Episode #84: Billy Kemper – Big Wave Surfing Champion and Survivor
My guest today is a big wave surfer world Champion, Dad, Husband, and survivor of a near-fatal accident last year Billy Kemper. We talk about coming back from an injury, taking on stepkids in his early twenties, now having 4 sons, losing his brother when he was a child, and how marrying his wife Tahiti inspired him to be his best in all buckets of life. As always we talk about being human, but this time through the lens of Billy Kemper’s path. He has crammed in a lot in a very short period of time.
Listen to the episode here:
- Brothers [00:02:50]
- Loss and Awakening [00:10:46]
- Learning the Waves of Life [00:28:31]
- On Being a Carefree Kid to Being a Responsible Man [00:36:39]
- Doing Something Different [00:44:17]
- The Accident [00:54:02]
- Recovery [01:05:47]
- Turning Fear Into Strength [01:12:13]
- Getting Up Again [01:18:05]
- Being a Father [01:24:00]
- Riding the Waters Again [01:29:05]
- Misconception About Big Wave Riding [01:36:37]
- Living the Legacy [01:40:55]
Billy Kemper – Big Wave Surfing Champion and Survivor
My guest is Big Wave World Champion and my friend, Billy Kemper. You know Billy from his incredible big wave surfing. We’re going to talk to Billy and learn so much more, how we recovered from a death-defying accident, never mind if he would surf again but not even knowing walk again in the ways that he wants to as a person and as an athlete. He shares a story of loss. His brother died when he was young. He had a single mother. Also, how he grew up quickly when meeting his wife when he was 21 years old and what taking on a family and then creating more family has done for him and compassion, motivation, drive, and overall making Billy such a special man. I hope you enjoy.
Billy Kemper, thanks for coming.
It’s been a long mission to get here.
No kidding. We’re going to get into that. You’ve been in our sphere. Laird and I are older than you. We don’t run in the same worlds even though we’re connected by a million people. When you got injured from unfortunate circumstances, we had the opportunity to spend real time with you. It was an interesting event that brought us into your life.
I want to give people context. You have a documentary called BILLY. I encourage people to watch it. They can get a full-range story. I’m not going to spend tons of time but maybe you could give some context to some important things that shaped who you are. You being a little brother to Eric was something powerful to you.
It’s something that a lot of people can relate to. Whether it’s your brother or somebody in your life that’s older than you, every kid wants to be someone. Whether you want to be a superhero or you want to be your older brother, there’s always that person that holds that spot in your heart. For me, it was my brother. Luckily, he was at the forefront of amateur surfing with guys like Andy Irons and Bruce Irons.
That being said, at that time, in the era of where I was, I was living in Hawaii. I was being raised on this island of Maui. My brother was the king of amateur surfing. That was all I dreamed about, all I thought about, all I wrote about. It was me wanting to be my older brother. I had this leadership and these footsteps to follow that were unique in a radical way. It’s not like an easy, “I want to be a baseball player.” Nothing against any of that.
My brother was a ferocious little Pitbull and I thought he was cool. Whether he was fighting in the water, defending himself, spearing a huge fish, or destroying people in the competition, he had this fire that I was obsessed with. My older brother is 12 years older than me. I was a bottom feeder. I was always trying to keep up. I would always fall down, “It’s okay. I’m going to get back up and keep trying to keep up with him.”
That groomed who I was. It groomed me in my generation and in my network and group of friends having Albee Layer, Matt Meola, Kai Barger, Dusty Payne, all these guys. The talent was untouchable in surfing with them. I didn’t have maybe some of the things I had but what I had was a vision that might have been a little more rugged and a little rougher. That made things that much sweeter for me growing up and navigating my own ship at a young age. It was set differently.
For anyone who’s watched or will see my documentary series, I lost my brother when I was 8 years old. At that age, you’re depending on the people you look up to. When that person is taken out of the situation, you almost feel lost. My brother, Carl, at this point, wasn’t what I wanted to be. I’m not saying it in a bad way. We had different outlooks on life. He was somebody who helped groom and keep me on track. I was in the middle of so much going on from every direction.
When you said that the other surfers had these things that you didn’t have, for the audience, explain what you mean. People think, “You grew up in Hawaii. You’re by the water. You surf.”
It’s weird. In surfing, growing up with dark hair in Hawaii, being a heavier kid, not being blond-haired, blue-eyed, and a skinny little kid surfing, it was hard for me to get sponsored. On the side, I wasn’t surfing at the level they were. My appreciation and courage to push myself in surfing didn’t come from competing in small waves like they were. I was starting to find something different.
