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Kai Lenny gets probed: Big wave crew ask the big questions



Interview & Blogs

Interview By – Eric Akiskalian: Contributing Writer – Richard Hallman

Surfersvillage Global Surf News, 19 September, 2017 - The famous yellow Heli – Piloted by Don Shearer – hovers low over the channel at Jaws. Wind spray from the rotors whips water and wind in all directions as Kai climbs from the back of Victor Lopez’s ski and onto the skid before climbing into the cabin of the Heli and taking off to the nearest Hospital. Kai just took a horrendous wipe out that sliced his foot down the middle. The whole scene is something right out of a James Bond movie. That scene is also years in the making. So many years, in fact, it’s difficult to comprehend that Kai is just 24 years old.

I first met Kai in Hood River, Oregon when he was just 11 or 12 years old. He had traveled from Maui with the Naish team to compete in a windsurf freestyle comp on the Columbia River. In fact, I first met Kai “in” the Columbia River. I was swimming taking water photos of some of the Hood River legends of windsurfing. Kai was a still a grom in my eyes, but not your ordinary grom. He sailed back and forth throwing forwards, back loops, and pretty much everything the bigger “kids” were throwing down. The only difference was the small board and sail he had to match his frame. I flagged him down and asked if he would ride for the camera. He smiled a wide grin and asked me what he should do? I said pretty much, “Whatever you want to do?” He said, “Cool, I’ve been working on some new tricks.” I was amazed at how composed and effortless he made the sailing look. I finished shooting and went out and rode with him. His smile and stoke were infectious.

Since those early Gorge days, I’ve had the privilege and opportunity to watch Kai grow and accomplish more and more over time. And with mentors like Dave Kalama, Robby Naish, and Laird Hamilton, it’s no surprise that Kai has become one of – If not “The” most gifted Waterman of our time. His middle name literally is Waterman. He was surfing by the time he turned 5, kiteboarding by 9, and surfing Jaws by the time he was 16. He is a 7 time World SUP champion. He’s a veteran of the grueling 32-mile open water Molokai to Oahu paddle contest.

Which brings me back to the James Bond movie unfolding before my eyes. It’s Peahi, better known as Jaws. Where surfers cut their teeth to become respected big wave surfers. You can tell Kai has a special relationship with this place. He has great respect for the ocean and this wave in particular. He is humble, composed, and makes wicked air drops look effortless. On this particular drop though, Kai comes up grimacing, and people rush in to rescue him from the whitewash. He throws his foot up on the board to assess the situation. Having worked as a trauma nurse in an ER, I have my own concerns for the magnitude of the injury to his foot. His support boat arrives by his side and someone hands him a white sock to put over his foot. Which instantly turns blood red from the deep cut in his foot. A quick decision is made – rather than waste time getting Kai back by boat – He is going to climb up into the Heli and fly back. It’s something right out of the movies, and I mean – It would take a hundred people on a working set with stuntmen and riggers to pull off this particular shot. But of course, this is Kai Lenny – which means he can pretty much do anything he puts his mind to – including free climbing into a Heli with a mangled foot. – Richard Hallman

Name: Kai Lenny
Born: 10/8/92
Height: 5’8”
Weight: 155 lbs
Hometown: Paia, Maui, Hawaii
Current Residence: Maui
Sponsors: Naish, Hurley, GoPro, Red Bull, Tag Heuer, Nike, Vertra, Turtle Bay Resort, MFC Hawaii
Disciplines: Surfing, Windsurfing, Kitesurfing, Stand Up Paddling, Hydrofoiling, Canoe Paddling, Body Surfing, All things water.
Major Titles and Wins: 7X SUP World Champion, 2x Battle of the Paddle champion, 2016 Molokai 2 Oahu winner, Runner Up 2013 Kitesurfing World Champion, WSL Puerto Escondido Challenge BWT Winner

Tell us about your family, their support and all the love that surrounds you.

First and foremost I couldn’t have done or do what I do without my family. Their support has been one of the most major reasons why I am successful. As a little boy, my parents instilled the confidence to believe in my ambitions and to not hold back on my dreams. It is a cliché, but so true how important having a support system is in order to be a successful professional athlete. I love them!

What is your most memorable childhood memory?

I have so many amazing memories from my childhood, I’m just so lucky to have been born and raised on Maui with a family who loves the water. Perhaps the clearest and most defining memory was the day I learned how to surf and how it became my everything from that moment forward. I can remember being 4 years old and my Mom and Dad going surfing on the south side of Maui. I was on the beach with some family friends and my parents left me with a longboard to paddle around. After paddling around for a while I saw a breaking wave a few hundred yards down the beach. It felt the equivalent of surfing big waves all alone, nerves, excitement fear. A set came in and I remember paddling into it, standing up and feeling the steep drop. The wave was probably 1 foot but at the time so was I. Still to this day when I drop into a big wave somewhere in the world the feeling is similar to my first wave.

