Kai Lenny is The Lego Man
Kai Lenny is an everything-specialist and uses Jaws hold-downs for existential thinking. Step into his colourful plastic world! Story by Jake Howard | Photos by Tom Servais | Portraits by Tom Carey “I enjoyed my life when I had nothing…and kinda like the idea of just being happy with me.” Joey Ramone was right. Before the spotlight […]
Kai Lenny is an everything-specialist and uses Jaws hold-downs for existential thinking. Step into his colourful plastic world!
Story by Jake Howard | Photos by Tom Servais | Portraits by Tom Carey
“I enjoyed my life when I had nothing…and kinda like the idea of just being happy with me.”
Joey Ramone was right. Before the spotlight and leather jacket, before the Blitzkrieg Bop, Joey was just a weird kid obsessed with doing his own weird thing in his own weird way. But that changed the day he plugged a mic into a jack.
At 22 years old, Kai Lenny was conceived long after the world’s most over-used pop culture t-shirts began printing. Today the lively young big-wave surfer is the antithesis of a Ramone. He could pass for a Tommy Bahama model with his bright, white smile, boyish sparkle and one-percent body fat. But he’s quick to point out, “I would be doing what I’m doing no matter what, I’m happy just being me.”
Sound familiar? But instead of power chords and rockets to Russia, Kai’s infamy comes from the six stand-up paddle world titles in his possession. It also comes from racing the eight million dollar America’s Cup sailboat on his kiteboard. And then there’s his windsurfing career, in which he regularly throttles Robby Naish – the Kelly Slater of the sport. And thirty-foot waves on a jet board? Why not.
The only time the kid’s had a sip of whiskey was after a training day with a bunch of elite Navy SEALS (because “I had to”). He’s up before dawn everyday, either in the water or working out. He has a crack water safety network that has his back when conditions go black, including Gerry Lopez on surfboard design and Victor Lopez on the ski. But like a punk rocker on the streets of New York in ’78, Kai’s struggle will not be in writing good music, it will be battling stigma. Plainly put, Kai’s not as cool as somebody like, say, John John Florence, and in the unfair world of surf marketing, cool can be everything.
“It’s not about making money or winning things just to win them or being popular, that stuff never crosses my mind,” says Kai. “Everything I do is because it’s something that I want to do. You can’t listen to what people say, you have to do what you want and follow what you feel in your heart and gut.
“If I want to windsurf all day because the wind is good, that’s what I’m going to do. Or at Jaws, when there’s swell I’ll go out there before the sun comes up with the idea that I’m going to be out there all day until it’s dark again. And while I’m out there I may ride my stand-up board, my prone board and even take out the jet board or kite if the wind really comes up. For me it’s about being in the ocean, and I love Jaws more than anything.”
Kai’s early mentors instilled unbridled confidence, too (“I don’t ever think of drowning because I know I’ve put in the work”). The foundation is Kai’s father Martin, who does a lot of the behind-the-scenes coordinating. He’s also the voice of reason to his exuberant son. When Kai was little Martin forced him to take Sundays off simply because the little water bug never stopped squirming.
Laird Hamilton, Dave Kalama, Brett Lickle and Naish have all factored prominently along the way, too. “And then there was Yuri Soledad,” says Kai. “He was one of the first, maybe the first person to paddle Jaws. I watched him when I was a kid and just remember thinking how amazing it was that he was out there alone in those giant waves.”
Originally from Brazil, Yuri’s lived on Maui for the better part of 30 years. As Kai noted, he was paddling Peahi long before Shane Dorian got the itch. Today he’s a dedicated dad that earns his nut by running Mama’s Fish House, one of the best restaurants on the island, as well as doing some coaching work with Ian Gentil and other Valley Isle gremlins.
“Kai’s father came to me one day when Kai was still very young, and he asked if I could maybe go surf with them and check out what Kai was up to,” says the soft-spoken, humble Yuri.
And so they surfed. Yuri was blown away by Kai’s natural affinity for all things aquatic. A friendship and partnership blossomed, and with Yuri’s help the Lenny fam started to look to the future. It didn’t take long to come into view.
“There are specialists out there, people that do one thing really well, but Kai, he is a freak. He has succeeded in whatever he’s applied himself to,” says Yuri.
