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INTERVIEW: Big Wave Surfer Kai Lenny Refuses to Stop Pushing Boundaries

There are few sights more terror-inducing than coming face to face with a 100-foot wall of water. Nature at its most awe-inspiring, the unrestrained waves of Nazaré and Jaws are enough to make the average person realise just how insignificant they really are. But if there is one thing we’ve learned about big wave surfer Kai Lenny over the years, it’s that he is far from the average person.

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The 2020 Nazaré Tow Surfing Challenge winner is the kind of guy that runs towards the danger, a trademark that has netted him worldwide acclaim, but it hasn’t come without consequence. During his event-winning heat, Lenny almost lost it all.

“I had three wipeouts which varied from 50 seconds to 1 minute held underwater,” Lenny tells Man of Many. “It doesn’t sound that much sitting at land, but when you’re being punished that violently by those giant waves, it feels like an eternity where one minute feels like seven.”

Having wiped out in the traditionally unforgiving waves, the surfer was pulled under, before being hit with three massive waves. Clutching his GoPro with one hand, Lenny was pummelled by the water wall, only popping up briefly for air. Thankfully, his tow partner pulled him from the depths, leaving Lenny to fight another day, but the experience left him hungry to return. “I feel that I’ve pushed my limits in certain respects. But what is great is that I become mentally tougher, and I know that I can handle it thanks to these experiences.”

Where others would have taken it as a sign to slow down, the big wave champion is learning from his mistakes and taking things to a whole new level. Once again armed with his trusty GoPro and TAG Heuer Aquaracer is heading back in the water. We caught up with the big wave legend on a relatively calm day to talk waves, watches and the world outside of surfing.

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MOM: Looking outside today, there aren’t too many big waves out there. What does the day look like for a big wave surfer when there’s no surf?

KL: A lot of the training that I do is a combination of not lifting too many weights but doing deadlift with weight to immediately after exhausting your quads and your glutes to then move over to do a jumping routine. So, it’s like doing different rotations. I would jump up onto a box and try to use my fatigued legs to basically have to perform at their optimal. The idea is to exhaust your body so that when you have to do something really precise, it’s just the same way and it doesn’t falter.

See, that’s the thing when surfing, big wave surfing in particular, it’s a sprint combined with endurance. You sprint as hard as you can for a wave to then, once on the wave, you’ve got to have endurance. And if you fall, you especially have to have endurance because you’re getting thrashed around underwater which is violent. You have to be able to have the mental strength to make it. And so, what we do in the gym is a lot of contrasting stuff, upper body, lower body, trying to fatigue the body, but then perform things that are very precise.

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MOM: How does Australia stack up on the surfing calendar?

KL: What’s really cool about Australia and what separates it from the rest of the world is that it’s probably the most prominent surfing country where the sport is part of the culture. Hawaii surfing is also part of the culture, but I think Australians treat surfing even more like a sport and a way of life. Australia gives so many opportunities to young people to make it into the sport for example with surf clubs. That really inspires me. Australia is a special place for surfing.

MOM: When you’re not doing extreme sports of some kind, what’s your downtime and relaxation look like?

KL: I hate rest days. A great day for me is when I wake up really early in the morning to go down to the beach to surf and train for an hour. There I work on my maneuvers before eating a good breakfast and going to the gym. After that, because I need a lot of energy, I’ll go and eat some more before doing wind sports. I’ll start off with kite surfing at Hookipa, which is my local break, I’ll then transition to windsurfing. After that I might go on my foil board, going from one point of the coast to another. This can be around 10 miles long on average. Finally, when I’m super tired, I’ll go stand-up paddling in some waves. For me, the best days are the ones on the water and training. I hate taking rests.

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MOM: Tell us a little about working with TAG Heuer. How did that come about?

KL: I think that the main values which I share with the brand are about living the best life that you possibly can. It’s also about innovation by pushing our respective disciplines to the next level. TAG Heuer has always been known for being a sports timepiece, pushing the boundaries of what a timepiece can truly be.

MOM: Pushing the limits has become a bit of a trademark for you. How do you find the motivation to keep challenging the norm?

KL: I train harder to handle a lot more. It really relies on the state of mind. For me, it’s about being an athlete that pushes the limit every single day when being on the water. Becoming better is what it’s really about for me and that’s the similar philosophy that TAG Heuer carries on through time. We both, the brand and I, love what we do, and we want it to be part of us for the rest of our lives. That sort of dedication is what makes my experience on waves very special and makes the Aquaracer the best sports watch in the world.

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MOM: So the Aquaracer Professional 300 Collection is your daily driver?

