As son of ocean enthusiasts and mentee of heavy-water pioneers Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama, Kai Lenny is the offspring of some of the most dynamic figures in the industry. Kai's heavy-water heroics and domination across the SUP and windsurfing scenes come as no surprise, as he carves his name firmly in the water sports hall of fame.
With global competitions now off the cards for the foreseeable, the pandemic has left competition-hungry Kai quite literally like a fish out of water. His determination for re-writing the definition of big-wave surfing is however, more insatiable than ever as he cooks up new plans to blow the world of action sports away.
We took advantage of Kai’s downtime to read over his illustrious résumé and reflect on some of his career defining moments which secured his reputation as one of the most renowned big-wave surfers and SUP athletes in the world.
What were your earliest memories of surfing and being in the ocean?
KL: Some of my earliest memories was learning to surf in Maui when I was 4 years old. My first lesson was the most important day of my life still to this point because it allowed me to know what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, which was ride waves and become a professional water athlete.
My earliest memory of SUP was of me standing up on my longboard with a canoe paddle and because I was short enough it was the perfect length. I believe that I became the surfer I am today because of SUP; it is the most complete way of becoming a big-wave surfer.
Is it safe to say that your parents were influential in getting you into the ocean?
KL: Absolutely. Without my parents, I don’t think my brother or myself would be as immersed in water sports like we are today. After their long hours at work every day they would take me and my brother down to the beach, even if we didn’t want to. It wasn’t a chore; it was a way of life and we became a product of that environment.
"When a lot of your heroes are dismissing your entry, it didn’t feel good but it’s the reality of growing up. Usually people aren’t who they seem to be."
You were a wild card entry in the 2010 SUP event at Sunset Beach and there was a lot of grumblings from other athletes about you getting into the final. How did you handle that?
KL: At the time I was 17, but I looked like I could have been 14, I was so small. When a lot of your heroes are dismissing your entry, it didn’t feel good but it’s the reality of growing up. Usually people aren’t who they seem to be. That hasn’t bothered me ever since.
At that event I felt I had something to prove. I love it when people are rooting against me because it gets me fired up to go after it. I was just having fun and then I won! It’s still one of the greatest career wins I’ve ever had.
Do you think that Sunset Beach was a pivotal event for when surfing and paddling went from being fun to being a job?
KL: It was a defining event. From that moment on I did feel like my career had started because it was my first win at a professional event and it was as legit as it comes. It was on the North Shore of Oahu and it was against people who were highly respected watermen. It gave me the confidence I needed to realise that I was good enough for these events.
Let’s talk about the ISA’s relay race in Fiji 2016 where your team were in fourth place and you were the anchor and you came back to win it. It has to be one of the best SUP sprints ever, do you remember that?
KL: I remember it like it was yesterday. I remember how I felt, I remember how my lungs felt.
We were in fourth place when I started my leg. I was paddling against Kenny and I just beat him to the buoy and then I remember seeing someone else in front of me and I knew I had to reel them in. I just thought, what would happen if I just sprinted the whole time and didn’t stop. I found this crazy pace and I felt like I was in a motorboat compared to everyone else paddling. I got within distance of the finish line and that was it, we had won. It was the single best race I have ever done. I felt superior in my paddling. I wasn’t physically stronger than anyone else, it was all mental. I had let go of all the chains holding me back.
"Connor was trying to push me too deep to get the best line and he put his board on top of my board. I thought if I’m going down, you’re coming down with me."
Let’s talk about your rivalry with Connor Baxter. When did your rivalry really heat up and how is the relationship with him now?
KL: I think now that we don’t paddle against each other anymore the relationship is all good. If I still were going toe to toe with him, it wouldn’t be as good. It wasn’t even him that was the problem, it was the people around us that fuelled the fire. If anything, I always felt like he misunderstood me, but you can’t think like that when you are competing.
I remember when we were doing the SUP World Tour at Huntington Beach and it was Casper, me and Connor on a wave coming up to the final buoy turn and Connor pushed us off the wave. I remember being disappointed. There’s no rule about it, but when you’re on the wave you kinda just take a break and we take it back up once the wave has stopped.
When we were at the Battle of the Paddle in Handlegate, I remember thinking that I’m not gonna let him do that again. I was on a wave trying to take the best line to the beach and Connor was trying to push me too deep to get the best line too and he put his board on top of my board. I thought if I’m going down, you’re coming down with me. I grabbed his handle and yanked on it and we got tangled up and I think my board hit him in the head. I got back up and I was in tenth and pretty pissed off. I ended up winning so I proved that you could still win a race from tenth place. We go out and paddle now, we are friends, it seems like a distant memory.
What is your most memorable moment on the SUP World Tour?
KL: The SUP World Tour was incredible because we were always going to the most exotic places that tour stops could go to. The most memorable part of all the travel was trying to get my race board to the event. If you got it through customs, you’d be praying it would come out in one piece. I remember I competed in the Paris race and when I got there my board was buckled. I couldn’t believe it and I couldn’t find another board in France, so I had to duct tape it. I ended up doing horrible in the race, I came in like 20th.
You got in one of your last amazing contests in Portugal before the pandemic, tell us about the Nazaré Tow Surfing Challenge?
KL: It was special because it was my first tow surfing contest I’d ever done and I was paired up with my rival in big-wave riding, Lucas Chumbo. It was hilarious because we went from rivals to tow partners...our goal switched from trying to take each other’s best wave to get each other on the best wave.
I just convinced myself that day that we were going to win, and we did. We won biggest wave and best tow team, it was awesome. The experience of riding really big waves in contest is fun because I feel like I can shift into the next gear. When I put the jersey on, I can get into sixth gear and let go of all the fears of self-preservation and just charge.
"I don’t think I’ve ever seen a wave that’s too big that I wouldn’t try to ride."
Is there a wave that is too big for Kai Lenny?
KL: It depends what type of approach I am taking when it comes to big-wave riding. When it comes to tow surfing, no, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a wave that’s too big that I wouldn’t try to ride.
What is your main focus for 2021 and beyond?
KL: My focus without a doubt is to ride the biggest waves in the world. I also definitely want to take the stories of my experiences and share it with a wider audience. When I’m done worrying about myself and how good I can become, hopefully I can be a mentor to the next generation and watch them take it to the next level.
Thank you Kai.
With an unbelievable number of achievements under his belt, we are excited to see what Kai Lenny can achieve in the future as he continues to push the limits of big-wave surfing.
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