Bodysurfing Legend

Gary Kewley
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Friday - July 08, 2005
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Bodysurfing legend Mark
Cunningham

Aloha surf and beach lovers, The Fourth of July has come and gone in brilliant flashes as we continue living the good life — the free life! We had 2- to 3- foot South Shore waves then and we have ’em now. Yes, the waves of summer roll on this weekend, too, with enough for all. It just makes you feel blessed.

Speaking of blessed … I had the pleasure and privilege of catching bodysurfing legend Mark Cunningham at his Kawela Bay hideaway. Mark has just retired from lifeguarding the heavy waters of the North Shore for 25 full years. The man who first charged giant Pipeline without a board is not even 50. Being so young and having done so much with his honorable career, you gotta envy Mark just a little. I mean, he spent the first part of his youth hanging out with his lifeguard friends and team on the beach at Pipe, and now he gets to choose chapter 2 at his leisure — sweet! And talking with Mark, you can’t help but feel his gratitude and stoke with his life as a true waterman. I felt it, big time. Check it out …

Part one of our interview.

Mark grew up in Niu Valley and honed his craft at Sandy’s and Makapu‘u before heading out to the country in the mid ’70s. It was there he eventually knew he belonged. Mark could handle the big surf not just because he’s a natural, but because he was in top shape from competitive collegelevel water polo. A lean, mean, 6-foot-4-inch bodysurfing machine, his 175 pounds were ready when the 175-ton waves were ready. The good thing is that Pipe and the North Shore weren’t nearly as crowded as today. That gave Mark more opportunities to pick off waves on great days and literally carve out a niche for himself — with his body! Back then and even now, with few exceptions …


Mr. Cunningham goes farther and faster than any human without a surfboard. His gutsy, skilled performances stunned viewers — yet at the same time they were captivated by the simplicity and beauty of his act.

GQ: Share with me some of those moments when you caught waves at Pipe 10-12 feet when surf was so heavy and big it wasn’t meant to be bodysurfed at that period (mid ’70s and into the ’80s).

MC: Maybe the waves were a little bigger and I was a little dumber than I care to recall right now, but two things helped: The equipment back then for board surfers wasn’t allowing them to take off so critical as they do today, plus there were no bodyboarders — overall it was less crowded. This allowed me to catch more waves, mostly from the shoulder. Plus, bodysurfing and I clicked early on. I just really loved being immersed and embraced by the ocean — being a part of it. There’s a freedom about it. It’s like suspended animation — being a part of the ocean instead of on top of it — but I love that, too. It’s all a free ride.

GQ: Do you have a favorite wave in mind?

MC: (pause) No … it’s been 35 years of charging pretty hard — so many days, so many waves. It’s all a blur — just a billion waves, a zillion good times. I feel so lucky. But one thing that breaks my heart, Gary, is that after all these years and being asked about it, I still can’t adequately describe how bitchin’ it feels … how cool it is.

GQ: Are you competitive? Is that part the reason you charged so hard?

MC: I didn’t compete at Pipe for glory or prize money — there was none — but to have Pipe good and empty.

GQ: What was the essence of your inspiration?

MC: There were moments of just absolute clarity out there … where I was just so clear … that where I was living and what I was doing was making me the luckiest guy in the world … like I was doing the absolute right thing for me. The bodysurfing just went so hand-in-hand with lifeguarding — that my favorite pastime was job-related.

GQ: Oh my God.

MC:Yeah, I know.


Cunningham goes far and fast — without a
board

GQ: How do you stay in shape?

MC: I always had events to train for, ’cause I was never the most disciplined. You have to train wiser as you get older. I’d say I’m gonna participate in that event and I’m gonna train ’cause I don’t wanna be embarrassed. I’m also getting into yoga now, and there’s some wonderful classes on the North Shore. It just seems like the right thing for me at this stage — three to four times a week. I wished I’d gotten into yoga a long time ago.

GQ: Given the choice between yoga and Pipe?

MC: I’ll take Pipe.

GQ:Your favorite wave in the world?

MC: I’ll take Pipe. I just have so many friends there and it brings back so many memories.

GQ: I can see us running out of space for one Weekend. I’m going to save some more of this interview for next week. But before I do … two more questions. First, something off your gratitude list?

MC: Props to my co-workers — the team, the entire lifeguard agency, the North Shore community and its cast of characters. I’ve just been so lucky to be a part of it all. I have no words to describe my gratitude.

GQ: What words could you share for our surfing/ocean sport youth?

MC: Have fun, be safe, respect the ocean. Know yourself, your abilities, your limits. Remember — no matter if it’s board surfing, bodysurfing, bodyboarding, kite or windsurfing, have fun. Be with people who are there for a good time and exercise.

Well, I’d like to say that says it all … but I’d be lying. So be ready for more from our buddy Mark Cunningham next Weekend … right here stoked!

I’m GQ dropping in for you!

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