Keala Kennelly is lying on an operating table. The sharp smell of disinfectant hangs in the air, washing out the odor seeping from the buckets of dark fluid she saw in the hallway when the nurses rushed her into theatre. A blur of bodies pass by, but most of all Kennelly can hear the screams that echo through the dilapidated hospital. Somewhere inside her, the worm-shaped organ known as the appendix has ruptured and is leaking toxic bile onto her vital organs, causing her to vomit out black liquid. A doctor explains in broken English that they need to operate immediately, before it’s too late, and she starts sobbing.
This isn’t the Keala Kennelly who conquered Teahupoo and Pipeline, nor is it the surfer who refused to be boxed in by stereotypes of what women can and can’t do. It’s not the Keala Kennelly who appeared fearless to the world and aloof to her fellow competitors. Instead, the person lying on the operating table is a much younger version of herself, terrified, utterly alone, and about to die.
“That was a real turning point for me,” says Kennelly, now 38. “I was in Costa Rica for a one-star WQS event when my appendix ruptured and I had to be rushed to the nearest hospital in this small town. I remember thinking that I had spent all this time on tour with all these women that I kept at arm’s length and here I was, about to die, and none of them would care because I never opened up and let them see the real me.”
Kennelly no longer competes on the tour. She left that behind a decade ago, along with the hardened exterior she’d cultivated since childhood. Instead, she’s chosen to focus her energy on the big-wave scene, mostly funding her own exploits while breaking boundaries at heavy water locations like Puerto Escondido, Jaws, and Teahupoo (despite the latter trying to kill her, twice). She has also become an outspoken feminist and activist for the LGBT community, a world away from the cloistered surf industry. It’s not always easy straddling the divide. Except Kennelly’s never been one to shy away from doing it tough.
Will Bendix: I remember reading one of the first profiles written about you that said you came from a broken family, that your mother wasn’t present. How did that affect you as a kid growing up in Kauai?
Keala Kennelly: Yeah, I remember that [article]. It made my mother sound like an awful mom who wasn’t there for me. But that’s not true. I came from a very loving, very supportive family. My entire family surfed. I grew up on the beach playing in the ocean with my two brothers and all the neighbourhood boys including the Irons brothers, Dustin Barca, Danny Fuller, Kamalei Alexander…
WB: What got you interested in bigger waves?
KK: Surfing with all those boys in Kauai is what got me into bigger, more powerful waves. We were always trying to outdo each other, go bigger. Then we had Laird Hamilton, Kala Alexander, and Titus Kinimaka to look up to, as well as my own father [Brian]. He was always out there on the big days at the bay. To this day, my father is a 60-something surf-stoked grom. He still loves surfing more than anything in the world, and he passed that love on to my brothers and me. I’m actually a real daddy’s girl.
WB: And the Irons brothers? That must have been hard work, keeping up with them?
KK: Andy and Bruce were brothers to me in every sense of the word, which meant they treated me like crap a lot of the time [laughs]. For some reason the kids in Kauai are really hard on each other. They make a sport out of putting each other down. It’s like a form of entertainment for them. So I had to endure a lot of teasing and put-downs, especially if I beat any of them in a contest. One time I beat Andy, and he wouldn’t even speak to me—for a few weeks! It was hard at times being the only girl with all these tough boys around. But they also had my back and it made me strong. They pushed me to be better in the water. No doubt I pushed them too.
WB: Tell me about going to high school on the east side.
KK: Well, Kapaa High was infamous for being a rough school. Laird had gone there and gotten into many fights, and so had my older brother, so I knew what I was in for. I got into a lot of fights too, but I pretty much learned that the other kids would mess with you, threaten you, and try to intimidate you until you stood up for yourself.
WB: Can you remember your first fight?
KK: Yeah, it was with a boy. He kept calling me all these awful things at lunch, things I had never been called before. Transsexual. Lesbian. Butch. Dyke. He told me I couldn’t sit with the surfer boys because I was a girl. So I took his tray of food and smashed it into his face. He was pissed and smashed my sandwich into my face and we were about to start throwing blows when security broke us up.
WB: How do you think all this shaped your approach to the tour, because you were pretty young when you went pro, right?
KK: Yeah, I was 17. I guess it made me really hard and standoffish. I had to close myself off in order to protect myself, which goes against my nature because I’m generally a very open person. So it conditioned me to put up a tough front, never show my feelings. That translated well into competing on the tour, because I was able to keep all my competitors at a distance and not get too friendly with them. But at the same time it was really lonely. I spent a lot of time on tour alone.
WB: You’ve said before that you knew from a young age that you liked girls. Did knowing you were gay feed into this feeling of isolation?
KK: Definitely. I saw the way lesbians, or just presumed lesbians were treated on tour, and it was terrible. It was like they were second-class citizens. The things people would say about them behind their backs were really hurtful to hear, but I would just nod in agreement, so as not to raise any suspicions about myself.
WB: Why was that?
KK: I was terrified somebody would find out about my “dirty little secret” and I would be an outcast. I guess I was most afraid that I’d lose my sponsors and never get a real shot at the world title. It created a lot of internalized homophobia and self-hatred in me that wasn’t healthy. Like, when we were surfing events, I couldn’t wait to finish the contest and run off as fast as I could, away from the tour to a big city where nobody cared about my sexuality and I didn’t have to feel like I was under a microscope.
WB: How did that change?
KK: When I almost died in Costa Rica—that was a real turning point for me. It was as if the doctors had cut the hard part of me out and left it on the operating table. After I survived that experience, I let my walls down and became more open again.