It’s funny that we’re talking about this. I can remember the turning point where I found what I wanted to do. It was like a kid in LA going to the Dodger Stadium and watching these guys play ball. This kid is 8 years old and he’s going to take his mitt and hope for pop flyball and he’s going to catch it. When I was 6, 7, 8 years old, I would go to these cliffs off the coastline of Haiku on Maui off the pineapple fields where this wave, Jaws, was located.
At this point, it was ’95, ’96, ‘97. There was a group of guys and one of them is your husband, the pioneer of it. In my time of being a child, they were real-life superheroes, Laird, Darrick Doerner, Dave Kalama, Buzzy Kerbox. There’s a list of these guys. There was Spider-Man, Batman, Superman. That’s who these guys were to me, truly. I looked at Laird flying down the face of these waves on, at this point, equipment that looked stupid. It’s like, “What are they doing?”
[bctt tweet=”Whether you want to be a superhero or you want to be your older brother, there’s always that person that holds that spot in your heart.”]
When you say stupid, what’s the point of that board?
It looked crazy. They were trying and testing in situations where we’re surviving. It was different. They wrote the book.
Laird often says that big wave riders are made and not developed. It’s something inside of you. What you’re saying is maybe you had these, in your mind, more nimble and competitive surfers. Maybe you didn’t fit this mold exactly. Was your brother into large waves?
Yeah. I can remember him saying things like, “Up until this point, nobody hadn’t even been invited that was a born and raised surfer from Maui into the YETI.” There was this prestige of me wanting to do things that he would talk about. There was this hunger. The competitive thing was one thing but once the wave started getting heavier, bigger, and people said, “You can’t do this. You shouldn’t do that,” that’s where I found this little thrive, like, “I can.”
That being said, I was a troublemaker growing up. I was not a well-behaved kid. That was part of it. When you slap the kid on the wrist and you say, “You can’t do it,” he’s going to go around the corner and do it. That was my situation growing up and seeing this and telling my parents, “I’m going to do what Laird, Buzzy, and Dave are doing.” They’d be like, “You’re not going to do that. It’s not safe. You’re going to kill yourself.” I was like, “They’re doing it so I’m going to do it.” I wanted to do it because these people were doing something that nobody else is allowed to do. No one else can do it.
Do you think more of that feature came out in you once your brother passed away? Do you think it woke up something in you? I don’t want to say it’s reckless because I know a lot of people like this. What you learned is it’s one of your special qualities that if the individual can find a positive place to put it, it’s the gift. We always say, “Either the rocket goes to the moon or it flies and gets shoved into the mountain.” There’s some of it. Yes, your brother has impacted you. Do you think that, in a way, he was radical so he took that space a little bit in the family? When he passed, did that give you and Carl some calm? Did that wake that up in you a little bit?
Yeah, I think so. Aside from all that, my parents were going through one of the nastiest divorces, let alone be a part of but witnessed. It was somewhere where I could disconnect. It was just me. I honestly felt alone at that point in my life. When I was 8, 9, 10 years old, I’m not surfing Jaws. I’m just surfing. I wanted to go out when the other kids didn’t want to go out because I felt safer. I felt stronger being alone in conditions I wasn’t comfortable with because it was new.
I was used to having things happening and knowing this is going to happen with my mom or my dad. I liked being alone, as weird as that sounded. As a young kid wanting to surf a little bigger and heavier wave, I can remember Matt Meola being like, “I’m not going out there. You’re crazy.” Little things like that propelled me to go more, get more interested, and learn more about it.
Having people like Laird, Double D, and these guys being like uncles to me, I could ask them anything and they tell me the truth. These guys were straight. They told it, they did it, and how it was. There is no BS. There are no cutting corners. I remember telling Double D, “I’m going to be the youngest surfer ever to surf Jaws.” He’s like, “Why?” I was like, “Because I want to.” He’s like, “You’ll surf Jaws when you’re ready to surf Jaws.” I was like, “I don’t care what that means.”
Fast forward, there are kids who surfed younger than me. When he told me that, “You’ll surf it when you’re ready,” I took that into consideration. I watched the way Laird and these guys would train on Baldwin Beach. The training was not normal in surfing. It was like, “Why are you touching weights? Why are you doing fitness?” Surfers are a bunch of hippie stoners who hang at the beach in a van all day.
You see these guys harnessing a ten-foot log and they’re dragging it across a three-mile beach in the beaming hot sun in the summer. They’re paddling upwind and torturing themselves, putting themselves through pain. Why are they doing it? It’s because they’re preparing themselves for something that they knew wasn’t something they could walk into. It was something that they had to be ready for.
