One summer Sunday, I was trying to figure out what to post to the Lenny Instagram account. That's when I first spotted Keala Kennelly. I wanted to go to the beach (I always want to go to the beach in the summer) and wanted to post a still from a movie that took place at the beach. That train of thought led me to the movie Blue Crush, but then I thought: Why should I post an actress pretending to be a surfer? I should post a real surfer. That led me to an incredible picture of Keala, a tiny figure surrounded by a literal wall of water, that took my breath away. Keala had just caught THE wave of the day, maybe of the year, at Teahupoo, Tahiti. I knew nothing about surfing, but I knew we needed to talk to her and find out more about the woman beyond the image.
And so, a few months later, I was on the phone with Keala. The 36-year-old, who grew up surfing and is the goddaughter of legendary surfer Laird Hamilton, turned pro at 17 and spent the following decade consistently ranked as one of the world's top surfers. After taking a brief break from surfing to pursue acting (she made her acting debut in the aforementioned Blue Crush, of course), she's now back in the surf world, riding the gnarliest waves and inspiring surf God Kelly Slater to say things like "The craziest guy of them all is a girl," about Keala.
It's true that the gender disparity in sports is astounding. Other than tennis and maybe gymnastics, there are very few sports where women have equal or superior standing to their male counterparts. In surfing, this disparity is especially heinous; as Keala explains: men are rewarded for how well they surf, while women are rewarded for how good they look in a bikini. Keala and I spoke on the phone one afternoon in August about the perils of sports, being fearless versus being brave, and motherhood.
Laia Garcia: I know you've been surfing since you were young, but I wanted to know a bit about how you first got into "big-wave surfing." [Big-wave surfing involves riding waves over 20 feet high, and surfers are towed in to the waves on a Jet Ski, as opposed to the paddling that is done in conventional surfing.]
Keala Kennelly: I grew up in Kauai in a surfing family, and my dad taught me to surf. He still charges pretty big waves, actually; he's 60-something and he's still out there. I did the [surfing] tour for a lot of years, and that's really just you competing against other surfers, whereas "big wave" is kinda like a gladiator sport, you know? It's not about you going up against anybody else except for nature.
LG: When was the time that you first went for a big wave? What made you decide that you needed to go for something bigger and crazier?
KK: Well, it was a slow progression. I grew up with Andy and Bruce [Bruce Irons is a top-ranked surfer; his brother, Andy, was as well until he passed away in 2010], and it was like the whole tomboy thing trying to tag along with the boys, you know? I just wanted those guys to respect me. It's like a bravado, macho thing if you could ride through big waves, and they were always pushing each other to ride those kinds of waves, so I just followed their lead.