Big Wave Superstar Kai Lenny on Riding Monsters and Fatherhood
Before daybreak, Kai Lenny and a group of the world’s most renowned big wave surfers take off on a pack of jet skis from the Port of Nazaré in Portugal. They’re headed toward a colossal swell combing the Atlantic, its energy concentrating on a subsurface canyon just offshore that’s become famous for producing the largest surfable waves on Earth. Lenny has flown halfway around the globe from his home on Maui to take his shot at finding and riding the world’s biggest wave. We’ve followed Lenny from Maui to the Nazaré lineup, watching the scene unfold on-screen in the second season of his Red Bull series Life of Kai, which was released in full at the end of January.
At Nazaré, thousands of spectators are perched like a colony of seagulls along the cliffs and iconic lighthouse at Forte de São Miguel Arcanjo. Great blue pyramids rise up from the sea toward the sky. Kai Lenny is towed behind a ski. He builds speed down the face of a wave, uncertain which direction to take. He asks his driver—then releases the rope.
He’s accelerating down the slope, then the peak collapses, the imploding whitewater careening down. Unable to outrun the oceanic avalanche, Lenny gets clobbered. His POV camera goes dark.
Lenny resurfaces in the frothing aftermath. The clock starts to tick. He’s caught inside, a rag doll in a maelstrom, as one wave after another comes crashing. He must withstand each to avoid drowning in the North Atlantic—waiting until a ski can reach him.
“You’ve got to relax, but relaxing is hard to do when the whole world is crumbling on top of you,” says Lenny, narrating in retrospect. “You reach a certain point where you can’t feel anymore. It’s just static.”
Two minutes and nine seconds. That’s how long Lenny waits until a driver pulls him from the vortex.
“It’s a consequence of riding these waves,” Lenny says. “You’ve got to pay to play eventually,” Lenny adds, as he pulls himself into the rescue sled. “And I’ve gotten away with a lot.”
Two minutes is an entire lifetime bobbing in the Nazaré beach break. It’s an experience most people would call it on, and walk away to find an alternate pursuit. But Lenny heads back out to the takeoff zone, spending the rest of the day dancing with the giants of Nazaré. After all, this is just the first episode of Life of Kai, Season 2.
The Red Bull series follows the day-to-day exploits of one of the best water athletes in the world through the winter of 2020-2021. While Lenny’s skill in other ocean realms such as windsurfing and paddleboarding are just as impressive, the show largely focuses on his personal quest to be the greatest big-wave surfer in existence. The series illuminates the dedication, resources, and near catastrophes he must endure to reach his athletic goals. As an audience, we trot the globe with Lenny from Nazaré to honing aerial maneuvers in Bali and finding all-time conditions at his home break of Pe’ahi (Jaws).
The life of Kai Lenny hasn’t gone on pause since the cameras stopped rolling. Lenny was married recently to his now wife Molly Lenny, and the couple are expecting twins. As the 29-year-old moves into his third decade and a new season of life, we sat down to discuss his show, balancing the demands of his career and a growing family, and of course his love of the ocean.
Courtesy ImageMen’s Journal: What do you hope an audience takes away from your show Life of Kai?
Kai Lenny: Hopefully not feeling like, “Oh, I can never do that.” Obviously there’s an entertainment aspect, but I love when people get inspired by the things I do and go out and do them. And they see it’s not only highs. There are lows along the way. I’m just like you—I’m a normal person. But my superpower is motivation and drive toward something I love to do. If anyone has enough passion and motivation to go toward what they love, they can absolutely do it. First thing I’d say to take away from the show is be entertained. Hopefully that can motivate you to do whatever the passion is that you love to do and go for it 100 percent. Don’t let any speed bumps along the way slow you down.
Outside of the ocean, what’s something you can’t live without?
My wife and my soon-to-be kids. Second to that, without the ocean, I don’t know what I would do. My whole life, everything I do, is surrounded by it.
Is there a broader connection in your life between ocean and family?
My brother and I were sent down this trajectory and felt the connection to the ocean because of my parents—both of whom came to Hawaii in the ‘80s to fulfill their passion of windsurfing and surfing. They inevitably stayed, met each other, and had us. We didn’t really have a choice growing up. You’re a product of your environment. At any given moment, my parents would be going down to the ocean after they worked. My brother and I would be down at the beach. We were basically living in the water, and once the surfing bug got us it was over—we were the ones dragging them to the beach. My entire family surrounds everything we do with going out in the water and enjoying the ocean. We’re definitely water people. It’s in our blood.
In this latest season of the show, you mentor your brother as he grows into his own space as a big wave surfer. How does it feel to be able to share the experience with him so publicly?
My brother’s always been the silent warrior, and he’s always been immensely talented. When you ride big waves, you become closer to whoever you’re riding those waves with because it’s so intense. He’s in these heavy situations. Sometimes I kick out after towing him into a giant wave, and all I can hear is the roar of people from the channel and the cliff. And I’m like—”Oh shit, don’t fall, please don’t fall.” To see him come out at the other end with his hands in the air, like he just got the wave of his life, that’s almost more rewarding than getting the wave myself. I’ll remember his wave more than my own. As brothers, we’ve gotten a lot closer. He’s one of my favorite people in the world to be out in the water with, so I look forward to every session. Many people end up living separate from their families just by virtue of living somewhere else. We’re just very lucky that we get to do all these cool things together.
Courtesy ImageWhat are some of your regular rituals or routines we don’t see on camera?
