Despite stand-up paddling’s reputation as an easygoing pastime for soccer parents, its competitive realm is intense. Athletes compete in everything from grueling 32-mile open-ocean marathons, to full-contact races through breaking swells, to waveriding contests in far-flung locales. But for years, the sport has been missing a key ingredient: a young, breakout champion capable of appealing to armchair fans and core surfers alike. Enter 21-year-old Kai Lenny, a Maui native who has won nearly all of SUP’s marquee events and regularly drops in at big-wave breaks with surfing’s most recognizable faces.
RIDING GIANTS: As a precocious kid surfing Maui’s north shore, Lenny was mentored by icons like Laird Hamilton, Dave Kalama, and Robby Naish, who taught him everything from basic windsurfing and SUP technique to how to tow in to a 30-foot wave.
THE ARRIVAL: In the final months of 2013, Lenny put together an unprecedented string of victories, winning California’s Rainbow Sandals Battle of the Paddle, the sport’s most important event; his third Stand Up World Tour surfing title, in France; and his second Stand Up World Series racing title on Oahu. “Winning the Battle of the Paddle is my biggest accomplishment so far,” says Lenny. “Every top athlete was there.”
POSTER BOY: Among Lenny’s sponsors are GoPro, Oakley, and Red Bull. “Kai is the perfect guy to put SUP on the map,” says Pat Towersey, marketing manager at Nike surfing subsidiary Hurley, which recently inked Lenny to a multi-year endorsement deal. “He has as much fun paddling on a lake as he does paddling into Jaws.”
HEAVY HITTER: When the infamous Maui surf break Jaws hits 20 feet, Lenny is one of only a few surfers in the world who can ride it on anything from a SUP to a big-wave gun to a kiteboard. “I grew up watching my heroes, like Laird, charge these incredibly huge waves,” he says. “When I started to gain experience at Jaws, I realized how special it was.”
SECOND OPINION: “He’s competent in every discipline of the waterman lifestyle,” says big-wave legend Greg Long. “It’s true athleticism, and you can’t help but be inspired.”
UP NEXT: This summer, Lenny will try to nab the one SUP title that has eluded him—Molokai2Oahu, a 32-mile open-ocean race. Held in July, its racers paddle across one of the Hawaiian Islands’ most treacherous channels, with head-high swells and 30-knot winds. “Mentally and physically, it’s the hardest SUP race in the world,” says Lenny, who came in fourth last year. “It truly tests your spirit and will help you find out what you’re made of.”