As one of the most popular sports across the world, surfing has a long and diverse history of producing incredible athletes that have contributed significantly toward the sport, but who are the greatest surfers of all time, and what did they achieve?
While it is impossible to narrow down an objective list of the greatest surfers of all time, this list of 20 surfers spans multiple decades, styles, genders, and nationalities to find those surfers that helped bring popularity to the sport, broke new ground, and achieved titles while doing so!
Given the shifting narrative and popularity of surfing over the decades, this list looks to honor those surfers not only on objective, measurable standards such as titles, trophies, or salaries but also on subjective impacts on the surfing community.
- 1. Duke Kahanamoku
- 2. Tom Curren
- 3. Kathy Kohen – Zuckerman
- 4. Sharron Webber
- 5. Mark Richards
- 6. Kelly Slater
- 7. Layne Beachley
- 8. Laird Hamilton
- 9. Stephanie Gilmore
- 10. Lisa Anderson
- 11. Andy Irons
- 12. Mick Fanning
- 13. Tom Carroll
- 15. Jordy Smith
- 16. Wendy Botha
- 17. Joyce Hoffman
- 18. Gerry Lopez
- 19. Margo Oberg
- 20. Gabriel Medina
1. Duke Kahanamoku
It is no exaggeration to say that surfing, both as a recreational and professional sport, would not have the following or culture or associated with it had it not been for the “father of surfing,” Duke Kahanamoku.
Born in 1890 in Honolulu, Hawaii, Duke Kahanamoku, despite facing racial discrimination, competed as a swimmer for the United States in three Olympic Games between 1910 and 1924.
Following on the success of swimming, Duke Kahanamoku traveled the world giving swimming tutorials, surfing lessons, and surfboard carving tutorials to thousands of fans, as well as spreading the Hawaiian philosophy of aloha that came to dominate the culture of the sport, in turn creating a global phenomenon and pastime.
A world-renowned swimmer, surfer, actor, beach volleyball player, and businessman, Duke Kahanamoku earned has earned his place at the front and center of surfing culture and international stardom.
2. Tom Curren
Born in 1964 in California, Tom Curren was instrumental in establishing California’s global dominance of the sport and ending the long-established Australian supremacy of the sport up until the 1980s.
Tom Curren became the first American surfer to win an ASP men’s world championship in 1985, whereafter he claimed world championship titles in 1986 and 1990.
Following a hiatus in the 1990s, Tom Curren showed his talent into his 50s, wherein he scored a perfect ten ride in 2014 in a competition in Jeffrey’s Bay, South Africa.
3. Kathy Kohen – Zuckerman
Born in 1941 in California, Kathy “Gidget” Zuckerman was a cultural icon in the surfing world and continues to be an inspiration today for marginalized groups across the world.
As the inspiration behind the best-selling novel “Gidget: The Little Girl With Big Ideas,” Kathy Kohen-Zuckerman served as an iconic figure across multiple surfing media, showcasing the talent exhibited by female athletes in the sport.
4. Sharron Webber
Following from the success and groundwork laid by Kathy Kohen-Zuckerman in bringing surfing to a wider audience and highlighting the talent of its female athletes, Sharron Webber ran with this inspiration and dominated the female division.
Inducted in the Surfing Hall of Fame in 2013, Sharron Webber secured her position as the world’s first greatest female surfer in the professional scene, having been crowned a two-time world champion in the 1960s and winning six Hawaii state titles.
5. Mark Richards
Born in 1957 in Newcastle, Australia, Mark Richards established himself as one of the greatest surfers of all time and cemented Australia’s dominance as the best surfing nation in the world in the late 1970s.
Dubbed “the wounded seagull” for his unorthodox stance and style of surfing, Mark Richards won his first world title in 1975, where after he secured a then-unprecedented four consecutive world titles from 1979 to 1982.
Becoming the first “surfing champion” inductee in the Surfing Hall of Fame in 1994, Mark Richard’s accomplishments have extended beyond the surfing community and into international recognition, having received the Medal of the Order of Australia that same year, an Australian Sports Medal in 2000, and a Centenary medal in 2001.
