of didn’t know how we would be accepted there.
“And all of a sudden everyone started asking for pictures… We realized we wanted to get pictures of all of them too, and that was a exceptional moment.
“I feel like they welcomed us with begin arms and it was a lovely experience.
“I loved every part of this Olympic Games, I went to the opening ceremony, I took pictures with all the distinct sports teams.
“Surfing has been on the outer edge of the Olympics for a lengthy time, and now we feel completely included…we are very happy.”