American professional big wave surfer and stand-up paddle (SUP) racer Kai Lenny is as passionate about the waters as he is his chosen profession. But it’s not just the speed or height of the waves he’s riding, but instead the health and shape of the ocean—and the global environment—that’s on his mind.
Putting his money where his mouth is, the 29-year-old longtime Red Bull athlete and SUP world champion is taking up a new role as a global advocate to build awareness of and solutions to help eliminate plastic pollution from the world’s oceans, lakes, and rivers.
Starting this year, Lenny has begun working with A New Earth Project (ANEP) a strategic collaboration between outdoor enthusiasts and global packaging suppliers, whose aim is to rid the world’s oceans, lakes, and rivers of plastic pollution.
Lenny hints that it’s refreshing to see industry finally do its part.
“It’s amazing to see people and groups that care so much about the world we live in, care about the environment and are solving these problems,” Lenny said last week. “There’s no reason why we can’t do all the things we really want to do and just make that minor adjustment if it means future generations will get the benefits.”
Born and raised in Maui, Lenny first hit the surfing and beach sports scene as a teenager. In 2013, barely 19 years old then, he won a slew of SUP competitions, including 2013’s SUP Wave World Championships and Vice KSP Kiting World Champion, while also bagging the crown as 2013 SUP Overall World Champion. The year prior, he also won the 2012 World SUP Race Champion and the Hawaii Island Finals, among other competitions.
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And right before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold and shut down sports, Lenny won the Nazaré Tow Surfing Challenge in February 2020, a big wave surf event at Praia do Norte, Portugal.
Last week, I connected with Kai Lenny to talk about surfing, stand-up paddling and his passion for the environment.
Andy Frye: Talk about your passion for the ocean and the environment and how you got involved with ANEP:
Kai Lenny: It’s great traveling anywhere in the world where the beaches and oceans are still clean and pristine. (This) seems rare nowadays, as plastic ocean pollution is pretty much everywhere.
I got involved in A New Earth Project because I’ve always believed in doing what we love to do, and think we can do it in a sustainable way. Anything made for the ocean should come in packaging that isn’t harmful to the ocean. A New Earth Project is a step in that direction.
AF: Hawaii natives grow up with so many great places to surf. What’s your favorite location to compete or just for enjoyment?
Lenny: Home is where the heart is—that’s for sure, haha, and that, for me, is Maui. My all-time favorite wave in the world is Peahi (AKA Jaws). There is nowhere like it in the world with its beauty, raw power and ability to overcome fears. The joy from a successful ride there is unmatched by any other wave I’ve ridden. It doesn’t break that often, only on the biggest winter swells, so it’s rare enough that each session is ingrained in my mind forever.
AF: You’ve accomplished a lot in your long career. Does any particular victory stand out? (and why)
Lenny: The goals I’ve set for myself have always been as important to me as a trophy or competition win. The journey and preparation are as exciting to me as winning. Wins feel good but right afterward it’s a distant memory. Winning a world title in Stand Up Paddling was a big goal and then repeating those titles…winning a big wave world tour surfing event was great. I have goals of competing on the professional surfing tour one day, but mainly I just enjoy the moments leading up to a possible victory.
AF: You’re a dad now to twin girls. How do you expect to pass down surfing to your kids?
Lenny: I have two newborn twin daughters and they are a huge life change for us. I can’t wait to show them the ocean and help them navigate their lives with the ocean as a backdrop. The way I grew up I did so many ocean sports. I feel pretty blessed to have the opportunity to guide them and see what they connect with.
AF: What athletes have inspired you most as a surfer and outside surfing?
Lenny: The most inspiration I’ve drawn from athletes from an early age was from the (group of famed surfers known as) the “Strapped Crew”—Laird Hamilton, Buzzy Kerbox, Dave Kalama, Rush Randall, Derek Doerner. They were the first surfers to tow into unrideable waves and broke those barriers and did it in such a cool way.
I always wanted to be a part of that. Plus, competition-wise, I respect and look to Kelly Slater and Robby Naish in their respective fields, surfing and windsurfing.
Outside of surfing I’ve always been impressed with (motorcycle racer) Travis Pastrana. Just his fearlessness and how nice of a person he is, how much he innovated within that. Of course, always thought of Bruce Lee as a hero too.
Read Frye’s interviews with Leticia Bufoni and Makani Adric.
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