Chasing the Champ: The Kai Lenny Profile
Ed. note: Since this article originally ran in our Fall 2014 issue, Kai Lenny has gone on to win the 2015 SUP Surfing World Tour, pioneer the burgeoning new realm of downwind foilboard paddling, set new precedents in big-wave SUP surfing at Jaws and win the coveted 2016 Molokai 2 Oahu title after setting a new SUP record for the crossing. Needless to say, the young champion is still going strong.
Despite the intermittent weather, the afternoon light was brilliant, perfectly illuminating the enormous lip that threw out and formed a heaving barrel the size of a two-story house. Kai Lenny sat on his standup board, patiently waiting for the next set to roll through at Peahi. He’d already spent most of his day riding his prone board with the crowd. The time was right to shine on his standup.
With the day fading away, Lenny stood up and stroked into a 30-foot face, made the drop then set up under the lip. The wave threw perfectly and in the channel the shutter motors on every camera, on every jet ski rifled in a flurry to catch the spectacle. Lenny’s wave was immortalized.
A photo from that session was posted to the Billabong XXL Awards site early last spring. The reactions were mixed to say the least. The riff between prone surfers and standup paddlers has been documented well on Internet forums, in this magazine, even in mainstream publications. While the wounds have healed some, there’s still plenty of angst out there. But Kai Lenny, a new-generation waterman as athletically capable as any ocean athlete on Earth, is well-armed to bridge that gap and connect the watersports world at large. And not just in the ocean. His ability to do so has as much to do with his aura as his athletic prowess.
Kai Lenny was destined to lead a new generation of waterman.
His father, Martin, a windsurfer, moved to Maui in 1985 to engulf himself in the lifestyle—which revolved around waves when conditions were clean, and wind otherwise. He was going to stay for three months. But that turned into a year.
Then he met Kai’s mom, Paula. In the small Maui community, Martin rubbed shoulders with some of the best athletes in the sport who were doing the same thing—athletes like Dave Kalama, Robby Naish and Laird Hamilton.
Martin and Paula bought a home just west of Paia, halfway between Maliko Gulch and Kahului Harbor, ground zero for some of the best conditions on the planet, be it surfing, paddling or harnessing the wind. Kai and his younger brother Ridge learned to swim in the north shore’s warm Pacific waters just down the street from their home, to surf on boogie boards in the shorebreak, both developing a keen athletic awareness that will serve them the rest of their lives. Cats always land on their feet. If you were to throw a Lenny brother into water, he’d always land on a board.
So with this uncanny ability and his dad’s connections to some of the best ocean athletes, Kai became that world’s prodigal son. He learned kiting and windsurfing skills from Naish, took tow surfing hints from Laird Hamilton while Kalama coached him in each of the disciplines. At seven, he picked up a canoe paddle and started SUPing on a longboard after seeing Kalama and Hamilton experimenting. He fell in love with the nuances of using a paddle to surf waves and the way it brought all the sports he loved together into one package—a bigger, wider board, like windsurfing, a paddle, like outrigger, using wind to ride open ocean bump as you would kite or sail downwind. It was all there.
“Kai is the first kid who really grew up being great at all these disciplines in the water: kiting, foiling, windsurfing, standup and surfing,” says Hamilton. “I think we’re all really proud of him, all the guys on Maui that have paved the way for him. He’s really taken advantage of his opportunities and represents that next generation of modern waterman in a great way.”
As a writer trying to paint a well-rounded picture, you’re not really ever looking for the bad in people, but the balance—a true view into who someone is, because it often tells us so much about our own humanity.
But damn if Kai isn’t on the level. At the 2013 SUP Awards, my wife and I were enjoying a beer after the show, talking about the night. I saw Kai and pulled him over to introduce him to her. We all talked about how great the night was, he told us what he was up to, he even gave me shit about something I wrote in front of Jenelle. He’s totally comfortable with himself and it was then that I realized, Damn, this dude is really easy to hang out with.
Then one of his fellow competitors came up, friendly-like, and offered Kai a beer. Kai was underage at the time and he laughed, then politely said no thanks. His friend gave him a fair bit of crap about it, all in good fun. Kai laughed a little more, a bit awkwardly, and changed the subject.
And in that, perhaps, is Kai’s greatest fault. And also his greatest strength. He’s the most competitive athlete in the business. He treats his body like a temple because he wants every single advantage when he hits the water. Hard to argue with the results: to date he’s won four standup surfing world titles, two racing world titles and set a record for the fastest SUP crossing of Kaiwi Channel after his victory at the 2016 Molokai 2 Oahu World Championship. Not a bad run.
When you experience a competitive windfall like that, especially at such a young age, you become a target. An island—Kelly Slater and his 11 World Titles is a similar example in the surfing world. There are little things you must do as an athlete to separate yourself. You eat differently. Drink differently. Socialize differently. Train differently. Think differently. Be different.
Kai’s competitive drive can come off in a lot of different ways. I’ve seen it in full force. I once caught up to the champ in Cascade, Idaho, a little town 90 minutes north of Boise, where a group with Kelly’s Whitewater Park put on the Payette River Games, an event that offered the biggest prize purse in the history of the sport.
Many of the athletes competing hadn’t paddled much whitewater. Kai had done the GoPro Mountain Games in Vail, Colorado earlier that spring, where he won the overall title. The night before the competition all the athletes were in the water training on the course. For some reason I thought it’d be a good idea to go out and surf on the man-made wave while the athletes were working out—on a board that was much too small for me. As I paddled out, I saw Kai standing on the opposite side of the river, staring intently upstream at the different gates on the course. This wasn’t just a glance, but a laser-focused, glassy-eyed stare as he reviewed in his mind what he could do better. He carried his board upriver for another run.
