Kai Lenny Interview: "I Take a High Risk, High Reward Approach"

Matt Rott

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Updated 16d ago

Kai Lenny is everywhere right now. Literally. He’s chasing swells, leading the big wave world tour ratings, foiling waves just about everywhere they break, and still winning SUP world championships.

If it involves the ocean and a board, Kai is probably on it, which means he’s a hard guy to track down. But he’s also a consummate professional, so when we reached out to him this month to talk about his diverse waterman approach, his big wave world title aspirations, and the state of the big wave tour in general, he cleared a bit of time in his schedule to give us his thoughts.

It’s pretty obvious that you love and excel at all forms of surfing. You are leading the charge in foiling, rip on a shortboard, are an accomplished wind surfer, eight-time SUP world champ, and currently leading the ratings for the Big Wave Tour. At the beginning of each year, is there a specific goal that you set, where you focus on one specific sport? Or do you just sort of do whatever sounds fun, show up when events run, and win shit?
I make sure to always stay true to whatever seems fun for me, but a lot of times that involves challenging myself in ways that maybe I didn’t think I could handle before. Stepping outside of my comfort zone has always been a way for me to improve as an athlete and a person

Stepping outside of my comfort zone has always been a way for me to improve as an athlete and a person. The higher the risk, the more award—that’s something I’ve definitely found in the big wave surfing realm.

I’ve also found that going after things that sound far-fetched in my head is usually exactly where I should push towards. 

Nazare training.

Nazare training.

© 2018 - Helio Antonio

People know you as much for your tow performances as your paddle exploits in big waves. Do you enjoy one approach more than the other?
I wouldn’t say I prefer one over the other. Depending on the conditions, they are both extremely fun in their own way.

What I love about tow surfing is the fact that I can focus on more high-performance maneuvers, whereas paddle surfing is more about the challenge of catching a really big wave in a very critical position and going for the barrel. I love both approaches.

Over the past couple of years, you have put in stellar performances just about everywhere you've shown up, even if you don't have much experience with the waves. What do you attribute your success in XXL surf to?
I would attribute most of my success in other big waves to the fact that I’ve spent a lot of time surfing Jaws on Maui.

And also because of the other water sports that I do. Sports like windsurfing, kitesurfing, and stand up paddling all really translate well into riding big waves, since you’re dealing with larger pieces of equipment and high speeds. Before I travel to new big wave spots, I really like to study them and watch a lot of video

Also, before I travel to new big wave spots, I really like to study them and watch a lot of video. I imagine how I will ride them, so by the time that I get there, in a way I’ve already done it in my mind.

Are there any big wave spots that you haven't surfed yet and would like to check out, or that you would like to invest more time in?
I would definitely like to go back out to Cortez Bank. I’ve only been out there once, and the conditions weren’t ideal.

But I can imagine that it is a spot that holds huge potential for all sorts of different equipment. I love surfing Maverick’s, and I want to keep going there.

I also think there’s a lot of potential at a spot like Nazare—it’s such a chaotic spot, and I’ve only had two sessions out there so far. But for what it is, it’s absolutely incredible.

You lead the big wave world title race after two events. After the Pe'ahi Challenge ran at the beginning of the winter, and with the announcement that Mavs would be added to the tour, it looked like we were in for a full year of competition. But now there are less than four weeks left in the season, and the first half of February is looking pretty slow for Maverick's but Nazare could be on. Do you think it's possible that the season could be over? How would you feel about winning the title with only two events having been run?
I’ve committed myself 100 per cent to performing and going after a world championship, and for sure would love to run more events and win the world title that way.

But it’s really up to Mother Nature now. The ball is in her court—it always has been and always will be. To become the big wave world champion would be a dream come true, so if an event happens before March, I am ready to give it my all.  

Because only two events have run thus far, 7 of the top 10 rated surfers on tour are guys who have only competed in a single event, which is a pretty unique situation that gives a huge opportunity to the wild cards. The WSL removed a few venues from the schedule two years ago, cutting Todos Santos, Nelscott, Pico Alto, and Punta de Lobos in favor of more "exciting" waves like Puerto Escondido and Nazare. What do you think about only having four potential events on tour? Is that enough to make it a "tour?" Are there any other waves you'd like to see added to the schedule?
In a perfect situation, we would have all the best big wave spots on tap with the potential to run.

That way, no matter what, we’d have a minimum of four to six events running each year. But that’s the thing with big wave surfing—it’s really hard to get the spots good, and it can be years before some spots are even close to contestable.

Right now, the events that are on tour are the clear stand-outs in the big wave surfing world. Not that the others aren’t legit, but the ones currently on tour are definitely the most consistent gnarly big wave spots.

I would love to see all the events that were taken off tour added back on next season, and I know the tour will only grow stronger and bigger because of the incredible athletes that are competing on it, and the direction that the WSL is taking it. It’s only going to get better and better.

Looking at the current ratings, Billy Kemper is just behind you, and then Ian Walsh, Makua Rothman, and Jamie Mitchell are all a few thousand points back. Who would you say is your biggest threat on the ratings, considering the events that are left to potentially run?
Competing on the big wave world tour is very different than competing on a normal tour, because when you compete in big waves you’re balancing self-preservation and survival with trying to compete at the highest level.

Sometimes it just comes down to whether you get the wave you need or not. So I would say anyone of those guys in the top 5 or even top 10 can win a competition, and depending on if it’s a gold, silver, or bronze status, that could really change up the ratings.

The way I’m approaching it is I am focusing on my own performance more than anyone else’s. My goal at each contest is to make finals and win events, and if I can do that, then I should be able to achieve my goal of a world title. 

Thanks Kai. Hopefully we get to see you surf a couple more events before you collect that hardware!

Cover shot: Tassio Silva


Matt Rott

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