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Heavy water doesn’t bother hydrofoil surfboard innovator Kai Lenny

At just 25 years old, Hawaiian big wave surfer — and hydrofoil surfboard innovatorKai Lenny is as accomplished as any of his peers. After gaining fame in 2012 by nabbing first-place finishes in two high-profile stand-up paddle board competitions, Lenny outdid himself the following year, again winning multiple SUP championships while also adding “kiteboarding world champion” to his profile.

These days, Lenny’s stock is as high as ever. This year alone, the young surfer released a jaw-dropping surf flick titled Paradigm Lost and spent much of his spare time raising environmental awareness and participating in the cleanup of Hawaii’s precious islands; something he helped kick off from — where else — atop a hydrofoil surfboard. As he uses his platform to make a positive impact on the environment, Lenny still finds time to compete at the highest level.

His next competitive obstacle? The 2017 Red Bull Heavy Water event that’s described as “the most intense stand-up paddling event in the world.” With that simple description of the event already stacked against him, Lenny also has the pleasure of attempting to dethrone last year’s winner, Connor Baxter, a fellow professional surfer who bested the Hawaiian at last year’s event. We recently caught up with Kai to get a glimpse at what makes him tick, how he’s prepping for Heavy Water 2017, and what drives him.

Iker Basterretxea / Red Bull Content Pool
Iker Basterretxea / Red Bull Content Pool

Digital Trends: Heavy Water 2017 seems as high-octane as just about any event Red Bull puts on. Tell us about what makes the event so over-the-top. 

Kai Lenny: Red Bull Heavy Water is, without a doubt, the gnarliest stand-up race in the world. and that’s because the location is so crazy — it’s at (San Francisco’s) Ocean Beach, which is considered one of the most powerful beach breaks on the West Coast. On top of that, we’re dealing with currents coming out of San Francisco, which are commonly referred to as some of the most challenging currents in the world. And just the way the course is set out makes it a really exciting and fun race for the athletes, as well as an incredible spectator sport. Leave it to Red Bull to do something completely full throttle.

“Red Bull Heavy Water is, without a doubt, the gnarliest stand-up race in the world.”

I think the spectator aspect to the event is something many people might not think about, but it seems like there’s an incredibly compelling side to Heavy Water for anyone who attends. 

Oh, absolutely. And with a few new additions to the event — like a slightly modified course, along with some of the new technology with MapBox and potentially having GoPros on athletes’ boards — I think it’ll be such an in-depth experience that allows people to not just visually watch it but also gives them the hard data and actual perspectives of the athletes. It’ll be incredibly immersive.

What all have you done to train and be ready, and how are you feeling heading into the event? 

Feeling really good heading into the event. I’ve basically been doing my normal endurance training routine on a stand-up, and just being here [in San Francisco] now has been great to get re-familiarized with the conditions. There’s a lot of luck involved in this event because the surf can be so unpredictable and we take whatever comes to us in the moment, but by being well-trained and understanding the way it works here, you can be much luckier than not. Everyone has the same playing field as well, so it makes the whole thing exciting for all the athletes.

What’s the competition and spirit of the event like on race day?

Of course, everyone is very friendly with each other but once the race starts, it’s 100 percent “everyone wants to beat everyone.” In the stand-up paddle world, this is the largest prize purse for an event, so there’s a lot on the line for a lot of these athletes. It’s a battlefield once we’re out there — we’ll push the boundaries of competition.

You consistently push yourself to the surfing limit — you’re an accomplished big wave surfer, you’re about to compete in this SUP event, and your hydrofoil boards have taken the surf community by storm. What drives you to keep getting out there each day?

I’m driven purely off the passion of what I love to do — which are these sports — and from that, I’m always looking to get better and do bigger things. It’s almost like an experience and a high you can’t get anywhere else, and to be able to capture that and always be a little more special each time is what’s the main driving force. I also love competition because it pushes me to a place I could never get to on my own, and other athletes push me to that same level as well. More than anything, it’s just that passion I have.

You’ve been active in your home state of Hawaii, participating in cleanup efforts and raising awareness. Talk a little about how you use your platform to give back. 

I always feel like I’m so lucky and fortunate to have the life that I live and all these opportunities. To give back is something you have to do because I think it’s a responsibility — plus, it just feels good.

Environmentally speaking, the ocean’s given me so much that I have to take care of it and bring awareness to the troubles the ocean’s faced with by humans’ hand. If someone can have a personal attachment or relationship with the water, I think it naturally happens that they want to take care of it.

With all this momentum you’ve built up in 2017, how do you plan on outdoing yourself next year? 

Going into every year, I already know what I want to try to achieve, and this year’s been great. I pride myself on trying to make every single year better than the last — every year should be the best year of my life because it should continue to get better and better. Whatever challenges are posed, I cross that road when I get there and make the most of whatever I have. You can’t go wrong if you’re always trying to get better.

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