“How many of you knew what you wanted to be when you were seven years old?” said Keala Kennelly in her acceptance speech. “I did. I wanted to be a world champion.”
Kennelly’s dream of world dominance came true as she took home the Women’s Big Wave World Championship title at the 2018 Jaws Challenge in Maui. Her win marks the first time an out lesbian woman has won the award.
“I wasn’t dreaming big enough,” she continued. “Now I’m part of an elite group of athletes pushing the limits of what humans are even capable of. I needed to dream bigger because when I was 25, I was hiding in the closet, soaked in shame, living in fear and I hated myself. I didn’t think you could be world champion and gay at the same time.”
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“Now I get to the be the first openly gay world champion, added Kennelly. “I get to be proud of who I am and I get to love myself exactly as I am, not as people would want me to be. It’s my hope that I’m going to inspire other LGBT athletes that are suffering in silence to live your truth.”
The Big Wave Tour is as it sounds: surfers from around the world aim for the biggest waves, visiting Praia Do Norte in Nazaré, Portugal, then Half Moon Bay in California for the Mavericks Challenge, and finishing with the Jaws Challenge at Pe’ahi, in Maui, Hawai’i.
Each surfer is awarded points based on how they place in each event, with those points totaled at the end of the surfing “window” on March 31. The surfer with the highest number of points wins the Big Wave World Title.
Kennelly has been a top surfer for years, and went pro at age 17. She was ranked in the top 10 on the ASP World Champion Tour for a decade, before taking a break in 2007 to pursue acting and music.
The Big Wave World Title is but one of the accolades Kennelly has earned, including the the 2002 Female Surfer of the Year by ESPN, the 2013 Billabong XXL Girl’s Performance Award, the 2014 Billabong XXL Women’s Performance Award, and even a spot on the Suefing Walk of Fame in Huntington Beach, California.
On her Instagram account, she posed with her trophy, thanking those who have been a part of her life.
“Nobody gets to be a champion without the love and support of so many people,” Kennelly said. “I want to thank everybody in my life that helped me get here. My family, my friends, my partners. my bubbie”
“This is for my son Kekoa,” she added. “He lives hundreds of miles away from the nearest ocean. Not being in my son’s life as much as I would like to be has been one of the most painful sacrifices I have had to make for the sport that I love.”
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"Nobody gets to be a champion without the love and support of so many people. I want to thank everybody in my life that helped me get here. My family, my friends, my partners. my bubbie @msnowhite My shaper Ian Wright @aftermathsurfboards . All the different sponsors I’ve had. People that coached me, trained me, the WSL, the water safety, the photographers and the fans. Thank you. This is for my son Kekoa. He lives hundreds of miles away from the nearest ocean. Not being in my sons life as much as I would like to be has been one of the most painful sacrifices I have had to make for the sport that I love. My son is 7 years old. Who here knew what they wanted to be when they were 7 years old? I did. I wanted to be world champion. That was my big dream. When I was 25 it looked like my dream was going to come true and then at the last moment it slipped through my fingers and I finished #2 in the world. I was devastated and when I walked away from the tour a couple years later I felt like my life was over because I failed at my big dream. When I look back now what I’ve realized is that that wasn’t really my dream at all… because I wasn’t dreaming BIG enough and that wasn’t the end that was in fact just the beginning. Now Im part of an elite group of athletes that are riding waves that are so big and so challenging that we are pushing the boundaries of what is humanly possible and that inspires both men and women all over the world to push their own limits. I wasn’t dreaming big enough because the 25 year old me was hiding in the closet, soaked in shame, living in fear of people finding out and hating myself because I didn’t think you could be world champion AND be gay. I needed to dream bigger because now I get to be an openly gay world champion and I get to proud of who I am and I get love myself just as I am not as others want me to be. It’s my hope that I will inspire other LGBT athletes that are suffering in silence to live their truth. I needed to dream… so- much- bigger because when I was 25 the prize $ for the men and women athletes was radically different and now I get to be world champion with equal prize $