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Legendary surfer Reno Abellira out of coma, recovering from severe injuries

  • COURTESY JEFF DIVINE.
                                Reno Abellira charges down and across the sheer, 30-foot face of a massive Waimea Bay wave on his way to winning the Smirnoff Invitational contest in 1974.

    COURTESY JEFF DIVINE.

    Reno Abellira charges down and across the sheer, 30-foot face of a massive Waimea Bay wave on his way to winning the Smirnoff Invitational contest in 1974.

Legendary surfer Reno Abellira, a Honolulu native, former Hawaii state junior champion and winner of the Smirnoff Big Wave Invitational at Waimea Bay, is gradually recovering in the hospital from severe injuries he suffered last week, his nephew, Kealii Aquino, announced today on behalf of the Abellira family.

Abellira, 71, was admitted to the Queen’s Medical Center Nov. 17 to undergo emergency brain surgery, Aquino wrote via email.

The procedure was successful, he said, but Abellira was in a coma until Tuesday.

“Reno is still in the ICU, but thankfully he is no longer in a coma and is making slow but steady progress in recovering,” Aquino wrote, adding the family wished to thank the community “for the outpouring of prayers and support” they had received, and asked that Abellira’s privacy be respected “at this time as we focus on his recovery and rehabilitation.”

According to friends, Abellira, who had struggled with homelessness, was found by first responders at Ala Moana Beach Park.

Honolulu Police Department spokesperson Michelle Yu said officers “found Mr. Abellira unresponsive at Ala Moana on Nov. 17” and he was transported to the hospital; the case was classified as treatment for an injured or sick person, Yu said.

Another top alumnus of Ala Moana Bowls, Gerry Lopez, sent his well wishes to Abellira, with whom he competed at Waimea in the Smirnoff contest, held in 1974 on Thanksgiving Day.

“There were the biggest waves ever for any event on the fledgling pro surfing tour and it was also the biggest surf either of us had ever been in,” Lopez, vacationing in Mexico, wrote in a text to the Star-Advertiser.

The two young friends caught several waves in the 18- to 20-foot range early on in the heat, Lopez said, but clean-up sets came rolling through with 10-foot taller waves.

“Looking outside, the dark lines of a very large approaching set were plain to see and Reno looked at me and said, ‘If we want to win … we gotta catch those big ones!’”

As they sprint-paddled out to meet the set, “there, rearing up before us, was the biggest wave I’d ever seen up this close and personal,” Lopez wrote, and while his only thought was to scramble over it, “Reno surprised me practically right out of my surf trunks by spinning around, paddling hard to catch it.”

As Lopez pushed his board through the breaking lip, Abellira “leaped to his feet. I’ll never forget the look in his eye, it was sheer, absolute determination, full warrior mode, something I realized that I sure didn’t have in me.”

The determination can be seen in Abellira’s stance on a 30-foot face, in a ride immortalized by surf photographer Jeff Divine from the contest he won that Thanksgiving Day.

“Keep paddling, Brother Reno!” Lopez said.

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