Keala Kennelly Interview
The Kauaian charger on the state of women's surfing and her fateful Tahiti sessions
You’ve been a mainstay in women’s professional surfing for a long time and have undoubtedly seen a lot of change over your career. What’s your take on where women’s professional surfing currently is?
Everything in life has peaks and valleys. I enjoyed a big peak in women’s surfing in the era of Blue Crush and the Women’s proper “Dream Tour.” Presently, there a handful of women on the Tour that are making more money than any women have ever made in surfing history, but women’s professional surfing as a whole has been back-sliding for a few years now. You can pinpoint the start of the descent to 2008 when Teahupoo and Tavarua permanently disappeared from the Women’s World Tour schedule.
It seems like there’s a lot of talent right now on the women’s side, but on a competitive level, it feels like the sport is waning. Would you agree?
I absolutely agree. The talent level has never been higher, but the interest in the Women’s Tour is at an all time low. The only obvious reason I can see for this is that the Women’s “Dream Tour” no longer exists. The Women’s Tour has become the “Small-Wave Beach Break Tour,” and even though the women are surfing amazingly well, watching them have to grovel in every event is just not exciting to watch. The women don’t have a single event on Tour that is held at a challenging wave. There is a reason the most-watched Men’s event webcasts are Pipeline and Teahupoo—because you are putting the best surfers in the world in the best and most challenging waves in the world. (Those are the only events I ever really watch).
Here is a really simple mathematic formula for a successful Tour:
Good surfers + Bad waves = boring
Bad surfers + Epic waves = (some good wipeouts) but still boring
Good surfers + Epic waves = Exciting
If you were tasked with changing the professional side of the sport for women, what would you do and why?
I would start by finding the Women’s Tour an umbrella sponsor targeted toward women like Tampax or Venus Razors to cover the cost of running events and paying for the media/live webcasts. That would take the financial pressure off of companies like Billabong and Roxy to single-handedly hold up the Women’s Tour. The extra cash would also allow for a much needed/deserved prize money increase for the Women (1st place in a Women’s Tour event has been stuck at $10K for as long as I can remember, while the last Men’s WCT the winner walked away with $300K). Then I would get events back at Teahupoo, Tavarua, Sunset Beach, and Honolua Bay, or, better yet, I would introduce new events to the Women’s Tour in waves that are comparable to those waves I just mentioned. How about a women’s event at P-Pass, Cloud Nine, Padang Padang, Puerto Escondido, or Pipeline? Those would be exciting events that people would want to watch. The best female surfers in the world, competing in the some of the best and most challenging waves in the world, with a lot of money on the line, is my idea for a successful Tour.
If we can switch gears for a few questions, I know you and Andy were really close and it must have been devastating losing him. How are you dealing with his loss and how has it changed you?
It is devastating…I am never going to get used to him being gone. The pain of losing him is something that never goes away. You just learn to manage it better with time. It has been healing for me to come back to Kauai and spend time with his family. I am one of those people that likes to give people their space and never want to feel like I am bothering them. I was like that with Andy toward the end. I knew everybody wanted a piece of him and I didn’t ever want to be one of those people draining him. I knew I would see him in the water or on the beach and he would give me one of those awesome Andy hugs…but that is the thing—I took it for granted that he would always be there and now that he is gone I regret not reaching out more to be in his life. I don’t want to make that mistake with Bruce. I was really grateful to be in Tahiti with him on this last trip. We got to spend some quality time and it was really nice. So this experience has taught me not to take people’s existence for granted and also to really get out there and live life to the fullest (the way Andy did). In this game of life nobody gets out alive, so you have to make the time you have count.
How do you remember Andy?
Geez, which one? I have known Andy since we were babies…I remember the tan, blonde haired boy that I looked up to so much. He was such a stud. I wanted to be just like him. The way he would attack the waves when he surfed (even way back then when we were kids) was amazing and I knew he was destined for greatness. He was tough on me sometimes back then because I was the only girl tagging along with all the boys, but as tough as he was he also had another side that was really soft and kind. He was all heart and that was what I loved about him the most.