When you turned 9, you got your first sponsorship with Naish. When you were 12, you added Red Bull to your sponsorship list, at 18 you won your first SUP World Tour Title. Now at only 24, you won your first ever WSL Big Wave Event, the Puerto Escondido Challenge. With all that you strive for and achieve, where do you see yourself in five years?

I’ve been really motivated since an early age and my vision of my future has changed frequently since I’m getting opportunities I could’ve never imagine at the time. I have had goals and a place I want to be when I got older but the path there has been like a river that travels through the mountains. Like my professional watersports career, it takes left turn after right turn and so on. What I mean by that is I know I’ll end up at my end goal like the river makes it to the sea but my path hasn’t been and won’t be a straight path. I love that, I get so many opportunities in all the sports that I do it’s taken me on quite a journey. One that couldn’t have been predicted.

When did you realize that playing, training and competing in the global oceans, lakes, and rivers were going to turn into a full-time dream career?

It was the moment I stood up on a surfboard and dropped into that wave. I knew then that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life and that this was going to be my “job.” It is hard to call it a job since it’s exactly what I enjoy doing and at times it is difficult, but I love challenging myself. Even as a kid I never could have imagined how much fun I’d be having in all bodies of water, in big metropolises, to rivers and lakes in mountains. Growing up on an island, all I saw was the ocean and all I thought about was being in the ocean. It is beautiful how these sports that I do, take me to incredible places.

Talk to us about the Kai Lenny Team that surrounds you on a daily basis. It must take a crew of professionals to assist in maintaining your health, safety, training, travels, activities and all the logistics. Other than support from your immediate family, who are the others that are committed to you, your success and what services do they provide?

The team that I have is small but helps me in big ways. Besides the support of my immediate family, I’m lucky to have the support of sponsors who are there to help present opportunities that allow me to do what I do better. When I’m home on Maui I go three times a week to my trainer’s gym to work out. Right now I’ve been working with a surf coach to help improve my surfing and bring my riding to new levels. I have all the motivation in the world but I don’t have all the answers. I’m very lucky to work with people who have the answers I’m looking for. And on top of it all, I consider them close friends and that makes the whole experience of training to become better that much more important to me. I never want to let down my friends and especially my family.

Your name, ‘Kai Lenny’, is essentially a brand that you are now having to treat like a company. How important is to you, and your brand to surround yourself with positive like minded and supportive individuals that will help you to become the best and one of the most recognized waterman brand names in the history of surfing?

It is a curious thing to have your name become a brand. There is a lot to it and I think most importantly is maintaining a professionalism that doesn’t shine a bad light on all that you work for. With that being said it’s a pretty easy thing for me to do considering I’ve been taught from an early age to be a good person and to make good decisions. That’s thanks to my parents. When it comes to people I surround myself with, I’m naturally drawn to people who are like-minded and motivated to be the best that they can be. I always love the saying “a bird of the feather flock together.”

From the outside looking in, it would appear that you have this amazing lifestyle filled with travel, success, love, and support. Something has to be missing in your life. There’s always one thing missing. What is that one thing that you are working towards or you wish you had today?

I’ll be honest my life is pretty much the best life anyone could have I think. Perhaps my greatest curse is an unwavering motivation to become better. I sleep it dream it do everything around trying to become a better me. I think that’s just who I am, I’m a perfectionist and that can get in the way from being successful. So it’s a hard thing to balance sometimes even though it’s one of the reasons I am where I am today.

What do you attribute your lifestyle and success to?

I think it’s a perfect storm of being born in the right place with the right parents and a personality like mine. I really do feel I am who I am today and couldn’t be who I am today without the fact that I grew up on Maui. Now there has been many things for me, but my Mount Everest being Jaws is in my backyard. The greatest water sports athletes in the world have invented new ways of riding waves on Maui. My family, my friends, my sponsors, without all those elements I don’t know if I would have ever become a professional multi watersports athlete. I’m truly a product of my environment.

How and when did you and your girlfriend, Molly Payne meet?

Molly and I met 3 years ago after never knowing one another on Maui. We were both born and raised there, and have a ton of mutual friends. And I have been told at one point in kindergarten we were in the same class. At that age, you don’t remember much, so it’s funny that we could spend our lives living on a rock in the Pacific and only recently know each other.

As a professional athlete with a very hectic schedule that involves traveling all over the world at a moments notice, what are some of the biggest challenges you face in your relationship with Molly?

Thankfully for me, Molly is the most level-headed girl I’ve ever met. Her brother is a professional surfer as well and she grew up in a family that has surrounded their lives with surfing. So it’s not like she doesn’t understand my job and what I do. Since my schedule is all over the planet (literally) I’m so grateful she is just supportive and adds to the already amazing journey that I’m on.