WB: That couldn’t have been easy…
KK: Well, it was a process. I slowly became more comfortable with myself. I slowly started to love and accept myself as a gay person. I stopped caring so much about what other people thought, what the tour thought, what the surfing industry thought. Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t come flying out of the closet swinging rainbow flags in the air. I just simply stopped going to great lengths to hide it. My last few years on tour everyone pretty much knew I was gay. My sponsors kind of knew, but we didn’t talk about it. It was kinda like, “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and as long as I wasn’t vocal about it in the media, the relationship continued.
WB: I’m glad you mention sponsors. You’ve been openly critical about the surf industry being sexist and conservative. Do you think being outspoken and the choices you’ve made have impacted your career?
KK: I believe it has. I think I could have made a lot more money if I’d stayed in the closet and played the game longer. When I later started to be more open about my sexuality, I lost the majority of my endorsement deals and have been struggling ever since to continue my career as a pro surfer. But it’s the industry that needs to change, not me. If you look at it, most surf brands only advertise one kind of woman: pretty, feminine, straight, and looks more like a model than an athlete. For men, the emphasis is always on performance. It’s the double standard. If you’re a female professional surfer and don’t fit that description, you basically will have no sponsors.
WB: Would you do things differently if you could go back?
KK: No…I don’t know. I tried to be girly. I tried to be feminine. It’s not me. It’s just not who I am. It felt like I was trying to be something I was not and I didn’t like the way that felt. I don’t like to look back and regret things. If anything, I think it would be the opposite. I think I would have stopped hiding who I was sooner.
WB: So what do you do now to earn money?
KK: I D.J. parties, do deliveries, paint houses, give surf lessons here and there. I do a lot of things to make money that also keep me from being tied down to a 9 to 5, so I can still chase swells from time to time, especially at Chopes.
WB: That’s the wave that has come to define you in many respects. How would you describe your relationship with Teahupoo?
KK: It’s every emotion. Love, fear, elation, terror. It makes me feel very connected to the universe.
WB: What do you mean by that?
KK: Well, I’m not religious. I am spiritual. I’m agnostic… but I do believe there is something much greater than myself, that something beyond our understanding exists. I feel that very strongly when I surf…that I’m connected to something greater or connected to everything all at once, if that make sense?
WB: It does, especially when you’re talking about a wave like Teahupoo. Can you recall the first time you surfed it?
KK: Yeah, it was 1998 or ’99 I think. I knew it was big, but I didn’t realize how big. I thought it was maybe 6- or 8-foot but it was more like 15! I paddled for a smaller wave but it didn’t even break. When I turned around there was just this huge set coming for me. It totally crushed me and I was held under for two waves. I almost died. When I finally came up my board was destroyed, smashed to pieces. I managed to paddle a broken piece back to the channel and I just sat there, shaking. The whole thing scared the shit out of me. It took me a year to build up the courage to surf it again.
WB: And then you had that wipeout where the reef tried to rip half your face off.
KK: Yeah. That was later, in 2011. It took me two years to go back after that.
WB: How does one get over something like that?
KK: It’s still always in the back of my mind. But the feeling when you get spit out of a giant barrel at Chopes is like nothing else. If I didn’t go back and face my fears I would never get to experience that feeling again for the rest of my life. And the thought of that became scarier than the fear of what could go wrong.
WB: You’re often described as fearless. How would you respond to that?
KK: I’d disagree. Fear is good. Fear helps keep you alive. To have fear is to know that there are severe consequences. To be fearless is to be ignorant to those consequences, and that is very dangerous. I feel like I am good at calculating the risks involved versus the reward, and when I feel like the risk is too high, I have no problem sitting my ass on the beach. I don’t have a big ego about that because it’s my life on the line.
WB: When was the last time you sat it out?
KK: In Mexico, huge Puerto. There were 99 percent closeouts, with one percent make-able barrels. I didn’t like the odds.
WB: So you think about death when you’re in the water?
KK: I do think about death. I think about death a lot. I think about my family, my friends, my loved ones, my partner. I would never want to inflict that kind of pain on them. That is what I’m most afraid of. That’s what makes me fight until I break the surface and get a breath.
WB: What else are you afraid of?
KK: Loosing the people I love the most, dying before I have accomplished everything I want. And being trapped in a room full of snakes, like in Indiana Jones. I’m terrified of snakes!
WB: You won the 2016 WSL Big Wave Award for Barrel of the Year, beating out guys like Ian Walsh and Greg Long. Did that feel like vindication?
KK: It did. Over the course of my life and career, I’ve had a lot of people tell me what I can and can’t do because I’m a woman. That’s always pushed me harder, to prove them wrong and try to be better. So it was nice to see for myself what was really possible.
WB: That’s a long way to come from been hustled by the boys at Pinetrees.
KK: Yeah, but it’s funny. A few years ago I was surfing in Morea with my brother Gavin and a few boys from Oahu and Kauai. Bruce was there and he was on the beach when I got this incredible wave, a really long backhand barrel. I had to pump through three or four different sections and got spit out. Bruce paddled out and said, “Nice barrel Lala!” Then he proceeded to tell all the other boys in the water about it. “All you backsiders out here, KK just got a barrel that shit on all your faces!” Then he paddled off, laughing to himself. From that moment on, it went from a chill session with the boys to a much more aggressive pack trying to prove Bruce wrong. It took me right back to my childhood [laughs].
WB: Is there anything else you still want to accomplish in surfing?
KK: Yes, but I don’t talk too much about what I am going to do until after it’s done. Less talk, more action.