How ‘The Best Female Surfer on Earth’ Preps for Big Wave Competitions—Including the Hip Exercise She Swears By

Photo: Flex
In 2020, professional surfer Keala Kennelly won an award she would rather not have gotten: Wipeout of the Year. (Not that you can't detect a hint of pride in her voice as she says, "It's usually been a men's award—only men had ever gotten that before.")

Kennelly, 43, who's been called "the best female surfer on Earth," has long been known for her fearless approach to waves that few (if any) other women would attempt to catch. The wipeout award came from a ride at the Jaws Big Wave Championships in Maui when, just as she was trying to drop in, a gust of wind flipped over her board. "The board hit me in my shin, then it flipped up and hit me in my ribs, then flipped up again and hit me in my chin, then I cartwheeled down a 50-foot wave," she recalls. The leash, which attaches the board to a surfer's ankle, pulled her leg out of its socket on the way down, and started to tear the labrum in her hip.

Over the course of the next year, her laburm tore a little more each time the leash pulled on Kennelly's leg on a wipeout. But before getting surgery she wanted to win the Red Bull Magnitude, all-female big wave contest in March 2021. So she fashioned her own chest harness to which she could attach the leash to distribute the force across her torso instead of her leg. It worked. She took home the title, then got an MRI and scheduled the surgery.

Now, after eight months of not being able to surf, Kennelly's not only back in the water, but she's heading out on tour for the World Surf League's Challenger Series, beginning in Australia's Gold Coast on May 7.

It's her first time back on tour since 2006, when she quit largely because of homophobia she experienced after coming out. "The majority of my pro surfing career on the tour was in the closet, just terrified that I was gonna get outed, living this double life," she says. In a sport notorious for its hypersexualization of female athletes, the negative reaction to her true sexuality was so intense (including being dropped by most of her sponsors), she decided it wasn't worth the emotional toll.

Sixteen years later, things have—thankfully—become more accepting. Now, she's coming back to a community that has transformed its treatment of women—in no small part due to her own activism. Along with a handful of other female big wave surfers, Kennelly has long fought for equal opportunities for women, including equal pay and changes to permitting systems that previously excluded women from surfing certain beaches. (Charlize Theron's production company is currently developing a feature film for Netflix about their story.)

"I've done all this work for equality, and never really gotten to benefit from [it]," she says. "So it'll be cool to kind of like, take the temperature of where the tour is at and see those positive changes." She adds, only half-joking, "I'm going to do an audit."

How does she prep to compete at her best?

After many years in the water, Kennelly has a keen understanding of what gets her body—and mind—ready to compete.

1. She diligently performs hip stabilization exercises

Following her surgery, Kennelly now works out with a trainer twice a week to strengthen her hips. They particularly focus on stabilization exercises, doing squats on props like discs, Bosu balls, or squishy foam pads to "fire up all the different little stabilizing muscles."

Learn how to do a squat with proper form, then try taking it to an unstable surface like Kennelly does:

2. She uses music to get in the zone

A DJ on the side (she's had several residencies where she lives in Honolulu), Kennelly uses music to get her head in the right place before competitions. "I kind of get quiet and get away from people, just listen to music and watch the waves, watch where they're breaking," she says. Although she has "a million playlists," house music is her go-to.

3. She ditches tampons for a more water-friendly alternative

Getting her period on a competition day is never ideal, but it's no longer as much of a hassle as it used to be. "[When you're] wearing tampons, every time you go into the water, it's gonna get waterlogged and be so uncomfortable," Kennelly says. Now, she's sponsored by Flex, which sells discs and cups that don't fill up with water when she's surfing. She says they're so comfortable she doesn't even notice when one is in.

4. She opens up her body with targeted stretches

Before hopping on her board, Kennelly focuses on stretching. "My piriformis gets really tight," she says, talking about the butt muscle located on the backside of your hip joint. She also targets her hip flexors (front of her hips), and loosens up her shoulders for paddling.

Open up your own piriformis, hip flexors, and other muscles with this targeted yoga flow:

5. She keeps her goals in perspective.

Despite her packed resume of badass wins and awards, Kennelly is very clear that as a 43-year-old competing against 20-somethings, she's keeping her expectations in check for the tour. "There's always that fear of failure and making a fool out of yourself," she admits. "I mean, these young women are like, super hungry. Every new generation kind of replaces the generation before it—the surfing just gets better and better and better. I'm not gonna put an immense amount of pressure on myself. I'm just trying to focus on having a cool experience, putting on a good show, and having fun."

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