Keala Kennelly is one of the greatest surfers of our time. That’s not an overstatement, either. She’s doing things that are so far beyond what anyone else is doing, and she’s doing it because she absolutely loves it. It takes a certain type of person to do what she does. She made history by becoming the first woman to win Tube of the Year, she’s been one of the most vocal about inequality in big wave surfing, she’s been nominated for Best Female Action Sports Athlete at the ESPN ESPY Awards, and, in something that should be an outrage to everyone that appreciates surfing, has not ONE paying sponsor.
I’ve only met her a handful of times, and never in a situation that’s good for getting to know someone–I’m scrambling to find an umbrella for her DJ equipment at one of our parties, she’s doing interviews with someone else, etcetera. But one thing is always clear with Keala: she’s not in this for the fame. She’s honest, down-to-earth, and in it because she loves surfing. The kind of surfing she does, though, is the kind of surfing that could kill someone. She’s had her fair share of close calls, but one stands out above the rest.
Surprisingly, it came on a day that didn’t seem all that threatening. It was 4-6 foot Teahupoo, just a few days after the massive Code Red swell that was, of course, far bigger than 4-6 foot. Keala had emerged from those few days of insanity unscathed, and was scoring empty tubes in between heats when one of surfing’s most devastating injuries occurred. She broke it down for me yesterday on a phone call, her on her way to the Super Girl Pro and me sitting in a tiny town on Vancouver Island. I’ll let her take it from here… but hold on to your hats, because this is a story that will turn your stomach.
“It wasn’t even that big–it was just a few days after that massive Code Red swell. It couldn’t have been more than three to four feet with six foot sets. I went out on the Code Red day, and got totally sick waves unscathed. Then on the smaller day, that’s when I got the gnarliest of injuries.
Basically, I took off on that wave and I just dropped in. You know how Tahiti just barrels right from the takeoff, so you’re just kind of pulling in right away? This one didn’t do that. It got kind of fluffy; the barrel kind of collapsed, and I had to go down and around it. The next section started to look like it was going to barrel, so I came off the bottom and set up for the barrel. When I came off the bottom and went to kick stall into the barrel, I got a little bit high because the water sucks off the reef so fast. So I tried to redirect my weight back down onto my outside rail to get my line back into the barrel. I was a little too high, and the lip just barely got me in the head. It kind of clipped me and took me off my feet, spun me upside down, and just pile-drived my face right into the reef. One minute I was getting barreled, and the next it was just this gnarly impact. Intense, intense pain.
I knew that I hit the reef, but I thought it was more of a scrape at the time. It’s painful when you get raked across the reef, even if it’s just superficial wounds. Any time you have skin getting torn off your body, it’s not comfortable. I imagined it was just shallow scrapes–I really had no idea that it was going to be such a huge gash in my face.
When I came up and I was in pain, I grabbed my board. I had to duck dive a wave or two and paddle back out to where the ski could come in. I put my hand to my face where it hurt, and when I pulled my hand away, there was blood everywhere. So I thought, you know, it’s kind of a gusher, but even small scrapes can bleed a lot in the water. It wasn’t until I got to the beach that I realized how bad it was. I kind of thinking maybe they could just duct tape me back together and I could go back out–there was that memorial paddle out for Andy, you know, and I have half an hour to surf an empty lineup at Chopes, so I’m pretty psyched. I thought when I got the beach that people’s reactions were going to be like, ‘oh, you’re alright. Get back out there!’ Instead, they were turning white and looking in the opposite direction. At that point I knew that it was probably worse than I thought.
So they sat me down in the medical tent and they started pumping saline into my face, and it was burning. They were talking about the ambulance and going to Papeete to the big hospital. I was like, ‘you know, there’s a hospital only 30 minutes away if I just need some stitches,’ and they were all like, ‘ooooh, no. You need the big hospital. It’s not just a stitch or two.’ Then finally one of them took a picture and showed it to me… and I was like, ‘yeah, ok. Big hospital.’
I don’t know exactly how many stitches I got, because there were a bunch of internal ones–like 30 or 40–and then there was a bunch in my mouth along my jawline, then I had another crack on the top of my head that needed ten or so… it was a lot, all together. I don’t know if it was over 100, but it was a lot.
I’m lucky because I’m Irish. We have blotchy skin so it [the scar] kind of blends in. I’ve always wanted mocha skin, but in this situation it would look like I have a damn centipede crawling across my face. [Laughing] This is the only time being a haole has actually worked to my benefit.
I was incredibly lucky, for a lot of reasons. I saw a friend’s father, who’s a plastic surgeon in Hawaii, to take the stitches out–I’ve never had any other surgery on it, just the original reconstructive surgery I got in Tahiti on the day–and he said that the surgeon in Tahiti did an amazing job. I was so fortunate because it didn’t change any of my expressions. It tore through nerves and all kinds of stuff, but he said if it would have been, you know, an inch this way, and inch that way, a few millimeters deeper, it might’ve looked like I had a stroke on that side of my face. It came so close to my eye, too. I literally had stitches right up to the corner of my eye. But when I put on make up, it’s pretty hard to see. The surgeon in Papeete did a really good job. You can still see it in certain light, though, just because of the indentation. But it’s healed well. I’m pumped.”