Hawaii native Keala Kennelly is a multiple Teahupoo winner, a Nelscott Big Wave Classic winner, and has ranked in the top 10 on the ASP World Championship Tour (WCT). She’s also a prize-winning big wave surfer and has received a Pure Scot Barrel of the Year Award. Kennelly took a break from surfing in 2007 to pursue acting and DJ’ing, and she’s now back on the waves.
THE CLYMB: Growing up, were you always in love with the ocean or was this something that developed over time?
Keala Kennelly: I grew up in Hawaii so I was introduced to the ocean and surfing when I was just a baby. My father used to take me out with him and push me into waves. It’s something I have always loved.
THE CLYMB: When did you get started competing and what sparked an interest in doing more than just surfing for fun?
KEALA KENNELLY: I was really young, maybe like 9 or 10 years old. I entered a contest in the open women’s division. I was competing against women two and three times my age. I ended up beating one of them and that’s all it took for me to get stoked about competing.
THE CLYMB: You were in a great place professionally when you decided to take a break from surfing in 2007. What prompted the break?
KEALA KENNELLY: There were a lot of reasons. For one I had two bulging discs in my back and one of the discs had a tear in it. I was in pain all the time and the constant travel was making it worse. It was really negatively affecting my performance and that drove me crazy. Also, the tour had taken a really bad turn for the women. We lost all the good events that were in world-class surf and replaced in locations with very mediocre surf. So I was frustrated and had lost my fire for competing. Right as all this was happening, I landed a role as a season regular on the HBO TV drama series John From Cincinnati. I took it as a sign from the universe that I needed to leave the tour. I had re-qualified for the WCT but it felt wrong to take that spot from another athlete when I was going to be focusing most of my energy on acting that year. So I gave up my spot on the WCT and moved to Hollywood.
THE CLYMB: For how long did you pursue your acting and music passion after 2007? What did you do during those years?
KEALA KENNELLY: A TV series on HBO before the SAG writers strike kind of killed my acting pursuits. The WCT tour was only getting worse and didn’t look at all appealing. I moved back to Hawaii and focused on big wave surfing, because it seemed like an area I could pioneer for women. I’ve had the pleasure of DJ’ing lots of cool events and continue to do so. I have played the Pacifico Beer Party at the U.S. Open and The Inertia parties for the last few years, I headlined at The Dinah Shore Weekend presented by Club Skirts last month and I’m playing a huge LGBT festival in Florida over Memorial Weekend.
THE CLYMB: Since returning to the ocean, you’ve been focusing on big wave surfing. How is this discipline different to other types of surfing?
KEALA KENNELLY: Well, the stakes are much higher. In normal surfing you are not fearing for your life every time you paddle out. There have been many advances in safety technology in the last five years so that is super helpful, but training my mind and my body has definitely been my most reliable tool.
THE CLYMB: Some of your barrels have been called “the best of the best,” including the “best barrel riding by a female at Teahupoo” and your win at the won the Nelscott Big Wave Classic in 2010. Can you tell us about some of those experiences and what it’s like to be considered one of the best in such a competitive sport?
KEALA KENNELLY: It’s an honor. That moment when I won the best barrel of the year at the WSL Big Wave Awards against all the best men in my sport was probably the biggest achievement I’ve had in my life. To be able to break through that glass ceiling and be recognized as one of the best in my sport (not just the best among women) was an incredibly gratifying feeling.
THE CLYMB: Is big wave surfing dangerous compared to other forms of surfing?
KEALA KENNELLY: I’ve gotten some of my worst injuries (including a horrific face injury) riding much smaller waves. Perhaps because when the waves are small you let your guard down. In big wave surfing I am hyper vigilant because it really is a matter of life and death. The size and raw power of some of these waves we ride would be enough to demolish a building. My latest injury happened during the WSL Peahi challenge Big Wave Championships. I hit a bump on the face of the wave and lost speed and wasn’t able to outrun the monster and the wave came crashing down behind me and crushed me. I got whipped around so violently underwater that it tore two muscles and two ligaments in my knee.nI’ve been out for six months but I can’t wait to come back stronger.
THE CLYMB: You now spend quite a bit of time traveling and performing as a DJ. How do you combine that passion with surfing? And where does the love of music and performing come from?
KEALA KENNELLY: My mother plays the piano! I don’t know, I’ve always loved music. It’s been a passion of mine for a long time. DJ’ing has been a way I’ve been able to share that passion with the world. I’m going to be Dj’ing at the Los Cabos Open of Surfing next month and competing in the event as well so in that example it ties in really well.
THE CLYMB: You were inducted into the Surfing Walk of Fame a few years ago. What does this mean for you and for women in the sport?
KEALA KENNELLY: It’s an honor to have my name cemented into the history books with all the other talented athletes that came before me and the ones that came after. Many of those names there inspired me and I hope seeing my name there will inspire others.
THE CLYMB: What’s next for you in surfing? Any plans for the rest of the year or 2018?
KEALA KENNELLY: Really excited about going back to Cabo next month. I want to get my knee really strong again so I can go tackle some big waves. I’ve been missing Puerto Escondido a lot. I’m looking forward to the winter season in Hawaii this year since my season was cut short last year with my injury. I’m also really excited to see what big wave events the WSL will include women in this year. They haven’t made any announcements but I am hopeful. I am also really hoping I get invited back to The Eddie next year—to be the first woman in history to be invited last year was such a huge honor and I would love the chance to compete when I’m back to being 100%.