Legacy is not a light word to throw around. And it's definitely not a word you expect a 17-year-old surfer to use in a way that projects a sense of humility and dedication. Maui's Eli Hanneman doesn't carry himself like your typical teenage surfer, though, so the first time I hear him casually drop a cool L-bomb while picking his brain, I'm intrigued.
A few weeks prior, I'd hung around broadcast booths and media tents at the 2020 Volcom Pipe Pro and within two days I lost count how many times I overheard his name. There's an obvious buzz about the young Maui surfer in competitive circles and among his peers but when it comes to in-depth media coverage or even feature-length edits, Hanneman seems to fly under the radar - a special mix of endless potential without the insatiable hype. Searching the internet turns up a few bios from his sponsors and some video content, but no lengthy profile articles like other athletes of his caliber. He doesn't host a vlog. In fact, his YouTube page has less than 10 total minutes of footage in two combined edits.
He's spent a solid five years traveling and preparing to be a pro surfer, but he still describes himself as a small-town kid from Lahaina who definitely operates on Hawaiian time. But Eli Hanneman isn't getting the Kolohe treatment or the John John media hype the world throws on prodigious talents. Still, I heard more than once during that week on the North Shore that, "Eli Hanneman is good enough to win a world title one day."
Hanneman exited that Volcom event on the final day of competition, bowing out in the quarterfinals after three days of mostly picture-perfect double overhead Pipe. We were introduced for a brief moment right as he stepped back onto the beach. I'm always aware this is the last possible moment any athlete wants to be poked and prodded by press. It either invites an irrational post-heat temper tantrum from a competitor who just lost or, as is often the case in professional surfing, somebody who's just happy to finally rip off the jersey. Eli is neither in that moment. He's quiet, still, polite, professional.
Conditions were worsening throughout the day and in his case, notching impactful scores on any of his eight waves had evaded him. There's no complaining about his scores or shouting at competitors about something that just happened in the lineup - a common scene from athletes at this particular contest. We shake hands and agree we'll catch up in a couple of weeks. The entire interaction lasts less than a minute - still, it's obvious he's disappointed but his even demeanor that strikes me.
Eli Hanneman's comfort in solid surf is easy to see. But then you watch him fly around in smaller, inconsequential waves and it's obvious he's working with a full bag of tricks, all of it groomed at a world-class level (he finished third to eventual winner Jack Freestone at this year's Red Bull Airborne Bali). But do those under-the-radar expectations actually match up with what Hanneman wants? If I can paraphrase his answer in one word it'd be "sure," Hanneman wants to compete on the world tour. But he's not obsessing over a world title or using the word "legacy" as if it's dependent on that accomplishment.
"It doesn't seem like something that should cross my mind, but ever since I was young I've always kind of looked to the future," he says. Eli's pretty straightforward that any recognition he does receive, he wants to be attributed to his surfing.
"If you're thinking about it, then all the choices you make will be guided by that," he adds, addressing those World Title expectations. "It becomes easy to get caught up in just the moment versus seeing the choices in front of you now and where they'll lead in 10 years."
So when the teenager from Lahaina references his legacy, it's really an awareness that he's stepping into the shoes of the people he looked up to as a kid. He doesn't want to blink and realize it all passed. In turn, he feels a responsibility to pay it forward to those coming up behind him, even if it's simply by not selling his own talent or opportunities short. So he talks about his "icons of surfing," as he calls them - other Maui-bred surfers like Dusty Payne, Clay Marzo, and Ian Walsh - as a reminder that he'll have an impact too. They were the people he waited in line in Maui surf shops to meet, and now he's next.
"I think over time - even over the past six months - I just start to step back and realize I'm starting to do what I always wanted to do," he tells me. "With all the stuff surfing has given me, I'm starting to realize this is the life they were living. A small taste of it. And I guess it's just looking at my surroundings and realizing what I've been given is from doing what I love."
When Eli signed his first major contract with Red Bull years ago, Ian Walsh took him out to lunch on Maui as a celebration, and Hanneman says the big wave surfer is one of a select few who have taken an active role in mentoring him since. "What do I need to do to be the best version of myself?" That's how Walsh describes Hanneman's focus and work ethic at this point in his career.
"I see some of the sacrifices he makes," Walsh says, adding that Eli regularly drives more than an hour across Maui to train and do mobility and activation workouts. "Put yourself at 17-years old and having the discipline to get that done. It's motivating the amount of drive he has."
But while Hanneman acknowledges he's working for a career on Tour (making two QS finals in the past year), Walsh doesn't limit his potential to chasing world titles. He agrees that Eli has just about every skillset available for that quest, but he's most excited to see where the -17-year-old's talent takes him over the next 10 years and what he does for the sport overall, not just in competitive formats. Walsh calls him a blank canvas, which is special for a teenage pro because as he points out, Hanneman is one of the few who can be whatever he chooses.
"His specific approach to riding waves is unique in his timing," he says, breaking down the mechanics. "He has this innate ability with timing; when he clicks off an air, when he's projecting through a turn, when he's hanging at the top for just a fraction of a second before getting down the face and into a bottom turn, lining up the timing with the lip. He has a really unique ability with timing and I think that's at the foundation of what's so special about him."
So how does somebody with that kind of upside stay under the radar? Honestly, who knows? And who cares? It isn't exactly a grand proclamation to say Eli Hanneman is capable of becoming a force on the World Tour, nor is this the last time you'll read those words. But figuring out why he's relatively under-hyped hasn't been as interesting as uncovering the fact that Hanneman is simply a talented, dedicated young man whose potential seems to be ceiling-less.
"The reason I may be a mystery to people is because I'm just surfing," he says. "I'm just doing my thing…The success I've had in surfing has been solely because of my surfing not because of what people think about me. And I think that's really cool. It's an honor. Because I don't want to rely on other things."
Asking other athletes about him, it's actually more refreshing to keep hearing that his demeanor and self-awareness are what really set him apart. For now, he's only concerned with living up to whatever he feels he was meant for, not what he's being told he is or isn't supposed to be.
"The dream for me is ideally to be a competitive surfer," he says, "I feel like if I was to leave a legacy behind it would be something involving the WSL and a competitive career more so than being a free surfer. [And] if I were to describe myself I would say I'm just a kid living on Maui with a dream to pursue a career in what I love to do. And I'm not really trying to make a name for myself from anything other than surfing right now. That's my main focus. I just do it because I love it."