6. Kelly Slater
While Mark Richard may have been the first surfer to achieve four consecutive world titles and Duke Kahanamoku may have been instrumental in establishing surfing culture, no surfer has seen the level of success on professional surfing than Kelly Slater.
Born in Florida in 1972, Kelly Slater, in terms of titles won, is undoubtedly the most successful and well-known surfer of all time.
Having secured over 55 career victories, 11 world titles, and the holder of both the youngest and oldest person to win a world championship, Kelly Slater is recognized in the sports pantheon alongside legends such as Michael Phelps, Michael Jordan, and Roger Federer.
Further to his success in competition, Kelly Slater has been instrumental in bringing surfing culture to a wider audience with endorsements and products in the form of surfing apparel, clothing, video games, and documentaries, to name but a few.
7. Layne Beachley
Shifting focus from the greatest male surfer of all time to the greatest female of all time, Layne Beachley is a surfing legend, having claimed an unprecedented six consecutive world titles.
Born in Sydney, Australia, in 1972, Layne Beachley enjoyed 29 victories over 19 years of surfing at the highest level, with her six consecutive world titles having been secured between 1998 to 2003 and her seventh and final title coming three years later in 2006.
A regular competitor against both male and female surfers during her career, Layne Beachley has continued her service to the sport and promotion of diversity as the current chair of Surfing Australia.
8. Laird Hamilton
The diversity of surfing extends not only to its competitors and styles on display but also to the type of surfing enjoyed by fans and competitors. To this end, Laird Hamilton is considered a pioneer of big-wave surfing.
Born in 1964 in California, Laird Hamilton expanded big-wave surfing through numerous media appearances, stunts, publications, and most notably as the co-inventor of tow-in surfing, paving the way for all future big-wave surfers.
9. Stephanie Gilmore
Yet another world-class female surfer from Australia, Stephanie Gilmore, born in 1988 in Murwillumbah, New South Wales, continues to be a competitor at the highest level and is expected by many to become the most decorated female surfer of all time.
Having secured her first world titles as a rookie, Stephanie Gilmore has since powered on to secure an additional six world titles, including four consecutive world titles.
Known for her high-line speed runs and smooth arcs, Stephanie Gilmore remains a fan favorite and contender for greatest of all time.
10. Lisa Anderson
Born in Florida in 1969, Lisa Anderson made history as the first person to surpass Mark Richards’ four consecutive world championship wins when she took home the titles from 1994 to 1997.
This dominance marked a further power shift from Australian global dominance to American global dominance when Lisa Anderson became the first female surfer in over a decade to feature on the cover of Surfer Magazine in 1996.
Having been named as one of Sports Illustrated’s 100 Greatest Sportswomen of the Century, Lisa Anderson has been instrumental in using her platform for the development of practical surfwear for women through her sponsor Roxy, as well as pioneering and securing equal pay for female surfers in 2018.
11. Andy Irons
Born in 1978 in Hawaii, Andy Irons achieved unprecedented success as the only surfer in history to win a title at every event on the ASP calendar; this, in turn, led to his achievement of three consecutive world titles from 2002 to 2004.
Considered one of the most dynamic, talented, and fearless surfers to ever compete in the sport, Andy Irons tragically passed away at the age of 32 in 2010, following a long battle with bipolar disorder and drug addiction.
Following his passing, the Andy Irons Foundation was established as a charitable organization that assists young people with mental illness, substance abuse, and learning disabilities through community upliftment programs.
12. Mick Fanning
Born in 1981 in Perth, Australia, Mick Fanning had to overcome various challenges and adversities on his way to three world championship titles in 2007, 2009, and 2013.
Including but not limited to the passing of his brother in a vehicle accident, the rupturing of his entire hamstring from his pelvic bone, and most notably surviving a shark attack in 2015 during a competition in Jeffrey’s Bay, South Africa.
In 2017, Mick Fanning was awarded an Officer of the Order of Australia for his service to surfing and his ongoing support of numerous charitable organizations.
