At the young age of 20, Kai Lenny has already become an outstanding athlete in a range of watersports including windsurfing, kitesurfing, surfing, stand up paddle and tow surfing. He is strongly passionate and fully committed to his water-centric life and has recently shown himself to be a stand out at paddle surfing some of Jaws’ recent large swells.
Kai’s love of the ocean began at a very early age and life on Maui provides him a workplace & playground that perfectly caters to his training in all his watersports. His achievements are many but in 2010 he became the first ever Stand Up Paddle World Champion, a title which he retained in 2011 and in 2012 he became SUP World Racing Champion.
We got to meet with Kai for a face to face interview in a great coffee shop, Anthony’s Coffee Co,
in one of the most character-filled and laid back places on planet earth, Paia. As with so many of the athletes we’ve interviewed, Kai was genuinely friendly and his positivity and wholesome ambition is apparent in his demeanour and replies.
Many thanks to Kai for his time in answering our questions!
Check out Kai Lenny’s webpage: http://www.hawaiianwaterman.com/
Name: Kai Lenny
Age: 20 years old
Where are you currently based: Maui
Sponsors: Naish, Red Bull, Oxbow, Maui Fin Company, Contour, Turtle Bay Resorts
Why are you so passionate about windsurfing?
The reason I love windsurf so much is because for me it’s like riding a motorcycle on water. You have a lot of power at your disposal, almost too much sometimes. You have the ability to jump as high as you want and you are able to do very maneuverable tricks and all these things you would be able to do surfing so windsurfing feels like you’re riding a dirt bike but on water and it feels natural. I surround my entire life with being on the water. Everything I ever do in my life is surrounded by doing some sort of watersport.
Most visited website:
I guess I just check swells. I like checking Windguru because it’s the most accurate but I’ve been looking at Surfline alot as it gives more insight as to when exactly it’s going to hit. With Windguru you can’t go wrong. It seems like they have every single spot on planet earth!
Three words you believe describe you:
fun loving addict
Three words that others might use to describe you:
You should ask those other people!
A phrase or motto you live by:
Train hard, have fun and keep dedicated because if you have a goal in your mind or if you have something in your mind that you want to achieve then anything is possible. You can do whatever you want in this life.
If you could have dinner with one person, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
It’s so hard because I admire so many people. There are so many great people in the world but off the top of my head right now it would be fun to have dinner with a Frank Sinatra or an Abraham Lincoln. Someone who was a character. These two were opposite characters but both of them would be interesting.
If you were a superhero, which power would you want to have?
I’m split between flying but I’d love to be able to breathe underwater. If I could combine the two that would be perfect! I guess if you have Superman powers he can hold his breath – maybe I’ll just go with Superman powers!
You’re going a windsurfing trip to a desert island, other than your windsurf gear, what three things do you take with you?
I’ve kind of experienced that already. I went to the Marshall Islands a few years ago with Levi and Jason Polakow and a bunch of the Oxbow guys. We had limited space on the boat so everyone was saying we’re taking this and this but I took everything! The 3 things beside windsurf gear was surfing, kiteboard, stand up gear and besides that I sneaked in some other things too! Everyone had 3 bags, I had 6! When we got there everyone was like you have 6 bags but by then there was nothing they could do about it!
Who would you like to sit next to on a long haul flight?
If I was on a super long flight I’d want to sit next to a Victoria’s Secret model!
What poster did you have on your wall growing up?
I always had posters of Robby Naish, Laird Hamilton, all the guys at Jaws. I always had Jaws pictures. It was water-centric. To be honest, I kept my room pretty clean and the walls! I went through the classic movie RIP all the time. I ruined a VHS tape and then I’d go buy a new one just so I could watch again because I’d watch it so many times that the tape would wear out. It would disintegrate! I would watch it through and then stick it back in and watch it again. Just thinking back about all the times I watched Jaws videos and all the times I watched RIP – how did I watch them so consistently?
How old were you when RIP came out? Four or three and half!
What’s your favorite or most used app?
Recently it’s been Instagram. I use music on my phone more than anything else. I use it more than my phone! I just text people because I’m in such a rush! I like looking at movie trailers too.
Favorite kind of movie?
Recently I liked the New Dark Knight. I like everything, depending on however I feel. I’m not into pure horror! By the end of those kind of movies I feel too skittish!
What was the last movie you watched?
If I take a look inside your refrigerator would would I find?
Red Bull, salad dressing, ketchup. That’s it right now as I was traveling for two months so I just haven’t stocked up.
Too much swell to go shopping?!
