Frontline Cancer: Only in San Diego — How surfing has impacted cancer research

Dr. Scott Lippman

Twenty-eight years ago, two inspiring young visionary leaders, Sam Armstrong and John Otterson, came up with the idea of linking their passion for surfing with their desire to make a direct and meaningful impact on cancer care in our community. Ten million dollars and countless volunteer hours later, they have done it, and our community and patients are forever grateful.

Armstrong and Otterson co-founded the Luau & Legends of Surfing Invitational, the first event that melds the fun and aloha spirit of surfing to raise funds for innovative cancer research and care. This year’s surf competition is Sunday, Aug. 15, in La Jolla, and I wanted to share a bit more about this unique event with all of you.

Armstrong: “When John and I first started this event, we were really trying to link the surfing tribe to the great work being done at the Moores Cancer Center. We wanted to create an event that was unlike anything in the world, bringing together surf legends, business leaders, scientists and mere mortals to celebrate all the great advances happening in research and innovation.

“We started grand from the beginning. We had on the first committee Nobel Prize winner Kary Mullis and former world champion surfer Debbie Beacham. Legends that came the first year included Robert August, Mike Doyle, Rusty Preisendorfer of Rusty Surfboards, Skip Frye and Rell Sunn (who was fighting breast cancer at the time). It was the only surf event to have valet parking, and we sold out that first year. That year we raised $30,000. I think our events budget was about $2,500. Now we have raised more than $10 million, but the impact goes well beyond the funds raised.

From left, Dr. Carl June, Dr. Catriona Jamieson, Dr. Scott Lippman, Larz Lock, Peter "P.T." Townend and Sam Armstrong
Event co-founder Sam Armstrong (right) gathers with (from left) Dr. Carl June, Dr. Catriona Jamieson, Dr. Scott Lippman, Larz Lock and surf legend Peter “P.T.” Townend at the 2015 Luau & Legends of Surfing Invitational.
(Vincent Andrunas)

“The legends have included the biggest names in surf history, like Dale Velzy, Gerry Lopez, Kelly Slater, Tom Curren, Shaun Tomson, Rob Machado and so many more. Bruce Brown, the maker of the 1960s cult classic “The Endless Summer,” and its stars, Robert August and Mike Hynson, are Luau legends, as are the stars of “The Endless Summer II,” Robert “Wingnut” Weaver and Pat O’Connell.

“There are many more that have traveled the globe to be a part of the Luau, including Nat Young from Australia, too many to mention from Hawaii, but starting with Rell. The impact is in the soul of the event. After Rell passed, we created the Rell Sunn Award honoring those that are changing cancer care around the world, including top scientists, Nobel Prize winners, philanthropists, leaders in academia and the biotech community and occasionally special awards, like this year honoring Patty Maysent [chief executive of UC San Diego Health] for extraordinary leadership, including efforts to minimize the impact of COVID-19 on our vulnerable cancer patients, and Fernando Aguerre [president of the International Surfing Association] for his integral role to bring surfing into the 2020 Olympics.

“It is not just about the surfing competition, it is the magic of all that come and stories shared. So many people work very hard to make the Luau happen. We are all surfing for a cure for cancer together.”

Otterson: “When we started this event, we knew that the most challenging fundraising for the Moores Cancer Center was the Director’s Discretionary Fund — it doesn’t come with naming rights. But it does fund early projects, projects that are pre-NIH [National Institutes of Health] funding, so think of it as pre-seed funding.

“We liked the idea that funds raised by a group of surfers could be hugely impactful and transformational by funding novel therapies and drugs to beat cancer. In 28 years we have not only assembled the largest gathering of surfing legends across the ages but also funded material advancements in the battle against cancer, impacting patients’ lives for the better. I could not be more proud of all of the amazing things we have been able to accomplish.”

I want to thank Sam and John for their amazing leadership and hope you enjoyed learning more about the origins of this uniquely San Diego “wave-breaking” event, as envisioned by these inspirational and passionate co-founders.

At Moores Cancer Center, we are determined to deliver cancer care as unique as you, in a community as unique as ours. Working together with our partners Armstrong, Otterson, Christian Waage and Mike Rhodes, we are able to deliver this unique experience.

While we are navigating our way through the global pandemic, our focus at Moores has been clear — cancer does not stop for COVID, and neither will we. Our setup on the beach at Scripps Pier on Aug. 15 may look different, as we have fully embraced the advice of our expert public health colleagues by implementing additional COVID-related precautions, including onsite symptom screening, vaccine verification and contact tracing.

The in-person pre-party scheduled for the night before has been postponed. We know we will all miss gathering together then, but the heart and soul of the Luau & Legends of Surfing Invitational will be within us all.

Truth be told, it is not just about the surfing and not just about the remarkable legends we bring together. It is about the spirit, the impact and the message.

Dr. Scott Lippman is director of the Moores Cancer Center at UC San Diego Health. His column, “Frontline Cancer,” appears periodically in the La Jolla Light. He can be reached by email at