Hawaii happy and proud of skilled bodysurfer who’s made it to the Oval Office

WHEN many islanders look at Barack Obama, they see not only the next president, but a skilled bodysurfer, a man who flashes the “shaka” or hang loose sign, and someone who wears the same rubber slippers they do.

Hawaii is overflowing with pride that a son of the islands who shares their culture and traditions is going to the White House. Now that Obama is back in the islands for the winter holidays, the state is giddy.

On Tuesday, supporters squealed, screamed and shouted “thank you” when he visited the Honolulu Zoo with his daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7.

Last weekend, supporters clamoured to shake his hand and take his picture when he visited a store selling shave ice — a local version of the snow cone. “It means a lot to the state, to the people,” said Damon Kakalia, a mason, while bodysurfing at Obama’s favourite break, Sandy’s. “People back him up 100% here.” In some ways, locals are still trying to get used to the idea that someone born and raised in this small, isolated island state is going to occupy the Oval Office.

“He is so well balanced and worked so hard to get to this point,” said Jody Awana, who was waiting outside Obama’s vacation home for a glimpse of his motorcade. “He’s just awesome.” Obama was born in Honolulu in 1961, two years after Hawaii became a state. He lived in Indonesia for four years when he moved there with his mother and stepfather, but spent 14 of his first 18 years as an island boy.

Many in Hawaii feel a powerful affinity for Obama even though he moved to the mainland to attend college in 1979 and has since only returned for vacations.

Some of his popularity may be explained by the fact Hawaii is an overwhelmingly Democratic state. But his local roots are a more important, emotional factor. Christian De Quevedo, who was in the crowd around Obama outside Kokonuts Shave Ice & Snacks last weekend, spoke to the future president as though he was just another island surfer. “I was like, ‘Ho, Barack, are you going to Sandy’s?’ Cause last time he went down there. It is like his favourite place ever. He’s like ‘Oh no, they don’t let me any more’,” De Quevedo told KITV. “It is exciting. He’s just like right over there.”

Obama didn’t say who prohibited his surfing at Sandy’s on Oahu’s south shore. But given that Sandy’s is also known as “Broke-neck Beach” the Secret Service may have determined it was too dangerous. Al Balderama, president of the Hawaii State Bodysurfing Association, said bodysurfers were proud to see Obama at Sandy’s in August when he visited Hawaii for a mid-campaign summer holiday.

They knew the entire country would see photos and videos of Obama enjoying their storied sport.

Balderama, a civilian fire inspector at Hickam Air Force Base, said it is clear Obama is as good as any of his bodysurfing association’s 180 members.

During this visit, Obama has mostly been golfing. On Tuesday, he played basketball at his alma mater, the private Punahou School. Mark A. Kam, president of the Punahou Alumni Association, said Obama’s repeated visits to Hawaii show he hasn’t forgotten where he came from. Kam lightheartedly pointed to Obama’s flip-flops as evidence of how deeply Hawaii is ingrained in him. “Granted he’s in Chicago now, he’s cut his teeth in politics in Chicago. But when I saw him walking around town in rubber slippers I said, OK, that’s who he is. That’s the local boy that grew up here,”

Kam also said that Obama carries with him an ability to work with people of different backgrounds that he learned in Hawaii, where there is a mix of whites, Chinese, Filipinos, Hawaiians and others. About 20%, like Obama, are mixed-race.

“He can bridge those gaps and bring people together instead of being divisive. I think a lot of that was formed here, growing up,” said Kam.

Obama is due to leave today after a 12-day holiday on Oahu with his family.

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