Pushing the Boundaries With Kai Lenny

Pushing boundaries.
Courtesy of Kai Lenny

For someone who spends more time in the ocean than just about anyone else on the planet, we managed to catch Kai Lenny at a strange time. Despite it being World Oceans Day, the big-wave surfer was nearly 1,000 miles from the Pacific.

Lenny was at the tail-end of a two-week media tour that included stops at a Formula 1 race in Monaco and studio appearances at CNN and Instagram in New York City.

Now, the 26-year-old Maui waterman was spending the final weekend of his trip in Vail, Colorado, honing his river skills in whitewater SUP competition at the GoPro Mountain Games.

“I just want to ride a wave,” Lenny tells ASN. “I think tomorrow I’m gonna go down to that Glenwood wave and try to surf or foil that. It’s a standing wave but it’s still a wave.”

Here, ASN catches up with Lenny on what he’s been up to.


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I was going nowhere so fast ⚡️ x 🎥: @redbull 🎶: “Rise” by Doves 🕊

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What is foiling on a standing river wave like?

Foiling on [standing waves] is interesting because you aren’t moving. It’s like you are on a pogo stick in the air. It’s difficult because there is so much turbulence underwater that’s hitting the wing and making it hard to ride. But the potential is there to do some big aerial maneuvers.

It’s no secret that you love to foil just about anywhere that offers a pulse of swell energy. Of course, some pulses are bigger than others. Namely: Jaws.

If you get on a really big wave it feels like you are flying, that sensation everyone dreams of. I topped out at probably the 50-mile-per-hour range, that’s pretty terrifying for sure.

But what is foiling’s potential for the average surfer?

I think foiling has a bigger potential than almost any surfing sport because no matter how bad the waves are, you can go out and feel like you are surfing a good wave. I don’t think it’s something that would replace surfing ever, but it adds to the experience of riding waves.


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The morning stretch routine 🦅 x 📸: @mauimarcc @hurley @redbull @tagheuer @nike @gopro

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Since you began foiling a few years ago, “foil wing” technology has continued to improve. But have we discovered the perfect foiling setup just yet?

I think with foils getting better in the future, it’ll be easier to go fast and be comfortable. There are thousands of different ways you can build a wing and one of those has to be perfect. We just haven’t found it yet.

In the past couple years, you’ve been on a mission to seek the biggest, baddest waves this planet has to offer. You’ve become a standout on the WSL Big Wave Tour and clips of you riding liquid mountains have gone viral. But tell us about how you plan to keep pushing the limits?

I’m watching people on mountains, like Travis Rice, doing double or triple rotations off an 80-foot cliff and think I could probably do that on a big wave. Because they are doing that with avalanches and cliffs and rocks, but if I fall I just have to be good at holding my breath.

I always just thought that the potential for high-performance in big waves has barely been scratched.

It’s no secret that you love to push boundaries, but you’re still human. How have you learned to channel fear into performance?

I rely more on my second nature because if you overthink it, that’s when things go wrong. But in the back of my mind, I always know what I want to do, what my goal would be. It kind of gets rid of the fear of doing it, because you just focus on the performance.

Beyond foiling and big wave surfing, Lenny also happens to be a world-class windsurfer.
Courtesy of Kai Lenny

After the WSL called off the initial day of the 2018 Jaws Challenge once Pe’ahi’s waves became too large for the paddle-in competition, Lenny promptly grabbed his tow-in gear and spent the afternoon riding monster waves. His session included this viral ride that (no matter how many times we watch) never fails to leave our jaws on the floor.

So what exactly was going through your mind during a ride like this?

I saw the lip and knew I wanted to do a big turn right there. Then when I got up there, the wave pitched out a lot quicker than I anticipated, so I leapt off the lip and relying on [my experience] in sports like windsurfing and kiting, I was able to fly through the air. It felt really big, but at the same time I’m so used to flying through the air that it didn’t feel out of the ordinary. When I landed my feet jammed more into the straps and I kept on riding.

At the time it didn’t seem that crazy. Then I saw the video and realized it was a lot more critical than I thought. I was just relying on instinct and second nature.

While you may go out no matter how big the waves get, you’ve said you understand the WSL’s decision to call off contest days at Mavericks and Jaws when the waves got too big. But do you have an alternative solution for these days?

On the day they canceled the Jaws Challenge, it wasn’t good for paddling. It was perfect big waves, but it wasn’t good for paddling. That’s why I took my tow board out and was just having a field day by myself.

I’ve always been an advocate that if it gets too big or gnarly, everyone just goes tow-in surfing for the event. It’s a big-wave contest, not a big-wave paddle-in contest. So whatever the conditions are, you either tow or you paddle. To me that sounds fair.

But on waves of that size, is it worth someone dying because they are pushing too hard? It comes down to a safety thing. All the surfers would go out no matter what, but at the end of the day it comes down to safety.

Clearly, you embrace whatever conditions the ocean throws at you. But humans throwing waste into the ocean is a different story. What do you do on a personal level and how do you raise awareness about ocean pollution?

The biggest crisis to my world and the world in general is the plastic that’s ending up in the ocean. Single use plastic is just horrible, you use it for five seconds and then it’s there for 10,000 years.

For me, [helping] on the smallest scale is using reusable water bottles, never using straws, and being very conscious. I believe just being a steward of your own environment and your own land can inspire others.

Spreading his stoke for the ocean to others has always been one of Kai's big goals.
Courtesy of Kai Lenny

In the age of Instagram, the best way to inspire the masses seems to be one 15-second clip at a time. While you admitted it’s the “job part” of being a pro athlete, explain how it allows you to chase waves for a living?

It’s super wild how as an athlete, you don’t just go out and do your thing. I’d say 50% or more is trying to get that image out there for sponsors. Having a GoPro makes it a lot easier because in the most critical moment, you can be capturing yourself and sharing it on social media.

You just hope that inspires other people, or entertains them for 10 seconds. Because if you aren’t being seen, you are easily forgotten in this world.

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