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%.

Teahupo'o Surfers

 

On May 13th, 2013 when the glassy swells at a well-known surf break were fore­cast­ed to reach 20+ feet, a mas­sive crowd of die-hard surfers arrived on the south-west coast of the small French Poly­ne­sian island of Tahi­ti. They came for one thing, and one thing only – Teahupo’o.

This unique wave forms over a reef that lurks just 20 inch­es below the sur­face. The result­ing deep-water swells hit the reef and launch into ver­ti­cal walls with enor­mous hol­low tubes. There are big­ger waves in the world. Some may claim there are stronger ones, but Teahupo’o waves are often as thick at the lip as the waves are tall, and the result is the heav­i­est waves in the world.

You’ve seen the footage. Teahupo’o is fea­tured in the surf doc­u­men­tary Rid­ing Giants when Laird Hamil­ton gets towed into what they dub as “The Heav­i­est Wave Ever Rid­den.” In 2008, Ian Walsh caught the largest wave of the sea­son and the footage was fea­tured in the Red Bull cam­paign for the rest of the year.

This video fea­tures dozens of rid­ers, but one rid­er quite obvi­ous­ly stands apart from the crowd. Watch Raimana Van Bas­to­laer’s preter­nat­ur­al poise in a cat-like crouch upon the board as he careens across the face of the wave. Once, when he’s caught deep on the inside, the mas­sive lip cat­a­pults above him with the force of a semi-truck and clos­es out with spray that punch­es out of the tube with a force that near­ly knocks him from his board.

The result­ing car­nage and new­ly mint­ed leg­ends are what a big day at Teahupo’o are all about. Just watch it. Your heart will pound like you just shot-gunned a Red Bull.