13. Tom Carroll
Believed to be the sport’s first billionaire, the diminutive Tom Carroll was born in Newport, Australia, in 1961.
Having won the junior world championship at the age of 15, ongoing injuries and reconstructive knee surgery saw Tom Carroll face a series of hurdles in his career before securing two consecutive world titles from 1983 and 1984, as well as Pipe Master’s titles in 1987, 1991, and 1992.
Tom Carroll was also known for his activism, having boycotted the South African leg of the world tour in protest against apartheid in 1985, resulting in him losing the world title as a result.
15. Jordy Smith
Shifting away from the negatives of apartheid South Africa and focusing on one of the sport’s brightest stars since South Africa’s reintroduction into the sporting fraternity post-1994, we turn our focus to Jordy Smith.
While not a global household name like many others on this list, Jordy Smith, having been born in 1988 in Durban, South Africa, is a global ambassador for South African surfing and an inspiration to thousands of young fans in post-apartheid South Africa.
While ongoing injuries have continued to plague his career, Jordy Smith has secured, among other accolades, representation at the 2020 Summer Olympics, a Gold medal at the 2013 X-Games, and secured the World Qualifying Series title in 2007.
16. Wendy Botha
While not a surfing powerhouse like Australia or the United States of America, South African surfer Wendy Botha established herself as one of the most dominant female surfers in the sport in the 1980s and 1990s.
Born in 1965 from East London, South Africa, Wendy Botha established herself as the most dominant South African surfer of all time with four consecutive national championships from 1981 to 1984, three Surfer Poll awards, and for world titles in 1987, 1989, 1991, and 1992.
17. Joyce Hoffman
Born in 1947 in California, Joyce Hoffman was one of the most dominant surfers in the mid-1960s, as evidenced by her achievements in securing the US Surfing Championship for Women from 1965 to 1967 and again in 1971.
Further to the above, having been named as the only surfer in history to be awarded LA Times’ Woman of the year in 1965, Joyce Hoffman went on to secure the World Championship, and International Women’s Surfing Championship titles that very same year.
Outside of professional surfing, Joyce Hoffman continued her extreme sports success as being the first woman to surf the Banzai Pipeline in 1968 while featuring as a leading female motocross rider.
18. Gerry Lopez
Born in 1948 in Hawaii, Gerry Lopez, dubbed “Mr. Pipeline,” is that rare example of a personality extending well beyond the sport, despite having not committed to the pro tour on the level of his contemporaries.
Despite this absence of competitive surfing prowess, Gerry Lopez was renowned in the 1970s for his cool and calm demeanor as a pipeline surfer, resulting in his consecutive Pipeline Masters titles in 1972 and 1973.
Outside of surfing, Gerry Lopez has built a recognizable brand as an actor, journalist, and designer of both surfboards and snowboards.
19. Margo Oberg
Born in 1953 in California, few professional athletes have dominated a sport for over three decades to the extent that Margo Oberg has.
Having won her first surfing competition, aged 11, and her first world title, aged 15, Margo Oberg went on to dominate the sport in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s; her greatest success having come in the form of world titles in 1977, 1980, and 1981.
20. Gabriel Medina
Although this list mostly consists of older or retired surfers, it is important to conclude by looking to the future of the sport and the athletes making waves (both literally and figuratively) at the present moment.
Gabriel Medina, born in 1993 in Sao Paolo, Brazil, would be seen as leading the charge as the usual powerhouses of surfing in Australia, and the United States faces new challenges in the form of the growing professional scene emerging from Brazil.
Having won the 2014, 2018, and 2021 WSL World Championships while being spurred on by his Brazilian competitors, professional surfing will most likely see a new generation of South American athletes carve themselves in the sport’s history books!
While not a definitive, objective, or ordered list, the above showcases a cross-section of all the men and women through the years who changed surfing and continue to do so for future generations!
I’m an aged skateboarder and I still shred responsibly. I started skateboarding 25 years ago but also love surfing, snowboarding, or anything that involves a board.