- WSL / Dave Gleeson

Lucy Small is a journalist, academic and surfer from the deep south of Western Australia who has over the the past few years split her time between Sydney, Byron Bay and Southern Africa while competing on the WSL Longboard Tour.

Kaniela Stewart hasn't always lived the life of his dreams. The 19-year-old Hawaiian made an explosive mark on the 2019 Longboard World Tour, winning the Longboard Classic New York after one of the most memorable performances of the year, including that chicken-skin, passing-of-the-torch moment between him and Joel Tudor. But things haven't always been as easy for Kani.

Growing up in Kalihi, a suburb of Honolulu about 20 minutes away from the beach, it wasn't exactly the tropical paradise one imagines when they think of Hawaii.

"Living there, we'd always have to be home at a certain time because after a certain time at night stuff starts to get scary. You never know what's going to happen, especially on the streets," Kaniela explained in a conversation with the WSL.

"There would be like, some shootings some nights and someone is always stealing something from the stores, so we'd always be trying to stay away from that.

FRESNO, CA - OCTOBER 02: Kaniela Stewart of Hawaii surfing before his Round 1 Heat 1 of the Cuervo Surf Ranch Classic at The Surf Ranch in Lemoore on October 2, 2020 in Fresno, California. (Photo by Kenny Morris/World Surf League via Getty Images). Kaniela Stewart under the lights at The Ranch - WSL / Kenny Morris

"It was just kind of sketchy growing up, but then after that we were homeless for a bit and then my mum's mum, which is my grandma, she had an apartment in Waikiki that she was renting and living in with my mum's brother, my great grandma and my aunty. So, I started sleeping there. There was about maybe seven or eight of us in that little two-bedroom apartment."

Like a classic tale of the beach boys of yesteryear, both his parents worked on the beach and Kaniela started surfing on the rental boards he borrowed, riding anything from stand-up paddle boards, to bodyboards and both long and shortboards.

When he was around 13, one of his friends entered him in his first pro longboard event at Waikiki. Going up against some of Hawaii's heavyweight longboarders, it was an experience that left him wanting more. Surfers like Kai Sallas and Ned Snow, who are known for putting Hawaii on the map for longboarding, were just a couple of names in the draw that got him hooked.

"I went against all those guys and I was just this kid, not even knowing what was going to happen," he said. "Everyone is aggressive in the water but once you exit the water everyone is super good friends. There's no conflict going on. I loved that.

"I kinda got that feeling like, 'Wow, this is nuts, this could grow.' I though that I could try and be one of these guys, the top dogs trying to make it to the World Tour."

Kaniela's event win in New York in 2019 was one of the most talked-about performances of the season. Facing Tudor in the World Champ's famous return to competitive longboarding. Kaniela combo'd Tudor before they swapped boards on the final wave and officially passed the tourch.

"Before our heat when I saw we matched up I was so scared, I kept thinking, ‘How am I going do this?'" laughs Kaniela asked about it. "Joel Tudor, he's the man, probably one of the most inspirational surfers out there, and just to be in a heat with him was such an amazing experience and he was so cool about it.

"Even though he lost, he told me, 'You're the future, man, don't stop, you're going to be the best one day.' And I took that and kinda went with it, and it's just embedded in my brain," Kaniela continues.

Superheat Moments: Kaniela Stewart vs. Joel Tudor
The young talent from Hawaii advances over the 2x World Longboard champ in a special New York matchup.

Part of a cluster of young Hawaiians who took hold of the World Tour in 2019. including his cousin Kelis Kaleopaa, the longboard movement in Hawaii is in a very strong place at the moment.

"It's pretty much like bringing home, bringing Hawaii with you everywhere you go. It's just the best feeling because everyone gets to surf, everyone gets to travel," Kaniela explains. "I'm pushing myself right now to try and be the best that I can be as early as possible, to be unstoppable in contests. If I won one [World Title] I'd be stoked, but I want to win multiple and try and win multiple World Titles consistently."

Now, as Kani lives out the life he might never have imagined for himself, he's still thinking about family.

"I want to buy my mum a house, I want to buy my family a house and just to support them and make sure that they have everything that they want," he says.

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