Professional Surfer
Keala Kennelly (Haleiwa, Hawaii, USA) rides the biggest tube ever challenged by a woman surfer at Teahupoo, Tahiti on July 22, 2015. The image is an entry in the 2016 WSL Big Wave Awards.  Exceptionally large surf has been experienced worldwide in 2015.

KK knows a thing or two about charging giant waves. Photo: Tim McKenna


The Inertia

Editor’s Note: We reached out to big-wave charger Keala Kennelly to hear her perspective on the integration of women into big wave surfing contests, specifically Savannah Shaughnessy‘s inclusion as an alternate at Titans of Mavericks and the state of women in big wave surfing more generally. She shared the following thoughts in an email, which has been shortened from its original form.


It is not enough that Savannah Shaughnessy was put on an alternate list for the Titans of Mavericks contest. That doesn’t suffice for 2016.

We all, as human beings, need a venue to compete against our peers: women against women and men against men.

I cannot see why big wave surfing should compromise these centuries-long standards of competition. Do men compete against women in boxing, golf, tennis, or basketball? Do they add one woman alternate to some how appease the masses? The answer is no.

It’s 2016. Why subjugate a person due to the reality of their chromosomes?

When you surf big waves, you are dealing with life and death. To simplify things, either you will outrun the wave and live, or you will not, and you could potentially die.

With this gladiator sport, big wave surfing, why would we only provide venues for Savannah Shaughnessy for the first time to compete in a contest against men when her life is at stake? To me, it’s like putting a man against a lion. Why?

Inherently, men and woman are significantly different. Men have 20% more red blood cells. This enables them to paddle faster, catch waves more quickly, and innately have a better chance at success. More red blood cells means more O2 in their veins. Also, they have more bone mass, and muscle density.

I am not saying I would not compete against men. I have. I am simply saying that men have physical advantages over women when it comes to sports.

I am all for human rights, which are in place to create equality. That being said, there is nothing equal about Savannah Shaughnessy competing against men in a sport that clearly is male-dominated where men not only have the physical upper hand, but also the mental, physical, and emotional advantage as well.

Take, for example, Annika Sorenstam, who was invited to compete with men in golf.

She agreed to take on the challenge after much press, and even she, the best of the best female golfers, who was winning everything, did not make the cut. This was a defining moment for her career. She was only 32 year old at the time. I believe this event was very hard on her. She had to hit from the back tees with men, and her distance shots couldn’t compete.

There was a lot of hype around her competing against men. Many thought she would do well. Others disagreed. Her sponsors wanted her to accept the exemption and compete with men. It was great publicity. However, it was not a great success for her on multiple levels. She dominated playing against other women on the LPGA, but Sorenstam was unable to last even through the weekend when competing against men.

And she was by far the best female golfer out there.

As mentioned above, men have meaningful physical advantages over women when it comes to sports and the two sexes are not meant to be judged by the exact same criteria. Men are about an average 50% stronger, and golf is very mental but requires lots of upper body strength, as does surfing.

Let’s learn from history through great athletes like Sorenstam and allow women to have their own venue.

And while risking my life at Mavericks in a heat against men who have the upper hand in many ways does not feel right, if I were offered the opportunity to compete, I would.

I would do so only because no other venues currently exist to express my talents and to compete. That is a complete and utter buzzkill. Basically, women are not being treated fairly.

Biology is biology. Men and women are different. Thus, by the simple standards of anatomy, as men and women, respectively, we should have our own, distinct venues to compete against each other doing what we love.

Keala Kennelly Surfs Massive Puerto Escondido

Keala, always pushing boundaries. Photo: Ryan Struck




  • Seaman

    I love Keala for what she does, and for her critical thinking… Live long, surf a lot, keep inspiring people….

  • James

    I agree, but no company is going to spend the money to sponsor a women’s big wave event. From long, fickle waiting periods, to not running an event at all due to no swell it is just not worth it to have a women’s big wave event from a marketing stand point. Yes people will comment and say “I would watch that” but is it worth is to have less than 500 people watching a large, expensive event? The value is not there.

  • Bampster

    If women want the opportunity to surf in prestigious contests… they need to either demonstrate they have the surfing ability to compete EVENLY with the men (not likely due to physical differences in body mechanics) OR
    they need to get together and find sufficient commercial enterprises willing to put up the huge dollars to put together a women’s big wave contest!

  • Bampster

    We are seeing the same argument for women’s equality as currently unfolding in the US Military where leftists and women’s rights groups want women to be integrated into the special forces combat groups ( SEALS, Rangers etc) so they can have the opportunity to use these special combat assignments in order to promote to “Flag” or “Staff” rank levels.
    Unfortunately, 99.9% of women DON”T have the physical stamina, size or strength to compete with the men to be included without having to DIMINISH the physical requirements without causing excessive injury to themselves or the members of these elite forces.
    In other words… trying to manipulate PC women’s rights will get you… DEAD!