So there I was, kind of being a barney, trying to catch the wave in fast-moving water with currents going all over the place on a board I could barely stand on. I punched through the eddyline for another try. As I ferried towards the wave, Kai came barreling down the course looking to make his move around the buoy in the eddy. And I was right in his way. Like, my-board-is-about-to crack-his-carbon-race-board-and-ruin-his-event, in the way.
Under his breath, with just a hint of annoyance, I hear him say “Joeeeeeee….” But he somehow slipped past me without falling. His run was ruined, though, as he struggled to keep balance in the turbulent water. I could tell, in the moment, he wasn’t stoked. The competition started in the morning. For the biggest money ever offered in an event, with some of the best paddlers in the world on hand. With very little time to train.
But that focus and confidence is paramount to the burden he carries. You see, Kai has to tip-toe a world that not many of us understand or relate to. He’s a once-in-a-generation water athlete, but the world seems to be asking more of him.
This 5-foot-7, 135-pound enigma is the chosen one, the perfect high performance athlete with enough ability to wow on a wave to win over core players in the surf industry, but with the personality a mother could love. He has an opportunity to unite a world long divided.
Big wave surfing is in a transitional period. The tow movement—started on Maui by Kai’s mentors—has gone out of fashion, replaced by extremely brave men riding extremely long boards, paddling in to extremely big waves with only their hands. Long, drawn out arcs on gigantic faces at speed have been replaced by taking off late under the lip, popping to one’s feet, surviving the drop and pumping up into the face to set up for a barrel or an abbreviated cutback.
Kai is changing the game. During sessions at Peahi each winter he’ll put time in on his prone board to appease the crowd and his peers on Maui, then wait until the mass thins and take his standup board out to charge one of the best big wave venues on the planet. And when he does, he brings that element of speed and performance back into the game, snapping off the top, getting barreled with speed to burn and generally upping the performance level. Longtime surf photographer Tom Servais recently told me that Kai has brought a lot of excitement back into the big-wave realm—especially for the people behind the lens.
But when he was nominated for that Billabong XXL Award this winter, Internet pundits went bonkers. Criticism rose from every corner of the webosphere. But some of the sport’s biggest players had the kid’s back.
Albee Layer, a Maui native at the vanguard of both aerial and big wave surfing defended Kai in the comments on a photo posted to the XXL Facebook page: “Kai Lenny is the baddest mother f***** around. He can ride whatever he wants out there cause he charges as hard as any one and rips harder than most on any wave riding device.”
By taking a multi-faceted approach and working to up the visibility of SUP specifically, Kai has managed to inspire some of the sport’s best wave riders. Greg Long, one of the world’s most respected big wave surfers champions his inspirational approach. “Kai’s a throwback to a generation of old,” he says. “He’s so competent in every discipline in the waterman lifestyle. He can drop into a 20-footer at Jaws on his standup or paddle in on a surfboard. You can’t help but be inspired by him.”
Kai didn’t win the Billabong XXL (he was officially nominated for a barrel he nabbed on his prone board). He was forgotten in the fray. He really didn’t have much support from inside the surf industry until 2014, when Hurley signed him to a sponsorship contract. A sign that, slowly, things are changing.
“I love how Kai handles himself,” Kalama says. “A lot of people on the periphery don’t understand the kinds of things he has to go through (in the lineup). He doesn’t do it for recognition. He does it because he loves it and people see that and admire it. He’d be doing it even if he wasn’t making a dime.”
Kai is careful with his image, but as someone who’s dealt with him from a media-relations standpoint, the only thing he really cares about is not pissing off his Hawaiian elders and his peers on the islands. He openly lends himself to any aspect of the sport he feels will raise its profile.
Kai stepped out of his comfort zone this spring and did two big river competitions, GoPro and Payette. River running on a SUP, while exciting and incredibly fun, can sometimes be a bit of a junk show, humbling even the best of athletes, breaking down everything they thought they knew about paddling and currents and sometimes making them look, well, silly. “Tell me honestly, what do you think of all this river stuff? Cool or kooky?” I asked him this spring. “Are you kidding me?” he responded without even a hint of hesitation. “Running rivers is rad. It’s a whole different sport.”
And with Kai on the water, competing at some of the most beautiful river locales in the country, the sport never looked better. His cat-like balance was on full display in both Colorado and Idaho, making difficult river moves look incredibly smooth and stylish.
“I was really impressed with his paddling,” says Mike Harvey, owner of Badfish SUP, who raced against the multi-sport star in Colorado. “And he couldn’t have been cooler with my (11-year-old) son Miles. Kai remembered his name, high-fived him and asked about his runs. Kai didn’t have any river experience, per se, but he’d come ripping into an eddy, touch the buoy and paddle out the back of the eddy fins-first and do a shuv-it on his way downstream.
A few weeks later I watched Miles do the same thing. Kai was on the river for two days and influenced the sport. I can guarantee I’m not gonna end up on some Hawaiian downwinder and adapt some new way to do it.”
No matter the venue, Kai is a bridge, a connector. His athleticism, while unequaled, is really an afterthought. It’s his approachable personality that makes him the world’s greatest waterman, a burden he’s more than willing to carry. “I’m grateful to be in this position,” he says. “I want to do my best to make this sport as cool as possible and to be able to hold that responsibility, it’s a great honor for sure, and something I’ve kind of been striving for since I was a young kid. I’m doing exactly what I want to do.” –JC