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7 Questions with Kai Lenny: 2012 Stand-up Paddleboarding Champion

Kai Lenny is not only the 2012 Stand-Up Paddleboard champion, but the Hawaii naive and Red Bull athlete is also a world class tow-in big wave surfer, kitesurfer and windsurfer. Lenny is also the first person to ever successfully windsurf across Lake Michigan, and he’s only 20 years old.

So how does Lenny stay mentally focused and physically fit enough to handle all these challenges? We sat down with him as he was preparing for the Molokai 2 Oahu World Championship to find out.

1. You’re the 2012 Stand-Up Paddleboard champion, but you also windsurf, kite surf and big wave surf. Which of these is the most challenging physically, and which is the most challenging mentally?

All of the water sports I do take a lot of physical and mental effort, and each requires a different demand of how to use my body. Each sport has a positive cross-training aspect that supports each other. The challenges really surface when the conditions become extreme or when I am in a competition.

A super windy day or a giant day at Jaws (a legendary surf spot), really puts the challenge into play. I love to push myself, and because of the hours I spend in the water everyday, I fell really conditioned and prepared when the extreme days come around. Competition also brings out the challenges in my sport. I am so competitive that when I push myself, like in a stand-up race, I give it my all and I search really deep, and that’s where I find out how much I can hurt. I remind myself at these times about the accomplishments that I have done.

Last year, during the World Championship Long Distance Race, I was about 200 yards away from the first place competitor and I reminded myself on how gnarly my wipeout was at Jaws and how the hurt I was feeling during this race didn’t even compare. This motivated me to dig super deep and I ended up winning by several minutes.

2. You have the Molokai 2 Oahu World Championship coming up on July 28th. What does that contest entail, and how do you train for it? Do you train differently before a contest? Or do you try to stay in peak shape year-round?

The Molokai to Oahu race is one of the hardest competitions that I have ever done! Although I specifically train for Molokai, my training is really year round. My stamina is built up from the difference sports that I do, and most often, I do at least three sports a day. I may be windsurfing at Hookipa, which is upwind from my home, and instead of driving home, I will paddle home five miles, and then I will run or ride my bike to get my truck. Basically, my waking hours are all consumed in non-stop training. My diet and sleeping habits are very consistent and that makes for a very strong training foundation.

The Molokai to Oahu channel is called the Kaiwi channel, and in Hawaiian it means “the channel of bones.” It is for sure one of the gnarliest channels in the world.

3. Stand-up paddleboarding seems pretty tame compared to your other board related hobbies, like tow-in surfing for instance. Is it? Or are we missing some extreme aspect of the sport? Have you ever sustained an injury from stand-up paddleboarding?

Fortunately, I have never had a bad injury in any of my sports. Not being able to do my sports for even a week would be such torture. Stand-up is awesome because you can be as young as four or as old as 90 and you can automatically do it. On the other hand, you can also push the sport to the extremes. We are just in our infancy as a sport and I, along with several competitors around the world, are pushing the limits of stand-up wave riding.

In racing, the workout is extreme to the point that it’s hard to find another sport that can get you as fit. I have surfed huge Jaws and Teahupoo and I have taken the worst of wipeouts and come up without a scratch. I believe that because stand-up makes you so fit, your body has a strong foundation to deal with extremes in the worst of conditions. Stand-up may look tame, but the workout is one of the best.

4. You are the first person to ever windsurf across Lake Michigan. How long did it take you to cross, and how did you train for that?

That was a really fun project! It was for sure the farthest I had ever sailed on one tack. In Hawaii, I am used to sailing for many hours at a time and that was more than enough for training. The hardest part about the crossing was the cold water. I remember trying to warm my fingers by burying them in my hair. I would switch off each hand taking turns keeping one on my head. I found it hard to believe it was a lake! It felt like the ocean!

5. You also enjoy tow-in surfing. What’s your mindset when you’re getting towed in to a monster wave? Are you thinking, “Holy shit, I’m about to surf down the side of a building!” or are you more calm and in the zone?

The biggest challenge for me is not riding the waves — it’s the days leading up to the large swell. There is so much excitement and hype the few days before that it’s easy to let your imagination run wild. When the day comes and we arrive at Jaws, all of my nerves calm down and I get excited to get out there. The confidence comes from my experiences, my training and knowing my gear really well. The last couple of years we have been paddling in to Jaws, which makes it way more nerve-racking the days before.

6. When you’re not riding some sort of board across water, are there other sports or hobbies that you participate in?

It seems like anything I do outside of the water is directly correlated to being on the water, whether it is working on my equipment or it’s training for the sports I do. I think I would be lost if I didn’t have any of my sports because my entire life revolves around getting back to the ocean. I do like riding my road bike, because it’s such good fitness.

7. Your job is engaging in an activity that most people do for fun and recreation. So what do you do to relax? Go to an office and sit behind a desk? Or do you ever relax?

I do not like relaxing, it’s the hardest thing I can possibly do. I have become so used to doing so much in one day that when I have to take a “rest day” it drives me mad! Like right now, leading up to M2O, I have a training regimen and that involves a lot of resting before the big race. My rest from my so-called work is more riding! If it were not my job I would be trying to do all that I do anyway!