10 Questions with Big Wave Champion Keala Kennelly

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%.