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Lessons Learned From Aunty Rell

City lifeguard Jenny Lee smiles from her tower at Waikiki Beach as she watches young surfers tear up the waves at Queen’s Surf. It’s in moments like this when Lee reminisces about the good old days at Makaha Beach, where she discovered her love for the ocean and the aloha spirit.

Her mentor was one of Hawaii’s greatest surfers and lifeguards, the Queen of Makaha, Rell Sunn.

“She embodied the aloha spirit and made everyone feel special, like you knew her your entire life,” says the 31-year-old Lee of Sunn, who lost her 14-year battle with cancer in 1998. “I strive to be like Aunty Rell and treat everyone with kindness and aloha. Even in competition, it’s not about winning, it’s about sharing the aloha spirit and showing who we are as a people.”

City lifeguard Jenny Lee surfing Photo courtesy Paul Teruya

City lifeguard Jenny Lee surfing Photo courtesy Paul Teruya

Lee is one of thousands who benefited from Sunn’s generosity and wisdom. She was also one of many surfers who excelled in Sunn’s menehune surf contests and eventually competed around the globe.

“We looked forward to getting ready for Aunty Rell’s menehune contests,” says Lee, who started competing in local events at the age of 8 and went on to become one of the state’s top longboarders for many years. “It was such a memorable time for all of us.”

And it was because of those wonderful memories made at Makaha that she and her childhood friends Dustin and Sheena Barrett, and her boyfriend, well-respected waterman Alfred Van Gieson, came up with an idea during a day at the beach.

“We were barbecuing with our kids at (Nanakuli) Tracks (across from the Kahe Power Plant), and they kept telling us, ‘Look at us, Mom, watch me!'” she laughs. “We told them, ‘OK, this is the final heat of the Tracks Showdown!'”

It was the humble beginnings of a new event: the inaugural Tracks Showdown.

“We wanted to have something for our children to help them do more tricks on their bodyboards so they can be prepared when they make the jump to surfboards and Aunty Rell’s menehune contests,” says Lee.

The bodyboard competition for the seven keiki was simple and fun: two divisions, one for boys and one for girls, with each heat lasting 25 minutes.

“We wrote scores one through 10 on paper plates,” laughs Lee. “The kids caught waves and were anxiously waiting to see what kind of scores they got. It was funny because other kids on the beach were wondering what was going on!”

And like Sunn’s events for the past 38 years, everyone in the Tracks Showdown went home a winner!

“We actually gave them a dollar each,” chuckles Lee. “We told them next year we’re going big and provide them with better prizes. They’re excited! It was our chance to spend time with our kids and get in the water with them. We enjoyed giving them advice and watching them experience competition. It was the same thing we experienced with Aunty Rell.”

Six years ago, Lee made the transition to stand up surfing and continues to compete in events when she’s not working the lifeguard towers at Waikiki and Ala Moana beaches. Despite her busy schedule, she hopes the Tracks Showdown will become an annual event so more keiki can enjoy the spirit of competition.

“We would love that,” says Lee. “Some children don’t get opportunities to experience competition; a lot of them don’t even have a way to get to town. For them, even winning a dollar or having somebody pay attention to them means a lot.”

Aunty Rell would be proud.