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How Does Billy Kemper Keep Winning Jaws?

A couple of months ago Billy Kemper -- the Maui-bred-turned North Shore, Oahu resident big-wave surfer -- won the Pe'ahi Challenge for the second consecutive year. Yeah, there's actually only been two, but considering that Pe'ahi (Jaws) is the steepest, hollowest and often largest of all the Big Wave World Tour breaks: Two in a row at Jaws is friggin' unprecedented.

Shortly after the win, Billy made the Quarterfinals in the Vans World Cup -- the second event in the Vans Triple Crown -- surfing heats with an evident ferociousness.

Billy Kemper celebrating his victory at the Peahi Challenge at Jaws in Hawaii. With a belly full of fire and chest layered in floatation, Billy Kemper lets out a victory howl after his second Pe'ahi Challenge win. WSL / Kelly Cestari

So…what's his deal? How does he keep winning Jaws? Well, it sure isn't by slouching. On the contrary, Billy Kemper trains like a madman, treats his meals like a mad scientist, and looks to athletes like Kobe Bryant and Michael Phelps for fitness tips.

But if the proof is in the pudding (chia, I assume) then whatever Billy's doing is certainly working. We sat down with the man himself and he filled us in on his obsessive program.

Kemper's Path to Pe'ahi Glory
2:44
Billy Kemper ups the ante against Will Skudin and Twiggy Baker with a perfect 10-point ride in Final of the Pe'ahi Challenge.

WSL: Does your training routine have a specific name or is this something you developed on your own?
Billy Kemper: I'd say that it's something my coach and trainer, Kahea Hart, developed. Kahea used to be a pretty successful professional surfer and he's just always been into fitness, so he would train with Rob Garcia [professional boxing trainer] and then he got his personal training license, his Crossfit license, a couple other certifications, too. He's developed his own training routine and regimen that I'm basically obsessed with.

We've really mixed all types of training into one program. There's boxing, jiu jitsu moves, Crossfit; a bit of everything. I guess you could call it surfing strength and conditioning. This year, though, I've moved to training consistently five days a week, with a ton of surfing mixed in with that, of course.

Pe'ahi Challenge Highlights
Jaws delivers again for the WSL's Big Wave Tour event on Maui.

I heard you have a pretty unique nutrition program, too. Tell me about that.
I'm on a macronutrient diet, which means I'm not counting calories; I'm counting macronutrients. Those are your fats, carbohydrates, proteins and fibers. So basically, I'm eating carbs, fats and proteins every meal but not bad carbs. I'm eating good carbs like fruits, veggies, sweet potato, brown rice or quinoa; those kind of carbs.

So on a daily basis, what do your meals look like?
Well, if it's a day before competition, my breakfast will consist of 200 grams of egg whites, a quarter of an avocado, 100 grams of onions, 100 grams of spinach, 200 grams of fruit or sweet potato. And that's a breakfast. For lunch, I'm eating white meat like fish, chicken or turkey -- around 33 grams of protein and 44 grams of carbohydrates -- and a big salad or sweet potato. Dinners are pretty similar. I pretty much eat four meals a day and they're all weighed out. It's pretty obsessive how deep I've gotten into it [laughs]. But like I said, what I'm doing is counting macros [macronutrients]. A guy named Matt Chan got me into this and I work with him.

Kemper Heats Up at Sunset
1:39
The Hawaiian was dominating the barrel at Sunset on his way to another dominant heat win in Round Four of the Vans World Cup.

Wow. And so how'd you get this deep into it?
I think I'm just really moved by this whole fitness thing. I look up to athletes like Kobe Bryant and Michael Phelps and I don't think surfers have really been known for that level of scientific commitment. I want to take how athletes like those guys approach nutrition and bring that to the surf world.

Some guys are just gifted to be able to paddle out hung-over after not surfing for two weeks and still perform at the highest level, but for me, I get a lot of confidence mentally and physically off training. I think in big waves it just gives you that extra edge and push to capitalize on opportunities. If you're feeling out of shape, you're not as confident in bigger waves. Sure, this regimen takes a lot of work, but in turn, this has been the biggest year for my career in my life.

And in the gym, what does that consist of?
It can vary, but I'll get in there and stretch for 10 minutes, activating the muscles and mobility and then I'll go into three rounds of five different ab exercises and core. Then I'll go through three rounds of stability exercises with exercise balls, then explosion and power work. Then we'll go into some strength and conditioning which has some Crossfit in it along with cardio, speed and agility. Then we'll do upper body that's straight-power, upper body that's cardio, some leg work…

This past year I had Jamie O'Brien training with me every day until the HIC Pro and I feel like he got into the best shape of his life. I think within two months he lost over 20 pounds.

Billy Kemper during the Final of the Peahi Challenge at Jaws in Hawaii. Billy Kemper, steep and deep on a Jaws bomb. WSL / tony heff

That's wild. Tell me more about your trainer Kahea Hart. How else does he work with you?
Kahea Hart is my coach and trainer as well as my caddie for a long time. I credit him for getting me wins at Sunset and into five Finals. He wasn't able to go to Jaws with me this year, but we were communicating between heats. He'd even walk me through the heats on the phone while I had headphones on in the water. We work really well together.

You talked about your nutritional and physical training; but do you any mental or spiritual training?
Yeah, I actually got to work with Brian McKenzie a lot this year. He's mastered the whole Wim Hof breathing exercise but he's twisted it a little for athletes. He works with Laird Hamilton a lot and Laird is an uncle of mine who mentored me growing up on Maui. But Brian opened up my eyes to a whole new type of deep breathing meditation. I think even more than breath holding, it was really relaxing and just takes my mind off of things. Really, all this stuff is just a balance of different techniques that create a formula that works for you.

Kemper's First Jaws Victory
2:35
Catch the biggest moments from the first-ever paddle-in contest at Maui's big wave break, Pe'ahi.

You've won the second Pe'ahi Challenge they've ever had, two in a row; what's next?
After the World Cup it was kind of crazy because I jumped pretty far up on the Qualifying Series. So now, I can actually compete in all the 10Ks and everyone's asking me if I'm going to try and qualify [laughs]. I did that whole "trying to qualify" thing right out of high school but it wasn't really where my true passion was in surfing.

I like surfing critical waves with my good friends. Scoring a day at 10-20-foot Pascuales with two of my friends; that's the kind of stuff I live for. But if I've got this opportunity that's presenting itself, like being able to surf the Primes, I'm not going to let it go. Who knows? If I could get a few good results and do well in Hawaii again, I could get on tour. But I also want to make a big push for the Big Wave Tour, too. With me, I want to win an event every time I put a jersey on. I'm addicted to winning and I absolutely hate losing [laughs].

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