Dave Kalama on SUP phenom Kai Lenny

kai lenny

I knew 17-year-old Maui native, Kai Lenny, when he was just a youthful wink in his father's eye. I've watched him grow from an ankle-biting grom into an incredibly talented waterman, even towing him into a 60-foot wave last winter at Jaws. He's been written about in every standup mag in existence, and deservedly so: In this infant sport, he's a bar-setter. But take away the achievements, the sponsors and the videos, and there's a kid that any parent would be proud to call their own. Kai is new school to the core but his values and ethics scream throwback. He doesn't expect anything he hasn't earned, he has respect for the old guard and I've seen him do the hard yards to get where he is. His passion for the water goes far beyond accolades. His desire and love come from where all great watermen before him have found their inspiration: in the pure fun of it all. — Dave Kalama

DK: How long have you done standup?
KL: I've been SUPing since I was 9. I actually started with an old canoe paddle and a longboard. It made doing a big turn on a longboard more fun. At the time no one else did it so it didn't seem like a sport, it seemed like a novelty.

DK: When I was a grom, Buttons Kaluhiokalani, Larry Bertlemann and Gerry Lopez were the guys I aspired to emulate. Who are your heroes?
KL: I've looked up to the guys who towed Peahi [Jaws]. People like Laird and you, guys with the "doing less is m ore" style, performing powerful turns. I've always looked up to Robby Naish because of what he's done in windsurfing and kiting. And now in SUP, he's one of my favorite guys to watch and ride with.

DK: How does it make you feel that people are starting to emulate you?
KL: It doesn't seem right because I'm trying to push myself to the next level. It's cool but I don't feel like I've even found my own style. I have a long way to go.

DK: What are your competitive aspirations?
KL: To become world champion in SUP and windsurfing. Now that SUP has taken off and there's a (surfing) world tour, it's my number one goal. Thinking about what I have to do to get there inspires me.

DK: It seems as though, having gone through the experience of creating new things and being at the forefront of something exciting, there's a sense of earning it. Trying something a hundred times, when you finally make it, you feel like you've earned it. Do you feel the same way?
KL: Yeah, there's nothing like getting denied on a new move. It just makes it that much more satisfying when you make it because you feel like all that work has paid off. It wouldn't be fun if it came easy.

DK: You don't do much racing. Why?
KL: It's always been about waves for me. I used to just stare at waves for hours and mind-surf them. I like downwinders for cross-training because it can teach us so much about reading the water and technique. When you're caught inside and scratching to get out you use every bump on the water to help you. But there's just nothing like the sensation of riding a wave.

DK: You're home-schooled so that you can spend more time on the water. It seems like you have very supportive parents.
KL: Yeah, since I was really young I was always energetic, and if I wanted to do something, it was going to have to be in the water because they were always down at the beach windsurfing or surfing. Now that I'm where I'm at, they've taken time off work to help me so I could practice and be successful. They've always told me that if I didn't do well in school, though, I wouldn't be getting in the water.

DK: Obviously, SUP is blowing up and you're at the forefront of the wave-riding aspect, but what about surfers that just don't get it?
KL: I almost feel sorry for them because they don't know what they're missing and when there's weirdness or tension about having a standup in the lineup, I just go, "Well, they're the ones missing out." I hope some day they figure out how much fun it is, but they can live in their own little world rather than branching out and pushing themselves to learn something new. It's not what I use to ride a wave, but rather that I'm riding a wave on the best equipment for that particular day.

DK: A lot of SUP growth is away from the ocean. Do you see yourself getting involved inland?
KL: For sure. It's awesome to hear people talk about how much fun they've been having on the lake or the river. I wish everyone would spend more time in the water. It would make the world a better place.

Dave Kalama is a world-renowned ocean athlete who was among the first surfers to tow into Jaws and helped popularize the sport of standup paddling. Kai Lenny, currently second in the world rankings, is looking to win the world title at the final Standup World Tour event this December in Hawaii.

This piece originally appeared in the Winter 2010 issue of SUP magazine. Photo by Tom Servais