Tell us in THREE words, what describes your approach while competing in big wave events?

Calculated, Inspired, Motivated

While free surfing, what keeps you focused when you’re in the lineup with all the other respected big wave athletes? Especially when you are all after the same thing, the biggest and best waves of the session?

Staying true to the reason why I’m out there. I love surfing big waves and I know many of the other big wave riders feel the same. For me, it’s about channeling all the training that I have done and the visions I have had about the way I want to ride a big wave. It’s also when I see the best guys in the world doing something so insane and crazy. It may appear that way but to them, it’s not at all, it’s all according to plan. That’s inspirational! It also helps me push myself to the next level and is why I love riding with the best out there. In the ocean, if you find your rhythm you are able to put yourself in positions where the best big wave will come to you, it’s an art form.

Talk to us about the recovery process after you have had a couple of really giant and successful days out at JAWS (PE’AHI). What’s going on physically, mentally and emotionally? Back in January of 2016, didn’t you have something like twenty sessions in that one month alone? Not much time for recovery when you are in the water that much.

The lead-up to a massive swell, especially the first one of the season is my nerves are at an all-time high. In my own imagination of what it’s going to be like. It tends to turn into something bigger, scarier and meaner. When the day arrives I have always felt more relaxed when I actually get my eyes on the waves. Once I’m in the water sometimes I feel so excited I can’t slow down, this usually happens when I get my first wave under my belt. During the Godzilla El Nino winter I surfed Pe’ahi 24 times, it felt like there was a swell every week sometimes twice a week. With a winter like that in front of me, I knew that I needed to do my best and take advantage of the waves for I may not get another winter like that for a long time. The recovery physically was fine, it was the emotionally draining side of each session that was becoming harder and harder to bounce back from as big swell after big swell marched towards the Pacific big wave breaks.

What do you do, when you are having one of those emotionally and physically draining days?

I really rely on all my training beforehand. When there is any doubt in my mind I lean upon that training from the past summer and believe in all the hard work I put in. There isn’t much you can do at that point except try and find clarity.

What does a day off, a day of recovery and rest day look like? Do you have to force yourself to take a day off?

I have to really force myself to take a day off, I’m usually pressured from my trainer. Every morning I take my heart rate and if it exceeds 55 bpm that means my body is in need some recovery. I usually time my rest days with the worst conditions of the week. Sometimes there isn’t a bad day and it feels like pulling teeth staying out of the water.

We all have room for improvement and growth. What are you currently focusing on to improve yourself as a young successful athlete?

Training smarter, not harder. I’m really trying to become more skilled in each one of my sports with goals of being at the top level in all of them. I’m a perfectionist so no matter how well I do in any of them I feel a thirst that I can be much better. Lately, my surfing has been really important for me to improve upon, the better I get at surfing, the better all my water sports seem to become.

How important is it for you to continuously incorporate a healthy lifestyle, healthy diet and training into your everyday way of life. What does a normal day consist of?

I’m lucky to live on Maui, the lifestyle there is very healthy. Early to sleep, early to rise. The food is very good and I grew up eating super well thanks to my parents. As I travel more and more it can get difficult to eat well. Lucky for me, my metabolism is a fiery furnace and burns up anything I put into the tank. With all that being said I am constantly adapting since I travel more than I am at home, every day on the road is different depending and where I am or going.

You also love to snowboard with your good friend Gerry Lopez in Oregon and it looks like you had an insane time last season up at Mt. Bachelor. Tell us about your friendship with Gerry and your sessions with him shredding POW.

I am thankful to have grown up knowing both Gerry and his brother Victor. They are both legends and because Gerry no longer lives on Maui but in Oregon I don’t get to spend a lot of time with him. So when I went snowboarding on Mt. Bachelor I had the best time just hanging out as I did scoring sweet powder. On the mountain, one thing that made the trip so epic was following Gerry into his secret zones and riding untouched snow with no one around. Crisscrossing lap after lap, Gerry is one of the most fun to ride snow or waves with and I love that he stays out all day!

What accomplishment(s) are you most proud of?

I am obviously proud of all the accomplishments that I have done. For me, it’s about the journey there that I remember. The tougher it is the better it feels to win. I can remember winning my first professional event, which was SUP at Sunset and that felt like I proved to myself it was possible to make it as a professional and not just another win at a kids contest level. I would say winning my first world title in SUP was a big deal personally. There have been other SUP events that I have won that have helped develop who I am today too. And in most recent times winning Molokai 2 Oahu in 2016 and winning the Puerto Escondido Challenge were so tough but again that’s what made them so rewarding.

“Kai dedicates more water time of anyone I’ve ever seen, also looks like he’s having the most fun. That combination plus the unbelievable talent and positive attitude make him one of the best athletes of our sport.” Peter Mel

Tell us something that we do not know about you and that you have NEVER shared with anyone.

