Words of wisdom from Kauai big-wave surfer Keala Kennelly

This story originally appeared on SURFER. Words by Keala Kennelly as told to Ashtyn Douglas.

Sometimes girls feel like they have to prove themselves. Growing up on Kauai, I felt like the guys were especially hard on me because I was a girl. Even when I would do something awesome, they wouldn’t give me a lot of credit for it. But when we got a little older, that all changed.

keala kennelly
Keala Kennelly Photo: John Hook

You have to be scrappy and resilient when you’re the underdog. Having that mentality is always beneficial, because life will throw sh*t at you.

When someone is critical of you when you’re young, it can leave a really negative mark. I was told so many discouraging things as a grom. I’ve been called everything from loser to ugly, dyke and tomboy and was told I couldn’t do things because I was a girl. I wish I could say that those things didn’t have an effect on me, but they did. Even though I acted really tough, I was a sensitive little girl and I took everything the boys said to heart.

Things have improved a lot for the Women’s Tour. The events have improved, there is a lot more prize money now and I feel like the women are getting a lot more respect. There are still a lot of really talented female athletes without sponsors, though.

In an ideal world, women’s big-wave surfing would look a lot like the Pe’ahi Challenge last year — except with a bigger prize purse and all of the top female big-wave surfers would have major sponsors.

When it comes to finding sponsorship, my advice to female surfers is to be a role model for other women. You can play up your sexiness and try to be as appealing as you can to the male demographic or you can be like Carissa Moore and stay true to who you are and not let your surfing talent take a back seat. One of these days, brands are going to realize that sex isn’t the only thing that sells.

If you’re gay, come out when you’re ready to come out, but come out before it kills you. It’s hard for athletes in the public eye to come out. I don’t judge athletes who want to remain in the closet; I’ve been there and I know the internal struggle they might be going through every second of every day. But I wish I could have come out earlier so I could’ve been a positive role model for LGBT people sooner.

Not being true to yourself and hiding who you are erodes your soul in an indescribable way. When you can finally be true to who you are, it is one of the most freeing feelings you will ever experience in your life. I wouldn’t trade that for all the sponsorship dollars in the world.

You have no idea what you are capable of until you challenge yourself. You are so much stronger than you think.

The fear of missing out is far scarier than facing a fear. I was terrified to go back to Teahupoo after destroying my face on the reef there, but the thought of not going back and being able to experience that wave again became far more than I could live comfortably with.

#surfing makes me happy 😊 #gratituesday

A post shared by Keala Kennelly (@kealakennelly) on

The big-wave community is different from the rest of the surfing community. As big-wave surfers, we put ourselves in life-threatening situations and it’s something we all experience together. I think it makes us closer. Just like soldiers who fight in a battle together, there is an unspoken pact between us that I don’t think average surfers experience.

The best part of big-wave surfing is the moment when all your senses are engaged. Putting yourself in a life-threatening situation forces you to be totally and completely present and makes you feel like you are one with the universe for a split second. I have never been able to get to that place any other way. There’s nothing quite like that rush you get from paddling into a wave the size of a two-story house.

I think the glass ceiling shattered when Billabong gave Barrel of the Year to a woman. When they called my name, I think the exact thought I had in that moment was, “They are actually going to let me win this thing!” Not because I didn’t think I deserved it, but I wasn’t sure if they would actually allow a woman to beat all the men. I think there was a part of me that reverted back to my childhood and expected the boys to not give me the credit I deserved. But I realized that I’m not dealing with insecure little boys anymore.

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