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November 30, 2021


It’s been around ten years since we had a face to face with Kai Lenny. In 2011, we were in his front garden on Maui. Today Kai is still on Maui but we are on a different island on the other side of Earth. What hasn’t changed is that an interview with Kai is always incredibly broad sweeping in its content comes very close to an appraisal of the position and trajectory of oceanic board sports, and that SUP still ranks as his all-time strength and power builder…

Words: Kai Lenny // Photos: John Carter // Erik Aeder // Red Bull Content Pool

SINCE 2020

For me, a lot has changed, I have not been travelling nearly as much as I was, especially at the beginning of the lockdown. Back in October 2020, I really kicked things off travelling again to surf really big waves. I went to Mavericks three times and Nazaré once. I have also been travelling between the Hawaiian Islands a lot. Most of the places in the world have been limited to get to.  So aside from the travel, I have just been focusing on becoming a better athlete overall and really training hard. That extra time at home and not on planes has been beneficial. Now I would say a full year since the pandemic broke out, I am busier than ever. I am now as busy as I was before the pandemic broke out which is a great thing.


I took the whole situation as a positive. I knew life probably would not be the same. It is kind of nice within a year to see how things have kind of come back a bit closer to normal but I think travelling without a mask will never happen again. Having to have certain vaccinations to travel to certain countries might also become a normal thing. That is all a bummer but at the same time we have to adapt and continue on. Because I am from Maui, I have been lucky that this is such a great place to train and live. I could spend the majority of my time here no problem. I am fine and content with my life here.


For me, my normal travel plans have been pretty restricted as I can’t fly everywhere. It is hard to get into Europe now, even a year after the outbreak. On top of that a lot of places will add on a quarantine so I have had trips cancelled and rebooked them for a different time of the year as you can’t justify a two-week quarantine to go to a country for a week. A lot of times, chasing big swells is exactly that. So, it makes it difficult to move around.  It has been nice to stay home close to my family. I feel through this whole situation I have become closer to my parents and my brother than I ever have been before. We have been all tied down in one spot, but I have been fortunate to at least travel to a few places.


I have to get tested every time I go in and out of Maui and it is really annoying because even if I travel inter Island like a trip to Oahu, I still have to get tested. At least I don’t have to test to leave Maui which makes life a bit easier. Coming back into Maui is tricky as you have to find a place to get the test and time it exactly right so you have the result before you fly. For a water sport athlete this is tricky as I am just going last minute when the wind is blowing or the swell is breaking. That has just added another layer of complexity. I have been vaccinated so hopefully I can travel around the world; I have the feeling they are going to require vaccination passports. I just did it because travel is something I need to do.


For me stand up paddling is still one of the ultimate water sports. I can ride my SUP in the biggest waves on the planet and also ride the smallest waves. SUP is the best training tool for racing and endurance. I am not racing now as much as I was in competition but I do still like to go out and train. I do feel like the training aspect is really key in big waves. There is no better way to train for big wave surfing than that. Another great thing about SUP is that I can do it at any time of the day in any condition. The conditions are nearly always good for some form of SUP. Most of the time I SUP will be a training session on a race board in the morning or evening. For surfing I usually have my SUP in my car when I go to the beach along with my surfing short boards. When I get a little bit fatigued from shortboarding from laying on my stomach I will go on my stand up and snag ten times the number of waves in a short time. That efficiency of SUP is super awesome. I really enjoy snagging a lot of waves in a short time and I don’t get as tired as surfing. Like I said SUP really is the best training tool. A lot of the times I fit SUP between all the other sports I do but it definitely has its place.


I for sure think the best way to catch a big wave is on a SUP bar none. You have the leverage of the paddle and you are already standing up. You can paddle to the peak much quicker and also see the waves coming better which is much more difficult to see when you are paddling on your stomach. I am going to start doing more stand up in big waves again since it is the perfect way to catch big waves. Paddling in traditionally is a great challenge in its own respect which is why I do it but stand up is really insane in the way you can put yourself in critical positions and also get yourself out of them.

