Riding Waves While Saving Lives: Local Lifeguard Wins Surfing’s Biggest Event

It’s the kind of sports story that transcends cliches.

Surfing’s most prestigious and mercurial competition — named for a legendary Hawaiian lifeguard — gets an auspicious champion: a little-known surfer, who competed during breaks from his own lifeguarding job in Oahu.

Luke Shepardson, 27, received one of surfing’s highest honors on Saturday by winning the Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational. He defeated many of the sport’s most iconic athletes, including 2016 defending champ John John Florence.

That was the most recent year this competition ran, partly because it’s only held when the waves at Oahu’s Waimea Bay reach heights over 12 meters — a rare occurance.

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Surfers take the drop in the Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational on December 8, 2009, at Waimea Bay, Hawaii. Photo: Shutterstock


This year’s competition invited 40 surfers, including both professional athletes and local legends, to ride waves exceeding 15 meters. About 60,000 spectators watched surfing’s most iconic event from the beach and nearby cliffs.

Even before Shepardson was declared the winner, the event’s commentators noted the young gun’s stellar performance and commitment.

The surfer started the day asking his boss for one-hour breaks to compete in the invitational, known simply as “The Eddie” among surfing aficionados.

“Talk about an inspirational story,” one of the commentators said in the competition video below. “No time off for Luke Shepardson. It’s either you’re saving people or you’re charging Waimea.”

‘Off the charts’ performance from Shepardson

Even surfing’s biggest fans acknowledged that this year’s Eddie Aikau event was something special.

This marked the 10th running of the competition, which began its rise to international prestige in 1985.

“It went to some other immortal level,” Surfline wrote. “And magically enough, an event in honor of the most renowned lifeguard in surfing history was won by a young Bay lifeguard… In a brilliant second round heat, [Shepardson] decisively broke a tight race with John John Florence, Mark Healey, and Billy Kemper to take out The Eddie in his first year.”

Event commentators also noted Shepardson’s breathtaking performance early on: “the waves, the lines, the commitment — off the charts.”

He ended the competition with a near-perfect score of 89 (out of a possible 90). When the results came in, Shepardson found himself lifted up on the shoulders of admirers while still wearing his uniform: red board shorts and a yellow lifeguard shirt.

“I can’t believe it, it’s surreal, it’s a dream come true,” Shepardson told The New York Times.

Eddie Aikau: More than a surfer

For surfers and spectators, The Eddie represents more than just a big-wave competition. It’s a cultural event celebrating the life of Aikau, the Oahu surfer who became the North Shore’s first lifeguard.

He saved the lives of more than 500 people in his career, racing into dangerous waves that no one else would tackle. For that reason, every competitor’s jersey included the event catchphrase: “Eddie Would Go.”

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Luke Shepardson posing for photos before returning to his job as a lifeguard. Photo: Shutterstock


Aikau died in 1978 as part of a canoe voyage trying to retrace the ancient Polynesian migration route between Hawaii and Tahiti.

For Shepardson’s part, he briefly celebrated his win, then returned to the duty that made Aikau as beloved as he was famous.

“I’ve got to get back to the tower,” said Shepardson, according to The NYT. “I got to get back to the tower to make sure everyone is OK until the end of the day.”

Andrew McLemore

An award-winning journalist and photographer, Andrew McLemore brings more than 14 years of experience to his position as Associate News Editor for Lola Digital Media. Andrew is also a musician, climber and traveler who currently lives in Medellin, Colombia. When he’s not writing, playing gigs or exploring the outdoors, he’s hanging out with his dog Campana.