How Close did Stu Kennedy Come to Quitting?
“I made a few calls to the mines.”
It came to a head in the Azores, an obscure island chain a couple thousand clicks off the coast of Portugal. “I was like, ‘I can’t do this, I can’t compete, my head is fucked,'” recalls Stu Kennedy of a conversation he had at the time with former World Tour surfer and recovering alcoholic, Nathan Hedge. After a junior career in which he swept all before him, setting the record for the fastest ever win of the Australian Junior Series (he did it with two event to go), Stu found himself with no sponsor, a mortgage, and a kid on the way by age 22.
“I was on a fair bit of money with Rip Curl and they pulled the pin at 22 after a big investment,” he says. “It didn’t make much sense to pull the pin at that age after doing such a heavy investment with a baby on the way and all that.”
Despite the setback, Stu never threw in the towel. Watching guys he used to beat become darlings of the surf industry and mount successful World Tour qualification bids fired him up. As did working a shovel on his mate’s building sites while perfect Lennox Head reeled off in the distance. It costs around AU$50k to do a year on the QS. He’d made enough headway on his mortgage to buy him some time. All he had to do was pocket some money working unskilled labouring jobs for travel money, and rely on contest winnings to pay the rest of the way. The pressure was still there.
Stu and the most desirable surfboard in the world, post-Snapper.
“It’s fucken hard to stay focused,” he says. “The way I operate, if everything is taken out, especially money, that’s when I start performing. The money stress was the biggest thing in my life with a family and a mortgage. You want your kid and wife to be proud of you and, I dunno, it’s hard to be selfish and keep going with the surfing side of things. I was almost gonna throw it in or get a job in the mines or an apprenticeship.”
“I made a few phone calls to mates working in the mines,” he says.
Beyond the financial pressures, there was also the crippling wave quality of the Q. Stu always knew he’d be good enough once he got to the World Tour. A lifetime spent surfing the funnelling points of Lennox Head and the NSW North Coast ensured that. The problem was getting there. His razor sharp rail game and explosive power was next to useless in waist high closeout beachbreaks. He made himself a promise in the Azores. This was it. No more stress, no more pressure, he would enjoy his last couple of Q events before throwing it in.
“I went to Portugal and just let my hair down, like, this is it,” he recalls. “Then I made a heat and I’m like, oh fuck, sweet, finally made a fucking heat. Then I just kept getting through heats.”
“You want your kid and wife to be proud of you and, I dunno, it’s hard to be selfish and keep going with the surfing side of things. I was almost gonna throw it in or get a job in the mines or an apprenticeship.”
Riding a stock Michel Bourez Firewire model made in Thailand, Stu caught fire. “I kept making heats, just frothing, then I clicked into gear once I got into the man on man stuff. That’s where I feel comfortable.”
He ended up with a runner-up and a check for US$20k – everything he needed to get to Hawaii and make another run for the Tour. He fell short but the boost of confidence led him to offer his services to a number of surf companies. He offered himself for the meagre price of $10 to $20k a year. Still nothing. He fell painstakingly short of qualifying in 2015, missing out by one place. But fortune eventually fell his way, albeit bittersweetly. The injury to good friend Bede Durbidge at the 2015 Pipe Masters handed Stu an injury replacement wildcard for most of 2016 and… we know how the rest goes. Stu cleaved through the season-opening Quiksilver Pro, Gold Coast, taking down 12 World Titles’ worth of experience in Kelly Slater and Gabriel Medina in successive heats, along with John Florence, on his way to semis finish. The result has given him enough money to pay his mortgage off for a year and put him a large part of the way to the magic 16 heat-win tally required to qualify for the Tour in 2017. This kind of pressure he can deal with. “I always knew my surfing was good enough once I could get on Tour,” he told me on the beach afterwards. “I kinda work better with nerves. If I’ve got a few goosebumps it actually excites me because I don’t get it that often now.”
As for the hardships, “I don’t wanna sound like a sook about it. It’s one of those things, it’s real life. It wasn’t all fucken handed to ya, y’know.”
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