I think Jaws is without doubt the best big wave I have SUP-ed. For me Jaws is the ultimate wave of all the big waves that I have ever surfed. I can move around the line up quickly, see the wave coming and go for some big barrels because I am in the right place at the right time. I still think I have surfed some of my best big waves on my stand-up paddle board. I do remember a couple of crazy waves where the goal when I was paddling was just to get tubed out there. On a stand-up it is easy to go do that. On top of all those things, it is nice to have the paddle when you are on the wave. If you are hitting a lot of chop, it is kind of like having a crutch. I really rely on my paddle for leverage. Even if you need to get one foot further forward in a barrel you can do it with a paddle. It is hard to pump these giant boards and gain more speed. I think the paddle does just add a whole tonne of stability.


I work out around four times a week aside from any training sessions on the water. The reason I do that is to try and loosen my body up. From windsurfing to surfing to stand up to kite and foiling, you get really tight in certain places. I need to loosen and open up my muscles. So, a lot of my training is loosening up but also getting stronger during the off season so I can come back with less injuries. I think that is the main reason behind my training. To get stronger and better which I get a lot of that from being on the water but actually the training is maintenance on my body and preventing injury.


For me, when I head out to Jaws it is critical to have my own crew, boat and jet skis. I have a lot of equipment and I am out there in situations that could potentially be life threatening, so I do prefer to have people watching out for me. I don’t want to have to rely on other people, it costs extra money of course and more time to set up, but at the end of the day when I am surfing these big waves, I don’t want to think about anything else but riding the wave. I don’t also want to risk other guys who are not on my team. I know what everyone is signed up for and they know what they have signed up for when they come onto my team. We are all on the same page. There is hopefully nothing that can come out of the blue.


For me, in big wave surfing the reward obviously outweighs the risk, at least my opinion. But with that risk factor so huge it makes the reward of nailing that huge barrel even more special. The greatest moments in my life so far are for sure when I come in from a really big wave day. It is the ultimate form of meaning in that moment. There is self-preservation and also your imagination. You are overcoming something that can kill you. Big waves can be so terrifying and that feeling makes me feel the most alive. I feel like a man when I am out there! The situation pulls on my tribal instincts that are still somewhere deep in my DNA. That is something that I continue to chase after. Catching the wave of the day on one of those huge sessions feels like winning a world title to me. I am going to continue big wave surfing for as long as I possibly can. In this part of my life, big waves are the pinnacle for me. My life is about doing all these sports in big waves. The challenge is so fierce. It is you versus mother nature at its greatest moment. I love being scared. It sounds crazy but I love being terrified. It sharpens the sword and makes me feel on point. When I am out there riding giant waves everything else that is stressful in life just melts away. Maybe one day that will change but for now all I want to do is ride the biggest waves I possibly can. Unfortunately, that does not happen every single day but that is why I have all my other water sports to keep me occupied and motivated. Besides riding big waves, I do miss competing sometimes as that is a great outlet for when I am not riding big waves.

I don’t know if I have been as scared anywhere else as much as Jaws. It was the first place I paddled into a big wave. I was on a board that was 9’4 and 28 inches wide! That thing was not designed for waves that big. It was a gun but it was not made for Jaws and it was also the first session Shane Dorian paddled out there. It kind of changed the landscape of surfing. It was also the day I caught one of my biggest waves on a SUP still to this day. I think I may have ridden bigger waves but one particular wave was insane. It was not an insider. It was a really big set wave and it was probably the most scared I have ever been in the ocean in that moment. My heroes were out there, they seemed fearless and I was just still a young kid, seventeen years old trying to become what all my heroes were to me. I am still working on that.

I would say that the January swell this year was one of the biggest I have been a part of. It was insane because it was big and windy. There was a whole scene out there. Windsurfers, kiters and big wave surfers. Honestly, it was mayhem. They are not my favourite days when it is super crowded but the waves were so big and so good that it made the whole day feel incredibly special.


Absolutely I would SUP at Nazaré. Next winter, one hundred per cent I will be stand up paddling out there. It is probably the best wave to SUP into. Paddling into any wave at outer Nazaré is terrifying. Lately I have been doing more tow surfing than anything else out there but to SUP Nazaré would serve as a great challenge and I would love to just get some images of me out the on a SUP. I want to do every sport out there. At the same time, I think the whole experience could be really fun and a great challenge. This next winter mark my words, I will be bringing a SUP to Nazaré.  I managed to get out to Nazaré last year in a period when there were very few restrictions. The worst part about travelling was the unknown. By the time I arrived in Portugal everything was fine at the time. I had a negative covid test and showed that and I was all good. The hardest part was getting a legitimate test in Europe that would work for me to get back to Hawaii. I ended up coming here and at that time they had tests on arrival in Maui to clear quarantine.