It all turned into this snowball effect when Double D told me that, “When you’re ready, you’re ready.” I felt my whole preteens, teenage years moving into, “Am I ready?” Everything I did from working my way up to the totem pole of the north shores and the outer reefs and all that made not only big waves but it made Pe’ahi special to me. That’s something that I can relate to or have so much interest with Laird of it not being just the wave. It’s something more than that. We’re part of its life.
[bctt tweet=”When you’re ready, you’re ready.”]
We’re both married and we both have kids. We can both be honest with each other. That place, we want to respect it and nourish it more than anything in the world. It’s hard to explain what that place does. Seeing someone like Laird and how his life has revolved, the Earth spins. It’s like, “What is Pe’ahi? What is Jaws doing?” You’re drafting this place. You want to study it, the ups, downs, highs, lows. I gauge my life off of that place.
The amount of waiting that a big wave rider does, in certain ways, I’ve come to appreciate the level of patience that a big wave rider has. You have to be prepared. You have to be ready. You don’t know when. It’s a little bit like a fireman, except they hope the fire doesn’t come and you hope the waves do come. I always found that interesting.
Certain winters, maybe it’s only up to 2, 3 days a year but you’ve got to be ready. Maybe you’re blessed with other winters where maybe it’s an El Niño, the low pressures, or whatever and it’s happening quite a bit. People don’t realize how many days. You can say, “Fifteen days is an incredible winter.” Yes, maybe you’re going north and south hemisphere and things like that but I’m talking about the real days. That’s pretty unusual. When you go out for the first time, do you guys launch out of Maliko?
Who takes you? What’s the first day? Who are you with?
Day one, Jaws.
Where’s your mother, by the way?
Mom is on O’ahu on the North Shore. When I was 8 years old, we rehomed, got away from Maui and what she had lost, my older brother, and restarted a life there. My friends and my dad stayed in Maui. I was back and forth. I was going to high school, Kincaid. It was 2006. I was 16 years old. It was Valentine’s Day. Myself, Matt Meola, Albee Layer, and Marlon Lewis pitched in and bought a jet ski. We had towed a few days at the outer reefs in Ko’olau and all these warm-up places. We’re gung ho.
Two teams splitting a ski.
Four kids on one horse. We were learning. We’re making our way. We’re taking it day by day. I look back at it now and I see Double D, Laird, Dave Kalama. I see them, like, “Does this work? I’m going to throw a life jacket on. This is going to pop me up.” We’re learning on the fly.
Did you ever suck the line?
Hundreds of times. We’ve made every mistake. We flipped the ski. We did it all. At this point, we weren’t confident in towing each other out at Jaws at Pe’ahi. Me and Albee especially, we’re ready. It’s like, “Somebody tow me in.”
To ride. The other thing people have to realize is that the ability to be towed into is one thing but also the other ability to tow someone in and pick them up. God forbid anything goes wrong. This is a real skillset.
We’re 16 years old. I’m looking at Albee, like, “You’re not eligible of towing me into a 60-foot wave and then me falling and you driving ten feet away from a 500-foot cliff with twenty-foot walls of water breaking against it to save my life.” I’m looking at Albee and he’s like, “No, I’m not grabbing you.” Our jet ski was $4,000, $1,000 each. There’s no chance. Without telling our parents, we went out to Jaws, skipped school, and went out there on this jetski.
When you’re going out, what’s inside you? What are you thinking?
At this point, Albee and I were so competitive that it was like, “I’m getting a bigger one.” We wanted it so bad. We wanted this. We had surfed all these waves. We were starting to travel. I had been to Tahiti a handful of times. I had surfed Teahupo’o. I had surfed Lahaina. I was like, “This wave is my backyard. It’s time. I’m ready.” My parents said, “Hell no. You’re never allowed to surf out there.” Meanwhile, I’m going upwind. We launched out of this little tiny rinky-dink harbor thing, no dock, nothing.
That day, it was me, Albee, and Matt. We get up, we drive up 30 minutes out the coast, upwind, and we get to Jaws. It was beautiful, 40 to 60 foot faces, trade winds, a typical perfect Hall of Fame day at Jaws at Pe’ahi. We’re looking around and we’re hitchhiking. We both had our surfboards, our life jackets on, and we’re like, “Somebody give me a whip. Give me a ride.”
It’s a big responsibility.
You couldn’t stop us.
“We better keep our eye on these guys.”
