Big Wave Surfer Nominated For 2016 ESPN ESPY Award

How does a scrappy, 38-year-old female and outspoken role model for the LBGT community, compete on her own dime in the male-dominated world of big wave surfing (let alone for an ESPY popular vote contest)? The way she’s always done it: by suiting up, showing up, and working for it.


Last June Keala Kennelly bought her ticket and travelled all night to Tahiti, chasing an epic El Niño ocean swell to legendary surf break, Teahupoo, known to be one of the heaviest waves in the world. Finally out in the line-up, she waited all day watching waves go by and the wind pick up. With no formal tow-in partner or jet ski operator she had to wait for a turn to jump on the tow rope when a friend was taking a break. And that is how Keala, late in the day, made history by whipping into a monstrous wall of water that was later named the ‘barrel of the year’, and ultimately, the largest wave ever surfed by a woman.


Keala\’s award-winning wave. Photo: Tim McKenna

In turn, that wave whipped her into an even bigger national sports scene. Keala was just nominated for “Best Female Action Sports Athlete” in the coveted ESPYs, ESPN’s annual award showcase that honors major sports achievements from the year prior. One of four outstanding athletes in the category, the winner will be chosen by popular vote.


How does a scrappy, 38-year-old female, and outspoken role model for the LBGT community, compete in the male-dominated world of big wave surfing (let alone for an ESPY popular vote contest)? The way she’s always done it: by suiting up, showing up, and working for it.

Born on Kauai, Keala started surfing at 5 and went pro at 17. She spent the next decade on the surfing world tour, years that were marked with highs (being named one of the top female surfers in the world/ winning the Triple Crown) and lows (watching early sponsors fall away as she matured personally in a way that did not conform to market stereotypes.) She kept going it alone. In addition to ‘pro surfer’, Keala added ‘actor’ and ‘DJ’ to her growing list of careers. In 2010, she turned her focus to big wave surfing, making history by winning the first women\’s big wave contest at the Nelscott Big Wave Classic (and was, in fact, the first woman ever to surf the gigantic Oregon break.)



Keala with her face re-arranged after a death-defying wipeout on the same wave where she later won her award

In the last decade, her passion for big wave surfing and promoting women’s surfing as a whole, has only grown. Despite pulling off notorious feats and making history time and time again, unbelievably Keala competes on her own dime. Instead of quitting, or worse—bending on who she is to lure sponsors—she chooses instead to buck the system. In interviews and blog posts Keala candidly sheds light on the inherent sexism and inequity in professional surfing. She routinely puts her neck on the line (quite literally) to advance women’s big wave surfing, and has even, in a rather sad reflection of how the sport is treating these female pioneers, had to participate in a Kickstarter campaign to help them document their story.

And then, Teahupoo. That wave last summer won Keala the Pure Scot Barrel of the Year at the 2016 Big Wave Awards, it was the first time a woman ever received the honor. In her acceptance speech, she shared:

“When I was a little girl, I kept getting told I could not do things because I was a girl. I was told that women can’t surf, and I was told this about getting barreled, surfing big waves, surfing Pipeline, paddling in a Jaws… the list goes on. So who I really want to thank is everyone who told me you can’t do that because you’re a woman. Because that drove me to dedicate my life to proving you wrong, and it’s been so damn fun!


So, for that monster barrel, for her spunk and outspoken dedication to women’s surfing, for her unapologetic boundary pushing and years of complete badassery, join us in helping Keala surf away with that ESPY Award in a few weeks.

Vote here and spread the word:

The 2016 ESPYS take place on Wednesday, July 13 at the Microsoft Theater in downtown Los Angeles, and will air LIVE on ABC.

Keep an eye out for posts about Keala\’s other events using Hobnob, including DJ gigs, surfing lessons, and autograph signings.


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