Keala Kennelly’s undoubtedly spent the past four months checking big wave forecasts for Maverick’s, wondering if or when the World Surf League would give the green light for the 2018/2019 Maverick’s Challenge. That green light, as we all know now, never came. And so Kennelly sat at the top of the Big Wave World Tour rankings from the end of November, when she won the Jaws Challenge until the WSL finally handed her the first world title trophy of her long, accomplished career.
“I don’t know how I’m gonna feel about that,” she told The Inertia back in November after the Jaws contest. “I’ll take it because I’ve put in a lot of work and I’ve tried really hard to win that (world title) on the ‘CT and the Big Wave Tour and it’s slipped through my fingers so many times.”
It’s with that context we’re reminded that for KK, this championship was an accomplishment decades in the making. When Kennelly was recognized at the WSL Awards over the weekend, she acknowledged what that all means for surfing and for women.
“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 because I did not think you could be world champion and gay at the same time,” she said in front of her peers. “I needed to dream bigger because now I get to be the first openly gay world champion*. 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. And it is my hope that I am going to inspire other LGBT athletes that are suffering in silence to live your truth.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article stated that Keala Kennelly was surfing’s first openly gay world champion, when in fact she is the Big Wave Tour’s first openly gay world champion. Cori Schumacher was the first openly gay surfer to win a professional surfing title in the tour’s current format back in 2010. Kennelly has since retracted her claim saying in part, “To me it’s not about me being the first, it’s about positive change, women uplifting other women.”