“Let’s make sure somebody eligible and willing is driving these kids.”
Who went first?
I don’t know who went first. We both got on skis at the same time. I remember surfing that day. I remember one wave in particular. I remember the feeling like dropping into a wave was never going to end. Every other time in my life I’ve surfed, it’s like, “Boom,” then the wave is done. This was the one time I felt like I let go of a tow rope. You’re in this flow state. This is where the first time I ever understood or felt everything in life had been blocked out.
That was something I’d been looking or searching for my whole life, especially my childhood, places to block things out whether it’s fear, pressure, anxiety, anger, everything. I found where I felt comfortable was when I was the most uncomfortable. That was this. I remember my dad yelling at me so hard that night, losing it, freaking out. I was sitting there with a grin on my face, happier than any Christmas morning. I found where I belong. That was the start of what I wanted to do with my life.
I understand the connection with the ocean because it’s a real thing. I’ve seen it with a lot of people. By the way, people who are not professional surfers. People who the ocean calls them, that’s a real thing. They can be from the Midwest and they knew and they get out there. Is the calling beyond the ocean? Is it all-consuming? Is that what you needed? Is it because you have no opportunity, no choice but to be in this now?
For me, it was not knowing where to go growing up. There are so many distractions, good and bad. For a lot of the good, I couldn’t find my place there. I couldn’t figure it out. I’d come to California. I’d compete at the NSAA Nationals and I would lose in the semis or the quarters. I’m seeing my friends sign six-figure contracts at 16 years old. My friends are the biggest junior surfers in the world. World champion Kai Barger, the first world junior champion from Maui.
I don’t have a sticker on my board. I have not won contests. I would get there randomly. I’d get a win or I’d get this. I was competitive that losing that much and not getting the reward of winning, I was caught up. I’m lost. It wasn’t that I could win but I could find where I could grow. I found something where I was happy to wake up, learn, study, ask questions, and figure things out. I was like this huge puzzle that I found the key piece to where I was like, “This is it. I can finish this.”
Let’s fast forward a little. From that moment, you become a Big Wave world champion. At that age, it’s forever in the grand scheme of things. It’s not that long. Do you think it worked out for you that way because you figured out a way? I want to go back into the amount of responsibility and growing up that occurred in those years. That wouldn’t have happened had you not figured out the way to follow your path. Yes, big wave surfing was getting popular, pro big wave surfing, and things like that. In a way, maybe weirdly, it was almost better than the other type of surfing that didn’t bring you in and you weren’t winning.
It shaped me. You fast forward to that world title and all that. I’m back to competing in those small waves. I figured out that the way of loss is a learning experience, figuring out how to better yourself. Competing in small waves betters me as a human. Whether it’s a win or a loss, there’s so much I can take away from surfing small waves because I’m still learning and I’m enjoying the process of learning in life.
When you’re younger, you don’t like learning unless you’re passionate about that. I wasn’t passionate about it because I didn’t understand loss. As I grew, as my recognition came with big waves, I was getting into events, winning events, sponsorships, and all that. I started to become particular in what I did and where I did it. For me, it was like, “I need to focus on the things that I’m not good at in life.” If I can get them up to par with what I’m good at, I feel like I could position myself with anyone in any conditions and I could beat them.
Where did you get that? That usually takes time. Did you see somebody that was doing that? Was that something innate?
In my teenage years, the loss of my brother started to catch up to me because of what comes with being a teenager, especially in Maui, drugs, alcohol, girls, education. My grandfather graduated and went on to Harvard. He’s one of the founders of the Boys & Girls Club of America. My family is in education, strong college, this and that. It wasn’t even an option let alone even a thought for me growing up.
I was looked at differently by a lot of my family. That was something that even motivated me even more to go towards this, to do what I love. I felt like many people in my family were doing things out of expectations, “What is he going to think? What are they going to think?” My brother was doing a lot of things that people didn’t think were right growing up and a lot of them, he shouldn’t have been doing. A lot of the things I supported so much because I’ve seen how much joy it gave him, surfing the way he wanted to surf, surfing competitions as a firecracker.
[bctt tweet=”I found where I felt comfortable was when I was the most uncomfortable.”]
Growing up, I’ve seen that with other athletes, not surfers. People like Kobe Bryant, for example. There are people out there who motivate me. There’s a lot of people out there, whether it’s their mom or dad, they’ve had losses, they’ve had issues. When they find that thing whether it’s on a court, on a field, in the ocean, they like it. When they’re passionate about it, it becomes their obsession. When you see that transition from fame or whatever it is, when you see that passion people have for what they do, it’s unstoppable.
