Hawaii’s Surfing Congresswoman
Somewhere in between House Armed Services Committee meetings on Capitol Hill and talk-story sessions in Kona, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard makes time for something most of her colleagues in Washington, D.C., wouldn’t even imagine doing, unless maybe they were vacationing in Hawaii.
“During the district work week that I’m home, I make it a priority to paddle out for at least two to three dawn patrol surf sessions,” says Gabbard. “It’s a fun way to start the day and gives me clarity as I hit the road to visit each of the islands in my district.”
Being in the ocean always has given her life balance, and more so now with such a demanding schedule. The busy legislative calendar in Washington, D.C., allows her to return home only once or twice a month and usually for about a week at a time, so time is truly of the essence when it comes to getting in the ocean.
“As soon as I walk off the plane, my normal routine is to go home, drop my bags and head straight to the ocean for a swim!” she says with excitement. “Even if it’s just a five-minute swim, it is so refreshing and washes away all of the Washington stuff!”
In fact, besides U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, Gabbard is likely one of only a few members of Congress who regularly gets in the ocean, let alone surf.
“Many of my colleagues don’t envy the long flight to and from D.C., but what they don’t dispute is how great it is that, at the end of that long flight, I’m in Hawaii,” says Gabbard, one of the first two female combat veterans, and the first Hindu and first female of Samoan ancestry to serve as a member of U.S. Congress.
“They look with envy and amusement at the surfing pictures and stories I bring back from home. I invite both my Democrat and Republican colleagues to come and visit Hawaii so they can understand why and how Hawaii is unique and special, and why it’s so important to protect the home that we love. My offers of a surf lesson is a definite deal sweetener!”
Gabbard’s love for the ocean was something she discovered early in life when she learned to swim at Ala Moana Beach, during what she calls “small-kid time.”
“I started bodyboarding as a teenager, and after I caught my first wave, I was hooked,” she says. “Eventually I moved on to surfing when I was 18 or 19, and basically taught myself. A lot of wipeouts were involved!”
But before the wipeouts, bottom-turns and long rides, Gabbard realized as a young teenager that her passion for the ocean was something that drove her and perhaps was the catalyst to a life of service.
“As a teenager paddling out into the ocean, I got angry when I saw a bunch of trash floating around,” recalls Gabbard, who served two tours of duty in the Middle East and continues to serve as a captain in Hawaii National Guard’s 29th Brigade Combat Team. “I decided to do something about it and co-founded a nonprofit called Healthy Hawaii Coalition with my dad (Mike). It’s an all-volunteer organization committed to protecting the environment, teaching our keiki and improving individual and community health.”
She’s never looked back, but she knows finding ocean time is crucial to her physical, spiritual and mental health.
“The atmosphere, culture and pace in Washington, D.C., are very different from home, and sometimes it’s easy for people to lose focus on what’s most important,” explains Gabbard.
“There are always so many demands on our time, and it’s easy to blink and realize that you haven’t been to the ocean in a year, or years. Every time I land at Honolulu International Airport, I step off the plane and take a deep breath of the sweet ocean trade winds. My shoulders drop, I’m relieved to be home and I’m reminded about why I do what I do in Washington.”