Legendary Surfer Keala Kennelly on Why Coming Out 'Is One of the Best Things I Ever Did'

"It got to a point where I didn't care what the cost was, I couldn't live like this," the surfing champion tells PEOPLE in a new interview

Hawaii's big wave surfer Keala Kennelly sits on her board before the opening ceremony of the 2018 Eddie Aikau Big wave Invitational Surfing Event at Waimea Bay on the north shore of Oahu in Hawaii on November 29, 2018.

"Big wave" is a sub-category of surfing where riders tackle monstrous waves measuring at least 20 feet high. It's treacherous and exhilarating all at once, and sort of "feels like trying to outrun a dragon," surfer Keala Kennelly says.

And every so often, the dragon catches up to you.

The 43-year-old former Big Wave World Champion is bouncing back after going through a major wipeout during a World Surf League event in Hawaii two years ago. It was there, while on top of a 50-foot wave, Kennelly was sent cartwheeling down the mountain of water after a blast of wind sent her board flying.

"This gust of wind came up the face of the wave and got under my board and just flipped it sideways," Kennelly, named Female Surfer of the Year by ESPN in 2002, recalls to PEOPLE. "The board hit me in the shin, it flipped again and hit me in the ribs and then it flipped again and hit me in the face."

The crash was so severe that it earned Kennelly the Red Bull Big Wave Wipe Out of the Year award.

"I beat all the best men in the world to win the wipeout of the year," she says while laughing. "But it's not really the award you want to win when you set out at the beginning of the season."

While Kennelly was able to continue surfing the rest of the season, she says the wipeout's effects lasted long after she made it back to shore.

As the weeks went by, Kennelly says she developed pain in her labrum (hip) caused by the board yanking the leash attached to her leg during the wipeout. The wipeout was so forceful that the board practically "ripped [her leg] out of the hip socket," she says.

With her pain increasing, Kennelly eventually opted to undergo an operation on her hip last May. But Kennelly — who runs AKKTIVE, a women's board shorts company — is used to facing obstacles and succeeding in the face of adversity. And doing so has helped shape the path of her life.

It was around 2005 when Kennelly conquered her fears by coming out as gay to her surfing peers. In doing so, she says, she faced a wave of homophobia from companies and other surfers that eventually led her to leave the sport — before returning to leave her mark on it forever.

Kennelly, the first openly gay surfer to win a world surfing title, speaks with PEOPLE about that time in her life and if she believes things have changed in the years since.

PEOPLE: You came out as a lesbian in the surfing community nearly two decades ago, can you tell us what that experience was like for you?

Kennelly: Even before I got on tour, it was already very well known that it was not okay to be out, it was not okay to be a lesbian. There were all these cautionary tales of, "You can't be a lesbian, it's career suicide."

There's already such a stereotype for female athletes. And if you don't have any sponsors, basically you won't have a career. So when I got on the tour, I was so freaking nervous because I inherently knew I was gay. So, I was absolutely terrified and I spent the majority of my time on the pro circuit in the closet and just completely terrified to come out — completely terrified to get outed, that I was going to lose my sponsors.

PEOPLE: What were you feeling at the time?

Kennelly: I had just all this internalized homophobia and self-hatred for being gay. I was living this double life because on tour, I was pretending to be straight. I'm just a really honest person, I'm a really genuine, authentic person. So, to feel like I was living this lie was just crushing my soul and after so many years of that, it was just, "I can't do this anymore, this is actually going to kill me if I can't live my truth." It got to a point where I didn't care what the cost was, I couldn't live like this.

Surfer Keala Kennelly of Hawaii surfs during the Da Hui Backdoor Shootout at Pipeline, on the north shore of Oahu, Hawaii, on January 16, 2022.

PEOPLE: So you finally come out — what was the reaction like?

Kennelly: Everybody was just talking about me and it was just — I actually quit the tour shortly after I came out because I couldn't handle mentally and emotionally what that was like. Then I had a few sponsors drop me and so, that was just more confirmation that it wasn't okay. I left the tour because, emotionally and mentally, I just couldn't handle it but I also got this really amazing opportunity to go do acting on an HBO TV series (2007's John from Cincinnati) for a year. So, that was just, it gave me a reason to leave the tour.

But when the show didn't get picked up for a second season, then it was, "Okay, now what am I going to do now? Am I going to go back?" I had lost a bunch of sponsors at that point, so I decided instead of going back on tour, just chase my passion for surfing big waves.

PEOPLE: What drew you to big wave surfing?

Kennelly: There wasn't a big wave tour or anything like that yet so, I was just going out and doing it and I was one of the only women doing it at that time. It was just to prove that women could do it. And so, I went out and started surfing these waves that previously, people's perception was like, "Women just can't surf these waves, women can't surf big waves."

I just wanted to prove them wrong and I wanted to prove to myself that I could. Because of that, more women started doing it and we were able to establish a women's big wave tour and have competitions where you could actually win prize money. Whereas for the five to 10 years I was doing it, there were no competitions, there was no prize money, there was no incentive really. I was just doing it purely out of passion.

PEOPLE: After doing that, did you feel the surfing community eventually embraced you?

Kennelly: I think they learned to respect me. Some people are just not going to be accepting, not going to agree with you, but if you're living your truth, people will respect you. So, I think the surfing community, they weren't totally accepting of LGBT people at the time but I think that they respected me for living my truth, speaking, being open, being brave enough to just be authentic.

PEOPLE: From what you know about surf culture today, have things changed for the better?

Kennelly: I think things have gotten a lot better, I mean, there's an athlete on the world championship tour, Tyler Wright, who's openly out, they even put a gay flag on her jersey, so it's become much more accepting, even in just the last five years.

RELATED VIDEO: Ultimate Surfer's Jesse Palmer Says Despite Being an Athlete Learning to Surf Was a Challenge

PEOPLE: How does that make you feel to see that?

Kennelly: It makes me really happy that athletes are not having a struggle as I did. She came out and her sponsor didn't drop her, they're still supporting her. So, it's really nice to see that attitude change.

PEOPLE: And one of the companies sponsoring you today is Flex.

Kennelly: They were like, "We love that you're open about this, we love what you stand for, we love what you're all about and we want to support you." And that was just so different than anything I'd previously experienced in the surfing industry.

PEOPLE: Considering your experiences, do you have advice or any words of encouragement for anyone who might be nervous about coming out?

Kennelly: I think for me just going through life, living inauthentically was so hard, and coming out was so scary but when I actually finally did come out, it was one of the most freeing feelings in my life. So, it's worth it. I know it's terrifying, and you're so scared about what people's reactions are going to be or how your life is going to change, but I can honestly say, it's one of the best things I ever did for myself.

PEOPLE: Do you feel you are your 100%, authentic self today?

Kennelly: Yes, I feel like I am.

Related Articles