    • Dude this isn’t combat so get off your soapbox and quit comparing apples to oranges. There are so many female surfers that are in another world compared to many guys, myself included.
      This isn’t about politics or political correctness, your examples were complete horseshit. Oh, I was in the army, as an NCO in a combat MOS, and every female in my unit did their jobs just fine.

      • Bampster

        First off… thank you for your service!
        You didn’t choose to attempt to gain entrance into one of the elite specialist highly physical demanding positons contained within specialized combat groups such as the Navy Seals where only a few very fit individuals can complete the course successfully.
        Most likely there will never be a woman who can meet the high physical standards needed to successfully complete and serve in that type of situational combat position.
        Never gonna happen. Women simply don’t have the physical strength to meet the high standards!
        If the leftist PC affirmative action agenda attempting to artificially grant women onto theses positions soley for the purpose of assisting a female officer up through the higher ranks to achieve equal employment quota’s is ridiculous and a disservice to our military readiness and an abomination to our society in allowing to place women into a combat position.

  • Rested Durrow

    The reality of economics is a bitter pill to swallow for some.

  • Blaine Teets

    Respectfully, I’m all about seeing progression of women’s surfing, especially in bigger waves. But, watch a women’s CT event when it’s maxing and watch how many pull back on set waves. Last year in Fiji was pushing the limits on size and it was great to see a few step up; but many girls were holding back. Tell the surf league to hold a women’s event at Teahupo’o and then she can make a case for equality after seeing how they perform.

  • Dayla Soul

    Women Big Wave Surfers Inspire Courage and Strength. Thanks for speaking out Keala. You walk the talk! #BiancaValenti #AndreaMoller #PaigeAlms #SavannaghShaughnessy #Jamstar #EmiErikson #SarahGerhardt #dozenmorethatpullin TheTimeIsNow!!!

  • duckdive

    Keala is a great surfer and a badass in general. I’m not sure I exactly follow what she is saying. What is her proposal with specifics?

  • CJ

    The waves are there. Paddle out. Nobody’s stopping you. Quit wining.

  • omnomnomnivore

    Sorry but if you were such an “avid surfer” then surely you’d have a grasp of how much strength/fitness/stamina/paddle speed is needed to scratch into a wave like Mavericks.
    Sure surfers aren’t NFL linebackers but throw em into the lineup at Mavs and see if they catch a single wave/survive. There’s such a thing as surf fitness that no amount of bench presses will get you.
    I have hung out with rugby players/people who work out every day in the gym and yet can’t even make it out on a head high day.
    As for surviving a wipeout out there, don’t u reckon more bone mass and muscle density would better your chances of survival?Not to mention lung capacity? I mean, youtube a wipeout at Mavericks and think for yourself. She is stating that there are physical distinctions between men n women. It’s the often mentioned argument, if the sexes were truly equal why is it such a huge crime to hit a woman but not such a big deal when hitting a man. If someone put their hands on a woman in front of u or I, we would not feel quite right and would probs do something about it but if it were two men in the scenario, we wouldn’t be so quick to act.
    FYI Savannah (as stated in the article) was an alternate for Titans of Mavericks and not the Eddie.

  • Heineken Mike

    Come to Jawz and take your best shot…🌊

  • Graham Matthew

    I can see why the lazy comparisons of big wave surfing is made to Gladitorial combat, but the fact is there’s no competing against nature, you are just borrowing the energy for a while. Referring to big wave surfing like that will always make Women feel and appear to be lacking as it infers that you need to be some Poseidon-like hulk of a creature to do it.
    My opinion (and I confess I’m not a big wave surfer) is that it requires a steadiness of mind and adaptability plus a genuine connection with the sea. Combine this with immense skill (regardless of strength) and I think many women can meet this category and as such the sport should transcend the gender stereotype.
    Note, yes you need excellent conditioning to get out to the wave, surf the wave, and survive it when it all goes “Pete Tong”, but that is a different kind of strength and a lot of mental strength too.
    So as I would second what CJ said and say just get out there and do it if you want to, if not thats fine buts its not because of your gender.

  • Lourenço Bray

    I don’t agree with the mental and emotional arguments raised by Keala. It is
    true that on average there are less women like Keala, inclined to do crazy things
    like surfing big waves, but they can be as
    brave as men in the most diverse contexts and I believe it can have a lot to do with culture. I run ultras and some of the toughest athletes I see are women (married, with kids, plan normal girls). But the physical arguments are correct and yes, for surf they matter a lot. Check out what happened to Maia Gabeira at nazaré, she broke an ankle with the bumps while droping and then she nearly drowned and had to be revived. I know it’s just an isolated event, but dozens of male surfers charge nazare and this was the first time a very serious near death almost happened. It has nothing to do with size or weight, but biologically men have advantages and only biased feminists or people who know nothing of sports can dismiss this. I think the best thing to do would be to invite more women to these big wave events and run them like a marathon event. There are general standings, men, women, and the race takes place at the same time. But only if safety is reasonable. If Keala says for a women it is very dangerous to surf certain type of waves, she knows what she is saying.

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