VIA – SURFLINE
By: Joe Turpel
Keala Kennelly is one tough chick. Probably the toughest in our surf world. She also happens to be the most successful woman surfer in Teahupo’o contest history with three wins, and she helped lead the tow charge there by becoming the first woman to whip into the mutant beast back in 2005. So, nobody was surprised when she showed up in Tahiti earlier this month, amping to get a piece of the Jurassic swell that was set to detonate the wave-ravaged South Pacific reef pass. While she was successful on the historic tow day, she suffered a horrific reef gash to the head on a, well…”normal size” paddle session with Bruce Irons and friends that led up to the Billabong Pro final. We caught up with KK to discuss all of the happenings during her rollercoaster experience on the island.
You got some insane rides during the tow session. Maybe the heaviest day ever at Teahupo’o. Did you get the best wave of your life?
Hard to say, there was one barrel that I was really pleased with. I was pretty deep and the barrel started bending so hard on the reef. I started to feel the front of my board lifting up (from the lip exploding white-wash up into the barrel). I got heavy on my back foot and started rolling up the windows on the car as if I was going to fall backward into the barrel. So I shifted all my weight back on to my front foot, held my line and got spit out of the barrel. I was really stoked (and relieved) to make it out of that one.
Were you shocked that you ended up getting injured on a much smaller day?
Shocking for sure. It was not something I was expecting to happen that day but in all honesty, some of my worst injuries at Teahupo’o have happened on smaller days. In 2005 when I towed Teahupo’o for the first time I had no problems and then two days later in a heat it was small and kind of choppy and I got stuck trying to kick out on the west bowl, got sucked over and smashed the back of my head into the reef and had to get staples.
Any big differences towing it massive and paddling at “normal” size, safety-wise?
One big difference I see is the amount of water that is moving on a huge day can actually protect you at times from hitting the reef if it fills in before you get thrown. When I tow big Teahupo’o I basically get suited up like a gladiator. Tow vest, helmet…I even had a carbon-fiber Don-Joy knee brace this time because I had a bad knee injury this year that I wanted to protect. When it’s normal paddle size I don’t wear all that gear (I would feel silly if I did). I feel like when you are paddle surfing some of that stuff can hinder your performance. The majority of my bad injuries at Teahupo’o have all happened farther inside. Big or small, though, that wave has a way of locking you in and giving you no exit strategy sometimes.
Does the extreme focus and vibe on a huge day like that help you stay safe?
I think so. On the huge days you are so hyper-focused. I try to be ultra-calculating about the risks I am taking. On smaller days when the sun is out, you are having fun and the water looks so pretty it’s easy to let your guard down.
Did you carry any injuries from the tow day to the day you got hurt?
My whole body was pretty sore from the tow day but it was all just muscular (sore neck and shoulders from being rag-dolled underwater). Bruce and Koby were feeling the same thing. There were a couple barrels I didn’t come out of that absolutely swallowed me but your adrenalin is so full-on that you don’t feel the full effects until the next day or so.
For the full interview and photos go here:
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