Your mom was a single mom, a hard-working person. It didn’t feel like anything came overly easy for her, to her way. Also, dealing with the loss of your brother. Is it that she gives you the freedom? How does she manage that spirit?
She groomed me. I live by this even now more than ever, celebrating small victories in life. The big ones weren’t coming for me. If you can dissect those small ones and be appreciative of them, when you get to a big one, you’re going to have a different appreciation because of how you got there and not what got you there. It’s all about how it happens. She pushed that on me. It’s not about winning nationals or winning the world junior title. It’s about being present, being honest, and sharing it with the people around you.
I had a tight circle. I had amazing support growing mostly from people who are not my family but from my brother’s friends. I had all these uncles that were on my shoulders everywhere I went. I felt safe. I felt better in the ocean than on the land as a kid. I felt like there’s less trouble, and fewer people were judging me. It was my getaway. Out of everyone in my entire life, my mom pushed that towards me. It was like, “Homework this, homework that,” but it was more, “Go where you feel good.”
For her to do that is also scary. I don’t care what anyone tells me. If you have a kid that wants to do that, you’re like, “Great,” but it’s still scary. Sixteen probably feels like one of the beginnings. How old were you when you met Tahiti? Out of curiosity.
I was 21. When I was 16, I went to my best friend’s wedding. My friend got married way too young.
What do you mean? How old was your friend?
They’re still together. It’s not way too young.
At the time, it felt young. How old were they?
They were 18 and 19. This is you know my best friend, the chaperone to my brother, Eric was his child. He was getting married to Tahiti’s best friend. I’ve never met this girl. I’ve never seen her. I’m at my friend’s wedding. I’m 16 years old, dancing, drunk, a complete little mess of a kid. I tried to dance with my now wife and she looked at me, laughed at me, and walked away.
I kept asking my friend’s wife for years, “What’s up with that girl, Tahiti?” She’s like, “Sorry. You’re way too much for her. There’s no chance.” Fast forward a few years later, I was coming back from an event in Mexico. My friend had called me and said, “My wife is in LA with her friend, Tahiti. They want to go out in Hollywood Roosevelt and do what people in Hawaii don’t get to do.”
She’s from O’ahu, right?
Yeah. We’re all from Hawaii. I started going to Hollywood and Vegas when I was probably 16 or 17. I was far ahead of all of my friends because of growing up under my brother and being ten years older than me. I was living in that life of partying and having fun.
I’m curious about your frame of mind as a young athlete and this lifestyle. Did you ever feel like, “This might be a conflict at some point.” Were you being a carefree kid and having fun?
I was being a carefree kid having fun. At this point, surfing was what I love to do but it wasn’t what was paying me. There was no income. There was a real deep love for it. I was enjoying myself probably a little bit too much at this point. I caught up in the scene. You’re at that age of being able to hang out with these famous people and being in that Hollywood bubble.
[bctt tweet=”When you’re younger, you don’t like learning unless you’re passionate about that.”]
They came out. I took them out. I was like, “I want to take you out to dinner. I got you and your friend this big room at The Roosevelt. I’m going to take you out to these clubs. We’re going to have a great time. I want to take you out to dinner. I want to talk to you and ask you some things.” We ended up getting a taxi going out and eating sushi in Hollywood and we walked back.
It was a three-mile walk. I said, “Let’s walk back.” She’s like, “It’s far.” I was like, “We have no time limit right now.” When we walked back three miles, that’s our first real initial time hanging out. I learned so much about a girl that I’d never encountered in my life. I’d been with plenty of girls. I’d been in a pretty serious relationship prior to that. It was another situation where I wanted to come back and learn more. It was a walk that never ended.
Tahiti was a woman.
She was a mother.
She had responsibilities.
I’m not saying I was ever disrespectful to girls. At the end of that walk, I remember her going into the hotel and me saying bye. I was like, “This is different.” This isn’t like, “Hang out, party, hookups, and see you in a couple of years.” That girl, who I made that walk with who I was seriously attracted to, is a mom. This is not normal for me. I had friends and people who were like, “You’re crazy.”
How old were the boys?
They were young, 3 and 1.5 years old. We started slowly hanging out and the kids got into the picture. When the kids got into the picture, it was when I had to look at myself in the mirror. It was probably the first time in my entire life that I was 100% honest with myself. I’m not saying that I was a liar or that I lived a lie. It was like, “You want to be a man? This is the time. You can’t drag this woman along. You can’t mess with these kids.”