How much I’m stretching—and also visualizing what I want to do. I can’t be on the water all the time. There are other obligations and you have to let your body recover. When I’m recovering, I’ll put on a movie and stretch in front of the TV. And I’ll be thinking in my head, “What is it I want to work on? How do I want my body to react when I get back in the water?” I’ll put on old videos of myself riding, or replay contests that inspire me. So that will be playing in the background while I’m visualizing what I want to do next. The hardest struggle for me is taking rest days and allowing my body to recover. But it’s really key to train in other ways so the body can repair itself.
You mentioned a keyword—visualization. Can you tell us more about its importance to you?
I’ve read that your mind can’t discern between doing something in real life or doing it in your head. An exercise I’ll do when I’m on an airplane is put music on. As a trigger. I’ll find music that really motivates me and puts me into that place. I’ll be able to actually get myself physically shaking or sweating because I’m thinking of something that’s so terrifying. Like riding a big wave and doing a maneuver in a particular way that I’ve never done before.
Fear of the unknown is typically the scariest type of fear. So by the time the big waves return and I’m able to ride them, I feel like I’ve already done it 10,000 times. Now I just have to do it in real life. I think people can get better by visualizing in their off-time. Instead of watching social media or TV, just sit down and find something that triggers you, and puts you into that place.
Courtesy ImageRoutine and consistency are often vital to success. How do you achieve this?
By being very clear with my intentions. Also, you can’t just go out and do what I do on any given Sunday. It’s so condition-based. Being adaptable in the moment has been key. That word, adaptability, is probably one of the most crucial things I’ve had to figure out. Usually when I’m the least ready, or the least comfortable, is when the biggest waves arrive. Like Murphy’s law, anything that can happen will happen. So it’s about being able to change course—and also taking the higher road at times when things aren’t going your way…really being able to think clearly and not worry about the results of now, but the results for the future.
We watch you take some major falls on the show. It seems inevitable, but how do most of them occur? Is it a misstep or an element outside your control?
Everyone has their day, and everyone has their off-day. You could prepare and do everything right, and the day comes, and everything just goes the opposite direction for whatever reason. Big waves are the perfect opportunity to learn a life lesson. Sometimes all your hard work, the good karma, everything you’ve ever done, it pays off. Other times there’s suffering involved. There’s losing your jet ski, there’s getting injured, there’s going on the rocks, there’s having to save somebody.
It’s really intense, and sometimes traumatizing, but if you keep an open enough mind, you’re able to take the lessons. I learned more from those hardships than from the awards or accolades. Turn it on its head. Say, ‘Hey, this is a test, and how well am I going to do right now? Let me do my absolute best, because that is all I can do.’
If you leave nothing else on the table, and you do everything in your power, then there’s nothing to be disappointed with. Some seasons I won’t even fall during big waves. It tends to happen when you start pushing yourself outside your comfort zone and into the world of the unknown. The wins only get sweeter because of the losses, and you’ve got to know how to take your losses like you take your wins.
Courtesy ImageYou’re often asked about fear on the water. What are your biggest ones off it?
One of my biggest fears is not having enough time to do everything I want to do. Instead of feeling debilitated by that and putting so much pressure on myself to achieve, I just take a second and pause because you actually have a lot more time than you think. It’s how you focus your time and energy. The scariest thing I’ve had to overcome is thinking too linearly. Thinking more freely gives you the opportunity to do more in a shorter amount of time—and feel less constrained.
As one of the world’s greatest big wave athletes now approaching fatherhood, how are your perspectives and goals shifting or growing with this new phase of life?
It’s only given me more motivation and more clarity to do better. Now I’m not riding just for myself, but I’m riding for my wife and kids. There’s a deep down power to try to grow and be a better man and do bigger and better things. Part of what makes me my best is doing what I love, and what I love doing is riding big waves. I foresee myself in the next few years becoming better than I ever could have imagined because of the grounded place I’m coming from. To be able to go home to a place with a lot of love, I think my surfing is only going to get better because of it. I’m going to enjoy what I love even more, and life is going to be absolutely that much richer and more compelling.
Does becoming a parent change your view of risk-taking? Is your professional pursuit still to ride the biggest waves?
Just because you have kids and you’re married doesn’t mean you have to be risk averse. If you love what you do, why would you ever stop? I think a prime example for my kids and everyone around me is that when you really love what you do, you’ve got to really embrace it and go for it.
I do everything in my power to be ready, and you never know what could happen. I feel when it’s our time, it’s our time, regardless of what we try to do to avoid it. Sometimes in our quest to avoid the inevitable, it ends up happening faster or comes sooner. Hopefully my kids will be proud of their dad because they can clearly see I’m doing something I genuinely love. And again, what’s more motivating and powerful than the love of your kids and the love of your wife. As far as risk, what I’ll do to mitigate it is train harder and be smarter and more calculated in my approach.
In the show, you mention giving 12 hours a day to surfing. Do you see yourself recalibrating your time commitments now?
It’ll take time to adjust and figure that out, but I do think that doing something every waking hour doesn’t help you get better. Ultimately, I think it’s all about finding that balance within yourself. I’ll definitely be putting my family first, but at the same time, I think they’ll be wanting to push me on the water because I’ll probably be driving them crazy on land. And I’ll just be a better dad when I’m back. A better dad, a better husband, when I’m stoked and on the water. Plus it’s the way I pay for everything in our lives, so I’m going to work. Thankfully I love what I do.
Watch the entire second season of Life of Kai.