She’s taking on the biggest waves ... and breaking barriers along the way

Pro-surfer Keala Kennelly has been pushing the limits of women's surfing

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Keala Kennelly is all about pushing the limits in surfing.

Along the way, she’s also plowing been through barriers.

Kennelly says it hasn’t been easy facing not only challenging surf, but pushback to her taking on the biggest waves.

“When I first started surfing bigger waves of consequence, like Pipeline Teahupoo in Tahiti, the attitude towards me was kinda hostile, unwelcoming, really discouraging,” she said.

“I was constantly told women couldn’t ride big waves and I wanted to prove them wrong. I wanted to see for myself if that was true, so I was pushing harder and harder, going bigger and bigger and it turns out women can ride big waves.”

Kennelly proved that point with a very successful run as a top tier-competitor, where she finished second best in the world.

The kind of success does breed a certain amount of perseverance.

“It took years of being out there of, dealing with the aggression of the guys, out there getting dropped in on a lot before they finally realized, ‘Oh, she’s serious. She’s gonna go. She can actually ride these waves.’”

The waves she’s talking about have life and death consequences.

In fact, she won last year’s Peahi Challenge in waves that got so big the competition was cancelled after a few heats.

It was a big personal accomplishment, with an even bigger upshot for women’s surfing.

“That was the first time women got equal prize money and I feel like I earned every bit of that prize money. I left some skin in the game on that one,” she said.

“The conditions were gnarly. The wind picked up more and more as the day went on. The swell picked up as the day went on and by the end it was pretty dangerous. I think that’s why they called the event off but we got some of the gnarliest conditions of the day ― the women did.”

And even though she’s one of the older veterans among the women competitors, she continues to push just as hard ― especially because things aren’t equal yet.

"We don’t have the same opportunities as the men. It’s really hard to reach their level when you don’t have the support, the sponsor support," she said.

“I work two jobs because I don’t have the sponsors to travel and chase the swells so it’s hard to keep up with men that have endorsement deals, have the sponsors flying them to all the swells and don’t have to work other jobs just in order to do their surfing job.”

Still, she’s very encouraged that other women are looking to her as a mentor.

“I think my advice to young women, or anybody really, is to just don’t let other people set limitations for you. A lot of time when people tell you what you can’t do it’s because either they can’t do it themselves or they’re scared to do it themselves or they just don’t want you to do it,” she said.

“Pushing the Limits” is an ongoing series that explores how surfers are taking on bigger and bigger waves while still living to tell the story.

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