“You know KK: she’ll be half-dead and still want to surf,” Nikki Disanto said, chuckling. Her stubborn partner, Keala Kennelly, was on a boat on the other end of the phone call, alternating between screaming as medics moved her knee and asking if she could surf the final.
Before Friday’s historic Women’s Pe’ahi Challenge, I only knew Disanto for being the statuesque amazon that Keala Kennelly praised as an unending well of support during the Chopes charger’s acceptance speech at the 2016 Big Wave Awards in late April. Kennelly had just become the first woman to win Barrel of the Year, and had no qualms with bragging about her woman to the crowded ballroom.
Theirs is the kind of love — an openly gay biracial pair of professional athletes in sports normally dominated by men— that most of us thought was unquestionably acceptable and beautiful in 2016. Back in April, no one expected us to be living in a climate of fear, especially for our friends living such innocent, honest, loving lives as KK and Nikki. When the wave of fear did arrive in November, it hit hard. But 12 women had bigger waves to charge, with the people who love them and the world cheering them on.
Kennelly was among the first women to ever competitively surf big waves during the very first heat of the inaugural Women’s Pe’ahi Challenge, and Disanto was perched with a massive camera and Coco Chanel, the couple’s beloved red chinpin (chihuahua pinscher), high on the bluff among fans and media. We watched breathlessly as women were repeatedly blown off the top of Pe’ahi monsters by strong offshore winds, just as many men had been earlier. Finally, one woman put her head down and paddled harder than ever to ride the first wave ever caught in a women’s big wave contest.
Air-dropping onto a towering mountain of water, KK barely touched the face of the wave as her board skittered down under her confident goofy stance. It was a truly epic wave. But surfing Pe’ahi backside can be like playing in an active mine field.
“My periphery only goes to about 11 o’clock, so it’s hard to see the wave coming at you,” Kennelly explained, sitting on the quiet lanai of a B&B in Haiku the next day with her right leg tightly encased in a soft splint. “That’s what happened: I didn’t see that last section coming. I thought I was hopping out on the shoulder, so I relaxed and got my swag on. Then I felt this explosion behind me.”
The current prognosis on Keala’s knee is a severe muscle tearing, but her ligaments are not torn and she will not need surgery. Kennelly and Disanto said it appeared that her exceptionally strong muscles (way to go, training) had protected the ligaments when her knee hyperextended in a way Keala could only describe as a Gumby-like fashion. “Knees aren’t supposed to work like that,” she said.
Kennelly got herself to a jet ski, but knew something was wrong since it felt like a PCL injury she’d sustained at Pipeline in 2010. Soon she’d be sitting in the medic boat next to Emi Erickson, and by the time Heat 2 was on the two surfers (plus Nikki and Coco) were sharing an ambulance to the Maui ER.
Kennelly’s 6.83 on that opening wave would remain the highest score of the entire women’s championship until ultimate victor Paige Alms’ 7.83 bomb at the end of the Final heat. In fact, due to Keala’s high seeding from her Round 1 performance and the fact that only three women remained uninjured enough to compete in the final (Laura Enever also sustained an injury in her heat), the Kauai native sat in third place for part of the Final while receiving some sweet painkillers in a hospital bed, where she was just lucid enough to joyfully cheer her fellow Hawaiian on to a historic triumph.
Paige’s victory and every jaw-dropping, gasp-and-cheer-inducing moment of last Friday at Pe’ahi was something we all really needed at this point. The Pe’ahi Challenge and its unprecedented women’s championship happened on the third day of the world accepting that Donald J. Trump will be the 45th president of the United States. The third day of women reporting an elevated level of seemingly permissible sexual harassment in public, of Muslims being afraid to express their faith, of Latino children hearing xenophobic jeers about a wall, of protests and graffiti’d swastikas, and of hideous racial slurs. The third day of us and them.
But on the third day, young women played on waves that would make brawny bearded sea captains shit themselves. On the third day, we did have a new “first” for women, just not the one we were expecting.
This beaming light of women’s advancement in the confusing black hole of our new tomorrow reminds me of what we can physically do in a time when we feel powerless. We can all take part in a grassroots protection and advancement of all people, together. We can speak up if we see someone being harassed for their gender, race, religion, sexual preference or gender identification. We can offer education with respect to the realities and personal ideas of others. We can stand together against prejudice and inequality, wherever we find it, and always in peace.
First step for KK and Nikki: make all the times they refer to each other as “wife” official before Vice President Michael Pence can make good on his call to repeal marriage equality.
“I don’t mind making it official with you. I don’t mind making an honest woman out of you,” Kennelly said to DiSanto, beaming. But they’ll do the quickie marriage on paper only, because Trump’s presidency may rush the pair into their inevitable destiny as life partners a little faster, but it can’t rush the major rager they’ll throw to celebrate their love, which most of us still know is unquestionably acceptable and beautiful.