John John certainly hasn’t accomplished what Kai has. John has Pipeline, airs and a lot of hype. Kai has victories. Maybe it’s like comparing pineapples to watermelons, but it’s an interesting dynamic given that both have big Hurley stickers on their boards and are a marketer’s dream. And while it’s John John that’s getting the billboard real estate, by his early teens Kai was already a windsurfing phenom. Then, before he closed the book on high school he started traveling on the kitesurfing world tour. Somewhere along the way he picked up a paddle and spanked the world’s best SUPers. But surfing remained his preferred spice, especially out at Jaws.
“It’s very hard to make time for everything,” says Kai, who’s the first to admit that he’s a huge John John fan. “I enjoy doing it all so much that it’s hard to decide where to dedicate my time sometimes. I really love surfing though and am really trying to improve my shortboarding.”
Already an invitee to the Big Wave World Tour event at Jaws, as well as an alternate for the Eddie, in a very short period of time Kai’s gotten the attention of all the right people in the big-wave community while remaining relatively under the radar.
That’s not to say he hasn’t taken his beatings and paid his dues. He has. Last year his foot was lacerated by his fin. He was airlifted from the Jaws channel to the hospital where he was put back together. During the winter of 2012 he suffered a 50-second hold down at Jaws, a wipeout that would have killed most people.
“I went down right on the peak and didn’t come up until the rocks. I went from all the way outside to the very inside underwater. We went back and looked at the video and timed it. I was down for 50 seconds… but I never felt like I was going to lose it. I felt comfortable.”
It doesn’t matter who you are, 50 seconds is a long time to be getting thrashed underwater. When asked what he did to kill the time under there he answers perfectly unorthodox.
“Legos,” he says. “I let my body go limp and let everything just go black. I completely relax every muscle. Then in my head I start building a tower out of Legos. And usually before I’m done building the town in my head I pop up. Or I start thinking about time, and what time really means. What does it mean to be underwater for 50 seconds anyway? Some guys do math when they’re being held down, but I was never any good at math, so it’s usually just Legos.”
No one goes down for almost a minute and survives without some preparation. And Kai’s prepared for anything. He’s got a crew that’s all connected by radio. Martin spots from the cliff. Victor drives the ski. Lately Darrick Doerner has also been contributing his vast experience to the cause. They have Don Shearer, the pilot of the iconic yellow helicopter, on speed dial in case anything happens.
“Between Kai’s crew and what the Skull Base boys are doing, DK and Shawn Walsh, they’re making Jaws a much safer place to surf,” says Yuri. “It’s good to see this next generation shouldering that responsibility.”
Needless to say, the boy is fit. His training regime is specific to what season he’s in, but his preference is tagging along with a Navy SEAL team when he can.
“I like the challenge. I don’t think any of those guys go into the SEALs because they want to be macho. It’s a mental and physical challenge. Sometimes I think that if all this other stuff hadn’t come along I would have tried to be a SEAL.”
A cross-section of the water world and the golden smile behind it all. Such pearls and strong jaw, like a younger, more fabulous Laird!
Recounting a trip he did with them into the wilderness of Patagonia, he’s reverential when talking about the experience. An island boy thrown in with a pair of hardened gents for two weeks of ‘mountaineering training.’
“We would be up and on the trail by 3am and would be hiking or climbing all day, get a 20-minute lunch, then keep going until 11 at night,” recalls Kai. “We’d get four hours of sleep and do it all over again. The first couple of days were nuts, then reality set in. It was torture. I tore my Achilles tendon, probably should have dropped out, but I pushed through, and those guys really got me to a level I never could have imaged.”
Recalibrating what it means to succeed in the ocean, Kai’s one wave away from placing himself right there with the legends of the sport. It will come, but the hardest part might be patience.
“I tell him all the time, relax, things will happen in time,” says Yuri. “You have to let things unfold however they’re going to. That’s hard when you are young, but Kai’s going to get there. Eventually that day will come for him and he’ll be ready.”
As far as his next step? After sufficiently mastering the gold standard for giant waves, he’d like to improve his shortboard skills. After spending a life succeeding on a very wide variety of craft, he sees surfing like John John as the next challenge. Coming off of a win at the first-ever SUP contest at Pipeline, he’s looking at entering some WSL qualifying events in the coming year.
“I’d like to see how I do,” says Kai. “I’m not trying to prove anything, I’m not trying to make a statement or anything. I’m just having a lot of fun doing what I do.”
Joey Ramone would be proud.
Kai following the Albee Layer routine of picking the mid-sized Jaws gems with the inside track. They offer steeper walls and barrel opportunities. But they can still lay the smack-down, no sweat.
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