Keala Kennelly is one kind of a woman. After leaving the Women’s Championship Tour years ago to concentrate her efforts on Big Wave Surfing, she’s been a constant on the nominee list for the best women’s performance at the WSL’s annual Big Wave Awards, winning it several times. This year the Kauai native made history, not only in being the first woman to ever be nominated in the barrel of the year category, but also in winning it. Looking at pictures of the Teahupo’o bomb that earned her the award, it is a well-deserved win. In a recent interview with the WSL Keala spoke about facing fear and the waves that led up to her fateful ride at ‘Chopes’.
The first time she was ever out at Teahupo’o was back around 1999, Keala recounts, and it was also her first really heavy wipeout. Not realizing how big the waves actually were (she assumed them to be around 6 to 8 feet, when really they were double), she paddled out and went for a smaller one that didn’t even break, only to have the following set breaking over her head. She ended up in a two-wave hold-down with a broken board and, since flotation vests are a rather new addition to big wave surfing, no flotation except for the bits and pieces of her board. After that it took her a whole year to get the guts together to get back out there.
Another fateful incident at Teahupo’o happened in 2011 when Keala went face first into the reef, which she walks you through in the following video (maybe don’t watch this right after dinner).
This time it took her two years to recover and get back out at Chopes. Those accidents really make you question whether you are even going back or not, Keala explains, as they really shake you up and make you afraid of what could happen. But in the end “the fear of missing out, and never experiencing that again becomes more powerful than the fear of doing it,” she says.
Surely she is glad she made it back out and so are we, because what in the world can even come close to this?
“When you paddle into one, it feels like a huge cavern of water spinning all around you. You’re so, so focused because you have to be, it’s life and death basically. You’re so focused on making it out of that barrel, picking the right line, you’re focused and your sense of touch is super-heightened. It’s like I can feel every drop of water on the wave and anticipate where it’s going to move. When you get spat out, you feel like king of the world.”