I am not sure, everything about me seems to be on the internet now! I don’t drink coffee in the morning.

We all make mistakes in life. Can you give us an example of one of the biggest mistakes that you made which had a direct impact on you and your family? How did you overcome this time in your life and what did you learn from this experience?

I have made little mistakes of course but nothing detrimental to myself or my family. I try my best to keep the ship sailing smooth and I have been taught by my parents to always do the right thing. Thanks to them my decision making and moral compass up to now hasn’t let me down.

What is your greatest concern today with your profession?

Reaching a point in my athletics that I can’t become better. Not improving at what I do, every day I strive to get better. I do feel the sports that I have chosen are those that you can never master.

If you had a chance for a ‘do over’ in life or with an experience, what would you do differently?

With what I know now I would do exactly what I have done up to now but with all my experience and knowledge I could fast track and even go beyond what I’m doing today. I am sure there is a lot of people that feel that way. I feel that I wouldn’t change my life at all since it’s exactly what I would want to be doing.

If you could only keep 5 possessions for the next year, what would those items be and why?

I couldn’t live without all my sports, it would have to be one of each. My best shortboard, foil board, big wave gun, kitesurfer, windsurfer, and Im gonna add one more here, SUP.

How are you giving back to future generation and the groms that look up to you from around the world?

I have been fortunate to work with a ton of kids at The Boys and Girls Club of Maui. Na Kama Kai on Oahu that teaches kids from broken homes how to surf and embrace Hawaiian culture. Environmentally speaking, working with Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii and hopefully inspiring Kids to protect our beaches and oceans. Close to where I live, I’ve been sponsoring an event for kids at the Paia Youth and Cultural Center. While I’m on the road I also do events named Positively Kai Beach Fest. The kids are the future and I love seeing them stoked when they get on the water!

Who has been your greatest source of inspiration and mentorship in your life and why?

Being born on Maui, surrounded by innovators of water sports and having the greatest of all time be my mentors has definitely attributed to where I am in my life. I think I talked about this earlier but had all these elements not come together probably wouldn’t be who I am. Without a doubt, my greatest source of inspiration and mentorship have been my parents. Both of them have come from very little, especially my Dad. To see where they have come and made of their lives is just incredible.

“One of the nicest, polite, caring, sharing, constantly evolving with new ideas with technology evolving and one badass athlete at that. From windsurfing, kitesurfing, now surfing, SUP and foiling, he is combining all as we did to be so ahead of so many. As Pe’ahi at his front yard, it was just a matter of time he was going to climb that mountain.”- Aloha Darrick Doerner

What are some of the biggest challenges and obstacles you have had to overcome and or, that you are dealing with today?

Some of the biggest obstacles that I have had to face were pretty unknown. As a professional watersports athlete, the route I have taken is very untraditional. Making myself of value to sponsors has been difficult in the past. A lot of times they didn’t know what to do with me since I wasn’t fitting a mold. I’m glad to have figured it out somewhat and even more excited because of that right there, has made this process so much fun. It all comes back to the journey.

Tell us about your amazing win at the Puerto Escondido Challenge a couple months back. It was not only a stellar finals performance but your first ever WSL Big-Wave Event win. It was also very close for Jamie Mitchel who ended up second, even with a busted sternum. What was your mindset going into this event and then hitting the finals?

My mindset heading into the Puerto Escondido Challenge was to go heat by heat, wave by wave, breath by breath. Last year’s big wave world tour I wanted to do well so bad that I think it was detrimental to my success. This time it was a difficult decision to go to this event because it was in direct conflict with Molokai 2 Oahu. The event I so badly wanted to do on a hydrofoil and set a record time. It was probably one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made, to skip that and go to the big wave world tour event in Mexico. It was obviously the right decision! As I made each heat I couldn’t believe I was in the final. At that point, I had gotten so pounded by huge waves that I was almost warmed up. I realize that I should just go as hard as possible and whatever the result was gonna be would be because of my best effort. In the beginning, I took the lead in the heat with getting pretty big waves that I didn’t make it out of. Then Jamie got a few and he was leading the heat. It felt like if anyone got the right wave they were going to be taking the heat but it must’ve been the rhythm, Jamie and I were in because I really felt like it was between him and I. I think the defining moment was when we both got caught inside by a huge rogue set and took it straight on the head. Perhaps the biggest wave of the heat. That reset us to zero and with 10 minutes remaining we had to find our flow again. It was impressive that he was doing it all on an injury, goes to show what a champion he is. The spot that I had been sitting on all day waiting for a good wave finally paid off when in the last minute one came and gave me that exit. I was just so stoked I didn’t get destroyed again while getting a really good barrel. I did not know I won till I got to the Sand and then announced my score. It was very euphoric!


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