At this point, these kids are attracted to me being in their life. It was a different life for them. This family grew up in Honolulu, which is similar to LA. All of a sudden, they’re on the north shore with my mom who was the greatest mother I’ve ever witnessed and let alone grandma. She was loving these kids. They had that from their real grandmother but to see somebody like that, the lifestyle changed, the ocean, the freedom. It was different.
My home and upbringing were different. The hospitality, open door, ten kids sleeping over on school nights, that’s normal. That was never not normal. Four of my friends sleeping over when I’m gone on Maui at my dad’s house was normal in my house. Nowadays, you ask a mom that and they’d be like, “Are you crazy? Hell no.”
Do you think your mom was like, “Billy’s getting over his head?” Billy, that’s young.
My mom’s seeing what happened to my brother. My brother was 18 years old when he passed away. He was light years ahead of where I was when I was 18. Seeing my attraction to surfing in big waves and then this woman coming into my life, she’s seen stars aligning. She’s seen the safety of her child propelling forward in life rather than being stagnant. I’m not saying that I was stagnant but I didn’t have much going on. It’s the motivation that Tahiti and these kids brought to my life. Not to mention who her family is, it was hard for me to be like, “What do you do?” “I surf.”
No family takes that good.
“You surf? How do you get paid to surf?”
I can remember when I brought Laird. They’re like, “What do you mean you surf?” It’s like, “Yeah.”
Her brother is the first Asian to ever win a Grammy in history that year I’m meeting her. It was such a culture shock. It’s like, “Who’s this guy you’re dating?” “He’s younger than you.” “You have two kids.” Everything was not normal. I almost thrived being a kid again and not being comfortable. It’s not that I had to prove people wrong but figuring out that Billy under pressure, Billy against the wall was where I did my best. It started to become a habit of mine, “I’m back here again. This is where I am perfect.”
[bctt tweet=”If you can dissect those small ones and be appreciative of them, when you get to a big one, you’re going to have a different appreciation because of how you got there and not what got you there.”]
Let me ask you something. You have four sons. The two of you have two more sons. There’s consistency in all these things that occur when you have a family. Besides injuries, where do you find the opportunity to not create being behind to feel good? You’ll see a lot of patterns with people. I appreciate that you said that you looked and thought that alcohol wasn’t serving the bigger story. If you got into a row or Tahiti or something that you looked at it and was like, “That seems to be a common thing showing up.” Where do you find it from? I’m genuinely curious. How do we find the extra energy, the superhero energy from a place of peace and steadiness, especially when we’re not accustomed to it?
For me, seeing so many people dwell in the past and not saying that my mom did but watching the person that you love most cry every single day of your life, I had to do something different than what my mom did because I did that. I was that kid who cried. It tore me up. Watching that happen to my mom, I was like, “There’s got to be something that I can do differently here because that’s not going to take me anywhere.” To be able to use things whether it’s following someone’s footsteps and taking it farther.
For me, a way to put it into perspective is all these losses, these little personal battles that I was dealing with were like a roadmap. It’s like, “I got through that one. Let me use that same route and go through this one.” All of a sudden, you feel like you’re playing hopscotch, hopping through. They’re making you go faster. They’re making you feel better.
When I’m showing up to compete, I’m showing up with my brother’s last name on my shoulders. I’m doing it not only for myself but I’m doing it for him. I felt like it was a way of giving back to the people who I didn’t let down but the people who I felt like I wanted to pay back but I had nothing to pay them with. This was something that I felt healed my mom.
I did it all. I did drugs, I drank, I partied, I enjoyed myself too much, I burnt bridges. I did everything I shouldn’t have done. Doing that at such a young age, meeting this woman who had two children and came from a successful family, everything was different. For me, it made it to where I was able to shine in times where a lot of the people around me would hide. I almost felt like I was put here to do this. I was like, “It’s not about me right now. It’s about the people. It’s about my mom. It’s about this.” My mom became not a tool. I did everything around her.
I’ve talked to some friends of mine about this. Sometimes when you are a fixer or you’re put into the position young, 8 years old, to fix it for other people. In fact, Tahiti said this about you. You do what you do. You’re an intense person. Also, there’s a passion to you. You’re not passive about things. You have definitive feelings and opinions about things. Tahiti said that you can be under your own stress, dealing with it. If somebody calls you with a problem, it’s almost like you snap out of your problems and you go right into helping them with theirs.