Exactly! I just go to my parents’ fridge and raid their fridge and they have everything. You name it they have everything!
If you could trade places with any other person for a week, famous or not, living or dead, real or fictional, who would it be?
To be honest, I feel my life is better than anyone’s. I wake up and I go do whatever I want. I go in the ocean and have fun. I travel all over the world, meet new people and then I can have any gear I desire because I’m sponsored. I have my dream car. I live on Maui. Celebrities get hounded. I’d maybe be happy in a different scene just for a little while to get a different perspective on life.
How long have you been surfing/windsurfing/SUP/kiting?
Started surfing when I was four, windsurfing when I was 6 and SUP when I was 7, kiting when I was 9, tow in surfing when I was 9.
And now you’re paddling into Jaws!
Yeah! This last swell I got caught inside by a huge set. I was inside and I was sitting out there and this bomb came in. And the scary thing with Jaws is you can’t see anything when you go over the next wave because there’s so much spray. All you see is this dark shadow. I took three waves where the lip landed right there. I was so scared because you see the waves moving slow. I’d go under and open my eyes and I’d instantly be 50 feet under water because as soon as you go under 50 feet of water goes over you. I’m looking up and there are just these gnarly white water clouds. You get pounded and then I’d come up and I wouldn’t get pulled in. Sometimes when you wipe out you get pounded down but you don’t get dragged, you stay in the same spot. So I popped up and the next wave is right there. Finally I got dragged in a little bit. I didn’t want to pull the CO2 cartridge as I only had one left. If I needed to I would have but I didn’t want to because I didn’t want to waste it.
Where is your favorite windsurf spot and why?
I really like Cape Verde. It’s such a fun wave. You can do the biggest aerials, big solid turns, not necessarily the best waves for tricks but it’s such a clean crisp wave. I just love that wave.
And your favorite SUP spot? Pipeline.
You’re one of the very few that have SUPed there?
Yeah, a couple of people have. When I went I didn’t say I want to go stand up paddle at Pipeline. I was driving to Waikiki and Jamie O’Brien calls me and says let’s go standup at Pipe. So I basically went with Jamie because he knows that place so well. I also knew a lifeguard who I went with but I would not suggest for anyone to go out there unless you’re invited. I haven’t been out since because I haven’t been invited.
Your favorite surf spot? Jaws
And for kiting? The Point at Ho’okipa
You’re very prominent in the watersport world and very much a household name so how deal with the constant attention and pressure of being in the limelight?
A favorite saying of mine that I always tell myself is ‘rise to the occasion’ . So if I’m out at Jaws and I don’t feel super comfortable and I feel pressure because a lot of my heros are out there and I want to show them what I’ve got I would tell myself ‘rise to the occasion’ to push myself to get to be at that level and I’ve been doing that my whole life, basically rising to the occasion. There are times you wish you didn’t have to do something and you wish it was mellower but when it’s mellower I wish I had the pressure because it’s fun!! It adds that little bit of intensity level and motivation. Rising to the occasion is my favorite thing.
How do you stay grounded and normal?
I don’t believe that what I do is ever good enough in my mind. I’m always a perfectionist. I always feel I could be better in this part of my life or this portion of sports or whatever. That keeps me humble knowing I’m not at the level I want to be at and I don’t think I care if people think I’m the best. I do in a way because I want to be the best but it doesn’t effect me because I want to feel the best for myself. If I feel I’m the best in my mind then I’m satisfied. It feels good to be recognized. I’m grateful. I remind myself to be grateful. It’s been a lot of work to get there. It hasn’t been given. I had to work really hard so that’s one of the reasons why I want to keep this going and that’s why I want to stay humble. You can watch every train wreck – as soon as someone gets famous they get cocky or big then all of a sudden they disappear. If I stay humble, I might stay a little longer!
Which move are you currently trying to master?
In surfing I”m trying to get my aerials down. Trying to get it where I can air reverse 360 consistently. With kite surfing trying to work on my strapless and to be able to jump really high without footstraps and do rotations. Two rotations are my goal. Windsurfing I have a list of moves I’ve thought up of. When I’m in my jumping mood I really love jumping. If I was on a wave it would be sick to do perfect aerial fowards where you clear sections and you then forward and land on the other side of the sections. Not where you forward and land in the same spot but clear sections. With jumping I’ve been into doing the Kono backside and you pop it and then you do a forward.
What challenges have you encountered in your career and how have you overcome them?