I remember the awkwardness between us when we were young teens, because I had a crush on him for years and he knew it and I hated that he knew it. I remember Andy the fierce competitor who had such a fire in him to win and hated to lose. I remember Andy the World Champion—the people’s champion. He inspired people all over the world—people that had never even met Andy in person were rooting for him. For the people that were fortunate enough to meet him, Andy was so generous and gave so much of himself. Andy had a larger-than-life personality that was contagious, but he had another side that was shy and I think he struggled with all the attention that came from living his life in the spotlight. Even though he was this superstar to the world, to the people that knew him well, there was a part of him that always remained the same and that was his childlike innocence. He never lost his sense of wonder. It was one of the most beautiful things about Andy that I will miss the most. So I guess the way I will always remember Andy is that happy-go-lucky little boy with the sparkle in his eye and big heart that he always wore on his sleeve.
On a different note, I know a lot of people were pretty much speechless when it came to the tow session at Teahupoo. Between the photos and videos, I know it brought butterflies to a lot of stomachs. Can you describe what happens when you grab the rope out there?
Before you grab the rope, when you are just sitting in the channel geared up and waiting your turn, that is the most nerve-wracking part. You are trying to get yourself psyched up for what you are about to do, and at the same time trying not to get freaked out by what you are witnessing out there. When somebody gets a sick barrel and kicks out pumping their fists in the air, you are so fired up, but then when you see a big mutant slab mow somebody down right in front of you, your heart sinks into your feet and you start questioning what the hell you are doing out there.
You have all those feelings whirling around inside of you like a devil and angel on your shoulder fighting with each other. Then you get thrown the rope and everything goes silent. The struggle is over, the decision has been made and now there is no space for chatter in your head, nothing remains except extreme focus for the task at hand. I don’t know how it is for other people, I can only speak for myself, but when I get way out the back and am looking in at those mountains, I feel my heart expand from all the beauty. When I let go of the rope and the wave stands up on the reef everything stops, time is suspended for a moment and then moves forward again in slow motion. At first there is no sound and then the lip throws and comes crashing down. I cannot process the sound, to me it sounds muffled but to everyone watching in the channel it sounds like a Mack truck being thrown off a building. There are two senses that are heightened above all others: sight and touch. You can see a tunnel of water all around you and the boats in the channel looking back at you, you can even make out what color T-shirt the photographer in the red boat is wearing. As for your sense of touch, you can feel every drop of water as it pulls off the reef and up the face of the wave under your board, affecting the signals in your brain that control every part of your body to put yourself in the right place to make the wave. When you kick out a huge surge of emotions rushes through you, you hear the cheers from the crowd and then everything clicks back into real time again.
That injury to your cheek, I know a lot of people were pretty slack-jawed when they saw the photo. Can you run us through what happened?
It happened in the memorial heat for Andy before the Men’s Final. I was really honored that Bruce asked me to be one of the four people to join him in the water. We had all been too far inside of a set that had just come through and I was bummed that I was out of position for that one. I was determined to get the next good one. When that next wave came through I had to paddle pretty deep to get it. Bruce, Koby, and Parko thought it looked like a good wave, they were all calling me into it. I turned and paddled excitedly. I took off and it kind of had a bit of bump that kept me from pulling into the barrel straight away. I had to make some adjustments and then saw that the next section was going to barrel so I bottom-turned and parked it in the barrel. I had to negotiate the foam-ball and that may have thrown me off and made me have to draw a higher line. I thought I was coming out but the lip just caught me in the head and threw me straight into the reef before I even realized what happened.
What were you thinking when you looked in the mirror and saw that wound?
The first time I saw it wasn’t in the mirror, it was in a picture taken by one of the medics in the medical tent on the point with their iPhone to convince me that I needed to go to the hospital in Papeete. I kept saying, “Really? The hospital? Really, it’s that bad?” I couldn’t believe that after that massive tow day a 6-foot wave was sending me to the hospital. I knew I hit my face, but I didn’t think it was so bad (just a scratch maybe). When I looked at the photo for the first time it absolutely floored me, it was so much worse than I imagined. It was so deep it was all the way down to the bone and it was a few millimeters away from my right eye. I just sat back in my chair pretty much in shock at that point.
On a positive note, it looks like they did a really good job stitching you up.
The Tahitian plastic surgeon did a wonderful job putting my face back together. I am really lucky.
I’m not sure if you want to keep this private or not, but I heard on the webcast that you’re expecting a baby. Can you talk about that and how are you feeling about being a mother?
Yep, we did [artificial] insemination and my partner of five years is pregnant with a baby boy. I am really excited about becoming a parent and am so scared at the same time. It’s like scarier than towing big Teahupoo for me. I want to be the best parent I can be and provide an amazing life for my son. It’s all still so surreal until I get to finally meet him but I get the feeling like this could be my biggest adventure yet.