To mere mortals, Keala Kennelly does the impossible. Year after year the Kauai native, who is nominated in two categories at Saturday's Big Wave Awards, rides waves that would make the average surfer quake in horror. She made history in 2005 as the first women to be towed into Teahupo'o, Tahiti's technical reefbreak, and again this spring as the first female to be nominated for a tube award at the BWAs.
Kennelly is a BWA regular: She's already won three for best women's performance, and has been nominated nearly every year since the women's category was introduced, including this year. A successful Championship Tour surfer, she transitioned to bigger stuff after her fateful first ride at Teahupo'o (aka "Chopes"). Before the awards night unfolds, Kennelly discussed her motivation -- even after wipeouts that "scared the shit out of her."
AD: How did you make that jump from mortal-sized waves to heavier ones?
KK: Well the waves in Kauai can be heavier. And the progression from there, when I was on the Tour, I went to Tahiti and that was a game-changer for me. I loved charging that wave as hard as I could. And then when the guys started towing, I tried that.
AD: Are you ever scared on heavy days?
KK: The first really heavy wipeout I had was the first time I went to Chopes, back in 1999 or so. It wasn't a CT event yet, it was like the Gotcha Black Pearl Pro. It was huge for the holding period and I was really excited, it's such a perfect wave. I knew it was big but I didn't realize how big. I thought it was six- or eight-foot.
I saw Shane Dorian and he was like, "Oh, KK charging?" I was like, "Yeah, whatever!," not realizing it was 12-to-15 feet. So I paddled for the smaller wave, and it didn't even break. And I turn around and had a whole, huge set just coming for me, and crush me for a two-wave hold-down. This was before we had inflatable safety vests. So no flotation, two-wave hold-down, board was broken into pieces, it scared the shit out of me.
AD: What did you do after that?
KK: I paddled the pieces of broken board out to the channel. I was shaking. It took me a whole year before I got the balls to get back out there.
AD: What changed over that year?
KK: Well, there was that one. And there was the one I smashed my face in. That one took me two years to get over. I think for both of those, it shakes you up, and makes you afraid. And you live with that fear for a while.
Then you start to ask yourself, ‘Well, is that it? Am I ever going to do that again?' Then the fear of missing out, and never experiencing that again becomes more powerful than the fear of doing it.
The fear of never feeling how f-g incredible it feels to stand in this wave outweighs the fear of something going wrong.
I really questioned whether I was going to go back after I hit my face. To this day, that's in the back of my mind. It still affects me. But I got to the point where I asked myself, "You're really never going to stand in a Chopes barrel? Ever again, in your life?" The fear of what could happen is very strong. But then, the fear of never feeling how f-g incredible it feels to stand in this incredible wave outweighs that.
AD: What does it feel like?
KK: When you paddle into one, it feels like a huge cavern of water spinning all around you. You're so, so focused because you have to be, it's life and death basically. You're so focused on making it out of that barrel, picking the right line, you're focused and your sense of touch is super-heightened. It's like I can feel every drop of water on the wave and anticipate where it's going to move. When you get spat out, you feel like king of the world.
AD: What does daily life look like these days?
KK: Well, I don't make money surfing, so I have to hustle doing other things. I definitely don't get to surf as many big swells as I used to, and that's frustrating. I'm looking into more television and film stuff again. I stay active, stay in the gym. I'd like to do some QS events this year, there were some that sound fun.
It does get frustrating sometimes -- But I love what I do, and I feel like it's going to be a viable career one day.
AD: You're a mom as well. Do you get to see your son much?
KK: No, not really. He's in St. Louis with his biological mom.
AD: What's the best part of what you do?
KK: The actual surfing. When you go out there and get an amazing ride. That's what it's all about, really. It does get frustrating sometimes -- I walked away from it before. But I love what I do, and I feel like there's value in it. And I feel like it's going to be a viable sport and a viable career one day.
Catch the Big Wave Awards streaming live here Saturday, April 23, starting at 8 p.m. local time.