I’ve always made sure I surround myself around positive people. There are always going to be negative people no matter what. If you’re a really good person, there’s always someone that’s negative to it. That’s just life. The biggest challenge is to not be that child star syndrome. There are so many kids that can’t quite make it. They’re on the edge, can’t make and then disappear. I did not want that to happen. Once I knew I made it I felt I was on more level ground. I don’t feel so much pressure now.
What is the biggest misconception about being professional waterman?
People just think you go ride and do nothing else but it’s a lot of work. For example, getting gear fixed, replying to emails and making phone calls. I get so many emails you have no idea! Basically it’s like a business. I was in Australia for two weeks doing a promotional tour. I went to two shops a day for two weeks and then I raced in between. That’s draining. Half of the time it’s fun and then half of the time it’s a lot of work. But I enjoy that, I like working. If I’m not working, I feel like I should be doing something. The biggest misconception is that it’s a free ride but you always have to be behind the 8 ball and keep reinventing yourself.
Which spot would you like to sail or surf?
I’ve never been to Indonesia. It’s super rad for surfing. For windsurfing I want to go back to the Marshall Islands. Oh my gosh, that place is just a dream down there!
What has been your scariest ride?
I don’t know, I’ve been scared a lot! Jaws is always so scary. Ok, the first wipeout I had a Jaws. I was towing and it was probably the biggest wave I’ve ever ridden at Jaws on the left. I got really comfortable because it was when were were tow surfing and you get 50 waves in an hour. I was going left and it started to close out. I saw the section and I thought I can make that but what I didn’t know out of experience is that you can make the section but then there’s going to be another section coming towards you. I could have kicked out but I was scared to kick out because I what if I kicked out and my worst fear was if I saw a bomb breaking on my head. At that point you feel so alone and it’s the scariest thing in the world. I still have nightmares about that. I was going and I made it around the section. I came out and I tried kicking out and it was just too steep and I went so high and was on the edge and I could almost make it out but I just slipped on my board. I fell and the wave barreled over me. I was 16 at the time and I truly thought I was going to die. Underwater I was literally thinking I lived a great life and I’d done so much in my life. I didn’t actually have any flashbacks! I was just thinking whatever happens let it be but then I came up with so much oxygen because I was so relaxed. I came up and started laughing because I was alive. Dave Kalama comes flying past me on the jet ski and tells me he’s going to get my board. I went under another small wave and DK and Shaun Walsh come over and picked me up on the jet ski.
Other than family, what do you cherish in your life and why is it so important to you?
My life is simple. I don’t go out much. I like hanging out with my family. I have a group of really close friends I do things with. The reason why I never got into partying or I’ve never had any alcohol or done drugs in my life is because I’ve always been so focused on my sports and been so passionate about that. That’s my love, being in the water and trying to figure out the puzzle in the ocean. So why do I need to go do drugs when I’m having way more fun doing this. As soon as you go into drugs or alcohol it’s because what you’re doing doesn’t satisfy you.
How do you stay positive and upbeat?
I’ve always tried to be as positive as I can because whenever I am good things happen and even if bad things happen there’s always been something I can learn from it. There hasn’t been one situation in my life where something happened that hasn’t been for the greater good. Nothing good can come out of being negative.
What’s your greatest achievement outside of the water?
Everything has always been on the water!
What do you consider to be your worst quality?
And your best quality?
Having drive and not giving up. Actually that’s probably my worst quality too because sometimes you have to just let it go! You can’t make chicken soup out of chicken poop! I always get told that when I’m training for a contest. Don’t take a crappy wave and expect to do well. You can’t make chicken soup out of chicken poop but you can turn chicken soup into chicken poop!!
How do you personally define success?
Success to me in it’s most basic form is having satisfaction and feeling like you’re content with something. That’s the most basic form. For me I always feel like I have a weight on my shoulders and even if that weight is lifted for 5 minutes it feels like the best feeling in the world. I try not to know what it’s like to not be successful. This year I lost a world title this year in stand up paddling to wave but I almost felt like it was a good thing because it set me up to have more world titles later on because when you win you don’t learn anything. When you lose you learn a lot. Look at Kelly Slater, if he’d have won in 2004 against Andy Irons I’m sure he would have only 7 world titles now but because Andy beat him it drove him to get 11 titles and he’s still in the running to get 12 world titles.
I’m a big believer in … always having fun
My favorite place on earth is … Maui
My parents are … the biggest reason why I’m where I am today.
I could never … succumb to drugs or alcohol.
I’ve always wanted to … be on Saturday Night Live
Life is nothing without … a dream
Today I will … have more fun than I had yesterday.
The Internet is … a connection to people around the world
I am … my own worst enemy