It s hard out there for an #LGBT #athlete,” says Keala Kennelly, Award Winning Professional Athlete, World Beater, Big Wave Charger. And oh yeah, you can add “unsponsored” before any and all of those titles. It’s funny to think that surfing can still feature some of its most talented and revered athletes but not support them financially, but that’s the reality Kennelly reminded us of Monday when she took to Instagram to promote her recent ESPYs nomination.
It wasn’t too long ago that Silvana Lima, another former World Tour competitor like Kennelly, spoke out about a life without sponsorships. In Lima’s case the Brazilian surfer, who was once a top-5 finisher on the tour, flat out said surfing doesn’t pay her bills because she’s “too ugly.”
Her words. Not mine, or the words of another publication in the industry, which is important to note because whether you agree with the sentiment or not, it’s how Lima defines acknowledges her experience as a (unpaid) professional surfer. And I think it’s also relevant to Kennelly’s point as well when she said:
“CAN YOU BELIEVE I DONT HAVE ONE PAYING SPONSOR??!! it’s hard out there for an #LGBT #athlete.”
In 2010, when Kennelly was invited to participate in a Women’s Exhibition Heat at the Nescott Reef Big Wave Classic she helped make history. It was the first time women had been involved in a Big Wave Tour event, and although KK had given up competing at this point in her life and didn’t want to “travel anywhere to surf where the water was cold enough to require more than a 3/2 wetsuit,” she felt a responsibility to accept the invitation.
“Oregon…Hmmmm…. All I could think of was freezing cold water and Great White Sharks, but what an amazing opportunity for women’s surfing,” she wrote. “I felt like it was my duty to suck it up and go.”
So she went. And like I said, was a part of history. Since then she’s been a leader in the conversation about women in big waves, mostly stemming from the years long debate about including women in the different evolutions of the Maverick’s contest. And when Savannah Shaughnessy was finally placed on the alternates list for this year’s 2016 Titan’s of Maverick’s she spoke even louder, arguing that giving one woman a spot to compete against a field of men isn’t enough. But in spite of that belief, Kennelly still admitted that if she were in Shaughnessy’s shoes she’d suck it up once more.
“And while risking my life at Mavericks in a heat against men who have the upper hand in many ways does not feel right, if I were offered the opportunity to compete, I would.
I would do so only because no other venues currently exist to express my talents and to compete. That is a complete and utter buzzkill. Basically, women are not being treated fairly”
And she doesn’t think being a woman grants her a free pass or special privileges.
“People ask me all the time ‘Are you going to be in the Eddie this year?'” she wrote in 2012. “And my response has actually been something to that effect of: ‘No, they haven’t ever invited me (or any other woman). But if they did I would feel really bad to be taking a spot from one of those guys knowing that they’re surfing at a higher level than me and the only reason I am getting a spot in the event is because of my extra X chromosome.'”
So here she is, a leader in big wave surfing and in women’s surfing, and a professional athlete who is voice in the LGBT community. She regularly does something in life threatening waves that blows the entire world away. An athlete who sometimes does things against her own wishes as a “duty” to her community and life’s passion. So, can you believe she doesn’t have one paying sponsor??!! 
I had no idea the woman wasn’t cutting any checks from an industry sponsor. But it’s a pretty ridiculous reality.