I don’t enjoy the long-distance SUP races so much when it is flat water. That is so gnarly. I do not really look forward to those. I do love those endurance races when the swells are big. Even though I am doing a lot more hydrofoil downwind, I still really enjoy going on a stand-up race board. They have their own art form. The boards are seventeen feet long and it is a real art form to riding them. If you are racing other people on the same craft, it really does not matter to me what I am racing on as long as I am racing somebody else. That is what pushed me to my limits and I do miss those type of races to be honest. At the moment with covid it has kind of killed all of that for the time being but I am hoping that it comes back. I would say a lot of the art of racing in choppy seas is about the technique. You have to be comfortable standing on the board. Of course, being able to read the water and time your paddling is crucial. Fitness for endurance is also important obviously. I would say it is sixty per cent technique versus forty per cent fitness. Technique will save you a lot of energy. You still need endurance because as soon as you get tired then technique flies out of the window.


I still love sprint racing but am not a huge fan of the long-distance races. The time it would take me to be on that level and the training commitment would take away from my other sport. The level is so high now with those guys. But the sprinting I can still train for that as it is similar fitness to a lot of my other sports. For stand-up paddle wave riding when the events come back and I have time I will do it. The events have not been on my radar as I already accomplished quite a bit with four stand up wave world titles and two or three racing world titles. I can’t even remember anymore. I would especially love to compete at Sunset Beach in the waves, any excuse to ride that wave is a good one.


I love working on film projects and with photographers. It is just awesome to re-live the sessions we get to do. Media content is important for my job now, more than ever. Since there are no competitions for me at the moment then the media side is something that keeps athletes going. I must make up for it with my sponsors with great content. I always like working with photographers and video guys that have different perspectives. I also love telling stories. I love doing that through the movies, either about a day of a session or a big wave experience. I will continue to do that. I am fortunate enough to go on a lot of adventures.


That event seems so long ago now. I had not been doing much SUP racing around that time and all those guys were so fast. I knew my strongest point was not going to be in the long distance but I knew I might have something up my sleeve in the sprints. To be honest when I train, I feel like I can beat anyone on the planet still. It just takes time training for that. I have spent a lot of time in the past training for sprints so it is easy for me to come back to that level. I have also always had great boards for the sprint racing. The thrill of racing and untapping my unlocked potential is incredible. Just thinking about that last race really motivates me to want to go and do SUP sprints because there is no faking it. It is simply good training. Those memories of winning races and that last one in London are amazing. That was a special win because everyone was really fast that year.


The only time I just sit at home and relax is when I am injured or if the conditions are not great and I need to have a forced rest day. There are so many things I can do on the water, the one thing that I hate the most is taking a rest day. But occasionally I need to do it as it is the key to going forward. Otherwise, my performances just drop if I run myself to the ground. As a full-grown adult now, I do look at the conditions and go ‘ok, strategically there is a swell coming or there is good wind, so I am going to take these days off’ I usually plan my rest days around the conditions, so I do not miss out on anything.


I just love doing new sports on the water. Wing foiling is very much a cross over between windsurfing and kite surfing. It is pretty awesome.  The foil really opens up places you can go in light wind. You can also jump and do other cool moves when the wind is strong. It has been a fun few years, as before flat water bored me to death. But with foils and wings it is not boring at all. It is all so new still and there are so many tricks to learn. It is just another fun thing to do, it is user friendly and it is still really exciting.


I love it that the sport is so versatile. I could probably take one board anywhere on the planet with one paddle and ride giant waves, small waves and score good training. SUP is the most versatile water sport on the planet for sure. I love the sport and the people that are a part of it. Maybe it is not as big as it once was which is a real shame because I think it is a beautiful thing.  I think it is picking up again now and more people are doing it. I think SUP will have its day in the light again!


Being an athlete has changed a lot since I started out. The generation before me didn’t really have to worry about being their own media companies. Now I have to be my own media company to a certain extent. Most of it is on my hands. I must be on it with social media and seriously I have to do a post a day to keep everyone that follows me up to date and keep my sponsors happy. I am constantly working on film projects, working with photographers, and doing things that are going to get my name out there. To be honest I think could be way better at it but I am balancing that with being the best athlete I can be. It is hard to do both well! I am figuring it out which is all part of the process of being a professional athlete and it is fun.


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