Pro Surfer Billy Kemper Reflects on Winning the Pe’ahi Challenge Two Years in a Row

Billy Kemper, the Reef-sponsored, North Shore–based surfer, has had a very big year — and the busy winter surf season is only getting underway. “I’ve never been so excited for a winter, I think, in my life,” says Kemper, who’s heading to the Vans World Cup this weekend, and who recently took first at the Pe’ahi Challenge — his second in a row — in Maui. We caught up with Kemper while he was in Oahu and asked him to look back at the Pe’ahi Challenge, one of his most epic surf days ever.

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What was it like to win?

This is the second year it’s ran, and to win it the first year, the inaugural year it ran, was a dream come true. I’ve put a lot of work into this whole training camp and this winter. So to start the winter off like that, it’s exactly what we train for, and not saying, like, I was expecting myself to win, but I went there to win. And it’s a dream come true, and I’m just definitely over the moon in how it all fell into place.

What was going through your head on the big day?
I put a lot of pressure on myself, knowing I had won the previous year. Everyone’s ready. Everyone’s pumped up. It’s the first big wave event being held in the Northern Hemisphere. I wasn’t thinking about winning it — I was just thinking heat by heat, wave by wave — and I think when you look at the end result before it starts, that’s where you get caught up in thinking, “I’m going to win, I’m going to win.” It’s more just thinking like, “I need to better myself every wave I catch. I need to just win this first heat, get through the semis, win the semis, and get to the final. And once I get to that final, just let it all loose, man.”

You scored a perfect 10.
Yeah, I had a perfect 10, and in the last 20 seconds I dropped a 9. I was about nine-tenths from surfing an actual perfect heat, which is a dream run. It’s very close to as good as it gets. I was beyond stoked on the way I ended that day. Last year I won with a 7 and 8 and there were not too many good waves in the event last year. This year, the final was just non-stop. There was opportunity for every surfer to basically get big scores. So to know we all had equal chances, we all got big, good waves — it was cool to kind of out-perform and really step above everyone.

What was the preparation like?
I’m working with Kahea Hart, an ex-pro surfer who moved into personal training. He’s got basically all his licensing and CrossFit training and foundation training and spent a few summers at Oscar De La Hoya’s boxing camp, so he’s a really well-rounded trainer. His surfing ability is up there with the best in the world. I think just having that in his back pocket mixed with all of the knowledge in fitness basically creates a training regimen that fits what I want to do absolutely perfectly. We started off a few months back with getting my foundation and core solid. From there we started pushing some heavy weights. Then after about a few weeks with weights, we went into speed and agility just to get my reaction times real fast. Lately we’ve been still there just kind of doing endurance stuff, long-range, just keeping my cardio up and also keeping my strength and core always activated and on point.

What were you focusing on trying to improve on this year?
Surfing those long days at Jaws, your adrenaline is in the sky all day long, so it’s really hard to keep your heart rate down and stay calm, and that mixed with a lot of endurance, your body fatigues fast. I wanted to figure out how to not fatigue and stay 100 percent and not lose that extra burst throughout the day. That’s where the whole nutritionist came in… basically putting the right things in my body throughout the day. Having that confidence in my back pocket was really what gave me that extra inch, and honest to God, man, I didn’t feel tired one bit at all at the end of that day. 

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