Keala Kennelly’s surfing career has spanned two world tours. So she’s uniquely qualified to talk about the evolution of the profession as we all celebrate International Women’s Day in 2019.
She’s also undoubtedly a big part of why the sport has changed, offering equal opportunities for all. Her name is one of four that comprises the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing (CEWS) — maybe the single greatest influence on the WSL’s new equal pay policy that might also become state law in California. Before that, she was in on the ground level when the push started for the ladies to have their own big wave competitions and, funny enough, probably the toughest person for naysayers to shut down after she made history, winning a big wave award in a field full of men.
It’d be really easy to just focus on who she is now, the progress she’s been a key player in, and chalk it up to things having always been this way. But she’ll also be the first to tell you there was a time when she wasn’t so unapologetically “KK.”
“Being gay’s not a choice, pretending to be straight to save my career was,” she says today. “And it almost killed me.”
She’s not being melodramatic about that last part as she looks back on a time when she was within arm’s reach of a world title while “suicidally depressed.” To her, the choice came down to being open about her sexuality or face losing sponsors and by extension, her career. She remembers constantly feeling like she was under a microscope and feeling pressure from the ASP to turn a blind eye to her true self. Professional surfing wasn’t a good place for an LGBT athlete 15 years ago.
Keala is a good soul. While open to discussing the past, as you’ll see in this HEADSPACE we filmed with her last year on the North Shore, she’s also ready to move forward. She points out that the WSL’s making strides. Things are changing fast and getting better for everybody, not just women.
“There are still no openly gay athletes on the CT, though,” she says. “The WSL’s made a better environment but athletes are still just scared to lose their sponsors.”
So now, as the 2018/2019 Big Wave World Tour season winds down, we have the Kauai-born Kennelly closing in on her first world title, which is another first for surfing as well: its only openly gay champion. Where would we be if she hadn’t decided to stay the course and continue to live the great life she has? Surfing wouldn’t be the same. Hopefully, her story saves a future CT athlete, man or woman, from pretending to be something they’re not.
Editor’s Note: Check out more amazing stories from fearless women in surf and outdoors on The Inertia Women.