KL: The Aquaracer is definitely the collection that I wear. There are very few things that I have in my life which I would keep forever. The timepiece from TAG Heuer is able to keep up with me and survive the things that I get myself into, from climbing a mountain for the first time to riding a giant wave where my wetsuit gets ripped off. It means a lot more than just checking the time.

When I look at it, I get an instant flash or a memory of that one time I rode a 90-foot wave in Portugal or that other time I rode a 90-foot wave at Jaws. It puts me back in that space. If I am travelling and I am stuck in an airport, I could literally entertain myself by just checking the time. For me, it is a physical representation of something that happened in the past that was one of the most fulfilling, greatest moments in my life.

Every single TAG Heuer watch that I receive, I cannot get rid of it because it holds such value. They have become in some way a family heirloom because their stories and the tiny little scratches that they have, are a reminder of some of the highlights of my life.

On the surfing side, it is really important to be able to keep track of the wave frequency coming in the ocean. If I am surfing a big wave, I can look at the forecast thanks to satellite imagery and figure out at what time the wave will make it to the shoreline and break. For example, if I know that a 70-foot wave will be here on the North Shore, I can look at my watch to know when it is going to break and be ready for it. It doesn’t catch me off guard.

And then in competition, I will time the set the frequency of the waves so that I know where to be at the right place, at the right time. Whereas most people on a cliff might be looking at it and thinking to themselves; He is a magician, how does he know where the wave is. It is more tactical than that, I can tell that in 10 minutes the wave is going to break on this part of the reef because of the pattern.

It is not random, there is always a pattern of every 10 minutes a wave will break here, every 7 minutes a wave will break here. And if I keep track of both those times, I can be in the right place at the right time to catch the best waves. And that is how you win competitions and that is how you get the best waves of your life. Most people would say “You have such as nice watch, why would you wear it in the ocean?” What makes them special is that these watches would outlive a big wave wipeout where I would probably not.

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MOM: Speaking of wipeouts, are there any big wave spots you’ve never surfed but are keen to?

KL: I love all the big waves that I’m currently riding but there are some waves in Australia that I’d like to surf. I really want to go to the wave at Shipstern Bluffs, down in Tasmania. Also on the west coast, by Margaret River, is a big wave that I would like to surf. Also, The Right, which is a giant barrel located deep in the desert. I’m sure that there are so many other giant waves down there. I’d love to surf these Australian waves on the coastline, just because it’s something that I haven’t tried yet.

MOM: Does surfing waves under 6ft bore you these days?

KL: Absolutely not, those “small” waves are very important for technical training. The philosophy is that if you can surf a small wave really good, you can surf a big wave incredibly. That is because with small waves, you do not have that much time to think about your manoeuvres because the waves are smaller, and there is less space to work with.

You have to be quicker, it is more of a sprint versus a marathon. Whereas on a big wave, you are dropping in for so long, you do have time to think about what you need to do on that wave, you can consciously think about it. If you get used to not thinking at all and just going by pure instinct, that is where the most incredible riding will be.

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MOM: Who are your favourite big wave surfers from Australia?

KL: There are tons of incredible big waves surfers in Australia, but I think one that stands out is Ross Clarke-Jones. He’s a legend in this discipline and has been in the sport for longer than what I’ve been alive for. What I admire from him, is his gung-ho attitude and ability to charge crazy waves. He’s also a really well-prepared big wave surfer thanks to the team that surrounds him.

There’s more than just the individual riding the wave. There are the people who drive you into the wave and also those who are there for your safety. On top of that, he had the ability to go from two separate disciplines in big wave surfing, which is paddling surfing. He got some of the biggest waves on the planet but also had the most horrifying wipeouts. I think that his ability to live life to its fullest on and off the water is inspiring.

There are many others, such as the young up and coming Russell Bierke, who’s probably one of the best big wave surfers. There’s also the whole west coast big wave crew, Dylan Longbottom and Laurie Towner, who’s one of my favourite big wave surfers in the world. And then Jimmy Michel in paddling surfing.

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MOM: What’s your proudest accomplishment?

KL: Winning my first world title in stand-up paddling was a life-long dream that I accomplished at 18 years old. That was a huge thing for me. Some of other accomplishments are riding waves but that no one will ever see because I was either alone or with a friend. I can’t even start thinking of which one was better than the others. I like to think that the best ride of my life in my entire career hasn’t been ridden yet. It’s still out there and I have to go and find it.

When it comes to watches, however, Lenny has found his place. Much like the big wave surfer himself, the TAG Heuer Aquaracer 300 Collection is designed to push the boundaries. Forged for the deeps and fit for every ground, the watch sports heavy-duty materials and TAG’s iconic automatic Calibre 5. You can learn more about the iconic TAG Heuer Aquaracer that adorns Kai Lenny’s wrist via the link below.

Check it out

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