I was talking to a friend of mine and he said that, very early, he would do that for his mom and the people around him, solving problems and not pushing off but clicking off theirs. It’s an interesting thing. When you’re a performer, you’re an athlete, it has to be about you. It has to be about your food, your training, you’ve got to travel, and there are these things. Simultaneously, you’re making so much about everyone else, about the boys, about Tahiti, when your mom was here, about your mom. How has that been to manage that? That’s a lot for a young person to fix or make people feel better.
In the last few years of my life, more importantly, I learned so much from my mom. Watching her deal with things like paying our taxes and everything. She’s barely scraping by. Somebody needed a ride from the airport, she would call in sick to work and go pick up somebody or the simplest little things. As I was growing up, there were a lot of best friends who I had lost from drugs. We all have limited time here. I’m uncomfortable and confident with where I’m at. I know where my family is at.
I know as good as anyone, opportunity doesn’t come often. Especially with what we do and Mother Nature, when that situation presents itself, if you don’t overcome it, you’ll probably never see that wave again. Waves are never the same. I started to realize that with friends and family. When those opportunities arise, it’s like that big set wave you’ve been waiting for your whole life in a different way. It was a ride that was more rewarding than anything.
Tahiti, my wife, almost yells at me at times for putting so much effort into other people. At the same time, it’s more rewarding than anything in the world. The feeling of giving back is now starting to reward me more than accepting. The big checks, the big trophies, all that stuff is great. I love it. I’ll chase it for a long time. I’m far from over with it.
The feeling of mental and physical payback of human nature is something a lot different than anything else in life that I’ve encountered. It’s one of those things that were probably put on earth for certain things and certain people. I don’t feel like it’s my job or my duty or role but in certain situations in life, I truly belong there. I have so much to give, so much to show and share of what I’ve gone through, and using these things as motivation and inspiration to get through things. As dark as it will be, there’s always a way.
Speaking of time is short, before COVID, you were in certainly the worst accident you’ve ever been in. You were all the way in Morocco. They don’t have good care. They didn’t know what was going on. They hadn’t even taken an MRI. They had X-rays. Is that right? Do we have that?
We have the X-ray and it looks like a flip phone from 2002 took it.
I thought it was interesting because Nazaré was going off. You chose to be in Morocco because you thought that was going to be a better experience for riding, which already says a lot to me. People don’t realize the pressure that athletes, especially lifestyle athletes, are under to get to be there, to have their picture taken, to be a part of that story, whatever that story is at that moment.
It happens to a lot of people that I genuinely feel that they love what they do. The minute that they get a good job, like a world championship, maybe 2 or 3, I saw it with Laird differently, they start to move towards their own desires even more to their own reasons, “This is what I want to do. This is how I want to experience this. This is where I want to ride.”
It’s an interesting phenomenon that we have to be in the system. The system has to say to us, “Billy, good job. You’re the winner. This year, you’re number one.” That almost is like freedom if you’re built that way to start to go, “What do I want to do? What story am I telling?” That’s an important thing. That’s difficult to do as an athlete. You feel like you have to play by certain rules. You’re off in Morocco with a handful of friends, take me through what happens.
[bctt tweet=”There’s got to be something that I can do differently here because that’s not going to take me anywhere.”]
The first thing you said of doing what I want to do, that trip was because there was the first-ever towing event. As we’re going, the World Surf League had hit me up and they’re like, “We want to invite you.” It wasn’t about the money. It was about what I liked doing. I was like, “Honestly, I’m not passionate about that. It’s not who I am. It’s not truly what I want to do.” I said, “I’m going to go down to Northern Africa, to Morocco. I’m not going to your event but do you guys want to document this trip?” They were like, “Yeah. This is unique and different. Let’s do it.” It was something new. WSL hadn’t done anything similar to this. They’re like, “Let’s go.”
We went down there and we documented and surfed some of the best days of surfing in my lifetime. Were the waves 80 feet? No, they weren’t. The waves were from the 8 to 20-foot range and in unbelievable conditions. Alone in the middle of the desert surfing world-class waves with your friends. No contest jerseys on. Nobody watching on the beach. It’s just riding waves and surfing how I want to surf and not surfing how other people want me to or where they want me to. That trip was probably one of the best trips I’ve ever been on.
On the last day of the trip, the last wave of the trip, everything turned upside down. I didn’t fall in the biggest, scariest wave of my life. I didn’t fall in a way I haven’t fallen before. I fell in the wrong place at the wrong time. I ended up hitting a rock on the right side of my body, which collapsed my lung, broke my pelvis in half, and destroyed my knee, ACL, MCL, meniscus. With the medical system there and the situation that I was in, it was pretty life-threatening. They had to fly in some doctors from Amsterdam and assess me and clarify the state I was in, how stable I was. “Are his lungs able to fly to America? Do we need to take him to France?”
