An exclusive interview with Kai Lenny: 4 days after he storms the gates of WSL Big Wave Tour

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Did you know Kai’s full name is actually “Kai Waterman Lenny”?  The origin is in his great grandmother (on his father’s side of the family) as her maiden name was, in fact, Waterman.  Kai was bestowed this as his middle name in his family’s lineage as it was his  paternal grandfather’s middle name and his uncle’s too.

Well, that idea stuck.

I had the opportunity to interview the newly crowned WSL Puerto Escondido big wave champ this weekend at the SEA Paddle NYC and get the lowdown on the unfolding of recent events for Kai.  Another sphere of influence and competition for this 24-year-old multi-discipline water athlete?  You betcha.

Kai Lenny Naish WSL Puerto Escondido
Kai Lenny, ricocheting across the stratosphere from standup paddling to big wave surfing champ. He’s focused and he’s ready for a world title.

Kai Lenny:  From M20 to Big Wave Champion

“Pulling into the barrel, I knew I was going to make it.” – Kai Lenny

Kai Lenny is stoked about his recent win at the WSL’s Puerto Escondido Big Wave challenge.  Not only does it vault him to the top of the World Surfing League’s leader board for the Big Wave Tour, but it – now – also identifies him as a big wave surf competitor and a huge threat in the run for the World Title.

What’s impressive about Kai’s win (beyond that fact that he beat out the top surfers in the world in 25-40 foot crashing surf in a brutal beach break in Puerto Escondido) is that he was, in fact, training for this year’s Molokai 2 Oahu Championship when he got the call that the big wave surf contest was on.

Kai Lenny Naish WSL Puerto Escondido
Kai rode his Naish 9’4 big wave gun in Puerto Escondido. A board, he says, that follows more of a standup and windsurf design – with a lower entry level rocker and more tail rocker – than most big wave guns.  Photo by:  @WSL / Heff

How does standup paddling benefit the big wave surfer?

Kai won last year’s M2O.  This year, he had to make the split second decision whether to again compete in that infamous channel crossing or fly, with his family, to Mexico for the big wave event.

The decision, “sets your mindset in a spin in a good way,” says Kai of that choice.  As he says, training for an endurance event like M2O is very different than big wave surfing.  However, in this case, that endurance work helped benefit him to come out on top.

Naish Kai Lenny Puerto Escondido WSL
Taught by his mom & dad how to surf since he was 4, Kai uses Peahi in Maui as his training ground for big wave surf. It is, in fact, his ultimate playground.

Kai’s decision to compete in WSL:  “A new challenge”

Kai made the choice to fly to Mexico with his family in order to compete in “a new challenge.”  Big wave surfing requires confidence, a certain comfort level and Kai was in peak form from his endurance training for M2O.

“I think Jamie Mitchell and I were among the most well trained,” he said of the incredible one-two punch these two standup paddle athletes gave that Puerto Escondido event by coming in 1st and 2nd.  “We are used to training for M2O, for these longer races, and it helped out a lot in the big wave event because we were not fatigued,” recalls Kai.

Hold downs, beat downs and more in Puerto Escondido

Watching the reels from Puerto (see video of the FINAL ROUND above), one realizes that is quite a statement.  These athletes took a beating round after round, getting destroyed by 25+ foot surf, snapping leashes, experiencing long hold downs and more.  To say, that after the event Kai wasn’t fatigued, shows the level of performance he is capable of with only a two day notice to surf in Mexico.

“We are used to training for M2O, for these longer races, and it helped out a lot in the big wave event because we were not fatigued.” – Kai Lenny

“Everything feeds one another,” says Kai of his ability to cross over from standup paddle athlete to big wave surfer. “The hardest part is a mental thing, the change you have to make in your mindset.”

“Like in life, you don’t want to get ‘stuck’ on one path,” he opined.  “You have to always be ready to move in a different direction because you never know where those new opportunities will come from.”

Kai Lenny Naish Molokai 2 Oahu challenge
Kai’s open water training, strength and endurance work helped put him in top form to compete in the WSL Big Wave contest.  That, and the fact that he loves charging 20+ ft faces, doesn’t hurt.

M2O Endurance Training Puts Kai in Top Physical Condition

As Kai says, the difference between standup paddle events like Molokai 2 Oahu and Big Wave Tour experiences are that, in big wave surfing, there are moments of great intensity followed by a lot of sitting around.  In a long distance races like M20, athletes have to push their body’s exertion over a greater length of time in order to complete 32 miles of open channel crossing.

Kai attributes his biggest challenge to being “all mental”  as he had to switch his mindset over to a “different kind of adrenaline” in order to participate in the WSL Big Wave surf event.

“I was more stoked that I didn’t get destroyed again than I was about getting the winning wave.” – Kai Lenny

When asked about that final wave, his winning moment, Kai remembers that Jaime Mitchell was in the lead and Kai needed one more wave in order to win.  The wave that showed up was 35 to 40 foot.

The surf in Puerto Escondido was cranking at 25-40 foot.  Here’s Kai taking off on a bomb in Heat 2.  Photo by:  @WSL / Villela

Kai’s Winning Wave:  WSL Puerto Escondido Big Wave Challenge

Kai reports, “Pulling into the barrel, I knew I was going to make it.”

“I am so stoked. That was awesome. I knew I needed a good score because Jamie (Mitchell) got one. It was hard to get waves out there because they were just so shifty, but then the one that I had been waiting for finally came. Everyone was a little too far in or too deep. I knew that that was it. I did a slow bottom turn and then I knew I had it.” – from WSL interview, 07/31/2017

“I was more stoked that I didn’t get destroyed again than I was about getting the winning wave,” says Kai with a grin.

Still, the champ was smiling when he said it.  And there is a gleam in his eye when he speaks of the Puerto Escondido event.  His ultimate goal:  a big wave surfing world title.

Yup, you heard it first at Standup Journal Online.




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Evelyn O'Doherty, editor & publisher of the new Standup Journal 2.0 is a former school teacher gone rogue. She left her career as a teacher in order to spend more time near or on the water after learning to surf turned her life around (upsidedown?). She is a year-round surfer and paddler living on the eastern tip of Long Island in NY who is a certified SUP instructor, seasoned SUP racer and avid longboard surfer. Evelyn was hired as Online Editor to Standup Journal in 2016. Her passion for the project quickly led to her success and eventually taking over the mag herself in Oct. 2018. Today, as editor, publisher and chief bottle washer at Standup Journal, Evelyn keeps her toes wet writing, traveling, paddling, surfing, and learning to foil. You can find her most days paddling out on Gardiner's Bay or surfing Ditch Plains in Montauk, NY.