When I first joined the ASP World Tour, I was a fierce competitor. Hawaii public high school had conditioned me to always put up a tough front and never expose my feelings to people because you never wanted to appear to be weak. On tour, I was able to keep my fellow competitors at a distance and never let them in. I didn’t share anything too personal about myself with them. I didn’t want to see them as friends, and sometimes I would even go so far as to convince myself they were enemies. It is so much more motivating to defeat an enemy than a friend. I didn’t want to know them on a personal level because once you get to know someone on a personal level, you begin to care about them.
It was so much easier to compete against the other women on tour if I didn’t care about them or have any personal attachment to them. I know how it feels to fly half way around the world and then lose in the first round – that is a feeling you never want to feel, and I wouldn’t wish that feeling on a friend. So in order to try to keep my competitive edge, I wouldn’t let myself see them as friends.
Although this approach worked well in the water, on dry land, it was a different story. As time went on, I found it harder and harder not to get to know these other amazing women that I spent ten months out of the year traveling and surfing with. It went against my nature to not open up and be my usual outgoing self with these women. I felt as though I was in a constant struggle against myself. It was exhausting holding up the walls, and it quickly became a very lonely existence.
Then something very drastic happened that woke me up. I was in Costa Rica for a small 1-star WQS event and my appendix started to rupture. I was rushed to the nearest hospital in a little third world town I had never heard of. The hospital was like something out of a horror film. It was terrifying. Buckets of blood in the hallways and people screaming. By the time I got admitted, I was in really bad shape. My appendix had burst open and was leaking toxic bio on all my vital organs. I was vomiting black poison and shrieking in pain. They told me they would need to perform an emergency surgery on me right away. “There is no way I am getting cut open in this third world hospital,” I said. “I want to fly to a clean hospital in LA!” Then they told me I would be dead before I reached LA. In fact, I was going to be in a coma in about twenty minutes. At that point, I was sure I was going to die. I started crying and thinking about my family and my friends… and then I thought about the women on tour, and it occurred to me that I was going to die and they weren’t going to care because they didn’t know me, because I never let them know me. I only let them know Keala Kennelly the competitor, never Keala the person. The one that is not so hard and fierce – the real me that is actually really sweet and kind.
I decided right there on that hospital bed as they rolled me into surgery that if I lived through it, I wasn’t going to hide my true self anymore.
I survived and I was transformed. It’s as if the surgeon cut that hard part of me out and left it on the operating table. When I recovered enough to compete, I went to the next WCT event in Fiji and my competitors got to see a very different person than the one they had known. I was open. I finally let my walls come crumbling down and I let them in…. and it felt really good.