During that time, Laird was down at Nazaré because this was one of the biggest swells ever going through that Atlantic Ocean. He was down there with his crew. I don’t remember much of those four days I was there. The pain was blacking me out. I remember being put in contact with you or Laird. Him being in similar situations in his lifetime, I’m sure he felt that same feeling I feel in situations when it’s not friends calling for help. It’s when you feel a duty to give and to open up. It’s with my family, your family, a handful of good doctors, and the World Surf League.
Erik Logan and Dirk Ziff, I give them a lot of credit. You had to first be flown to make sure that you were safe enough to be flown all the way back to California. Where did you go first, France? You first had to go there then Greenland and then Canada.
Let’s stop in Canada and say that we’re going to shut all US borders because COVID-19 is jumping through the roof on February 29th, 2020. You’re not welcome in America. You’re sitting on a stretcher in a private plane with two doctors who don’t speak English. I don’t even know what airport in Canada I was at. I still don’t know. I know there’s snow everywhere. I’m strapped to it. To be completely honest, I still haven’t showered. I’ve slept in my own crap for 3 or 4 days. All I can think about is my children and my wife. The only thought of survival was kids and wife. I’m like, “What is going on here?”
Even when you’re athletic, you think, “I broke something. I did this.” This is life and death. This is not like, “My knee.” This is like, “Am I going to survive this?” I know that you had to be sedated because of the pain. You’re in this limbo for four days. What are you telling yourself? I know you’re thinking about the family. What’s happening?
[bctt tweet=”Problems and issues in life are things I look for because I feel like I can learn and I can gain from it.”]
It was hard. It was one of the deepest holes I’ve ever dug. It was a situation where I’ve never had to go to what my mom had gone through in life to get there. I’d never been close to anyone who had fought or had been diagnosed with cancer. My mom, three years prior to this, had passed from cancer. Knowing what she had done, who she had raised, and how she had made it through life, I can remember thinking to myself, “I’m breathing. I’m going to keep breathing if I want to. My mom gave everything to keep breathing and couldn’t. I’m 100% capable of this.”
That was where I was like, “I got nothing to cry about. It’s time to sack up and utilize what you’ve grown up learning and processing of loss and hard times as this roadmap to push through. Enter the power and strength of my mom’s fight.” I’ve seen it firsthand and it was a battle that is heavy and hard to explain. It pushed me home. It got me home. It propelled me through to get me here today. I’m not saying that people who haven’t gone through what I’ve gone through, a loss of mom or their dad, can’t get through something like that. Not at all. I was going to make it. I was in great hands.
With people like Dirk and Erik, they stepped up. These people are key players in my life. They’re not people I work for. They’re not people that I owe anything to. These are humans that I will revolve around my whole life because of their strength and because of who they are, not because of what they do, where they are in life, what they own, or what they have. It’s a relationship and a bond that we created. Not me, a group of people, yourself, your husband, my wife, my children, my doctors, we created this thing that gave me so much support where I was looking around and I’m like, “These people have my back.”
You do get back to California. You have one surgery to deal with your pelvis. Weeks later, once that’s good enough, you have to get your knee done. This is a process. People have to realize that it’s not like, “Your back. You can heal.” This takes a lot of work. You spent a lot of time away from your family because you’d have to come to California and the family would be in Hawaii. You would fly back to Hawaii to be with the family. A lot of the rehab, the doctors, and things were in California.
As somebody from the outside, it’s your ability to do 2, 3, and 4 things each day. This is also you saying, “If I’m going to be away from my family, I’m going to use every minute productively. Also, I’m going to. It’s my health. It’s my job. It’s everything.” I’m curious because I didn’t see it that often. I can’t recall seeing it. You had pity parties. You might say that it’s tough but the ability to keep that attitude, that fight. I know it’s your job and I know it’s your family.
When I saw you right away, and it wasn’t pretty, by the way, I wasn’t thinking, “I wonder if Billy’s going to walk again.” That all seemed fine. What you have to be ready for is incredibly physically demanding and dangerous. It’s not even like, “I want to walk. I want to play with my kids.” It’s this whole other side.
I was always fascinated by the relentless attitude during the recovery because there were many recoveries. There was recovery from the 1st and 2nd surgeries, from this, and this setback. There’s a lot of people who go through these things. Whether they’re athletes or not, they recover from a surgery or an injury or something. Where do you get that?
The opportunity in life to learn, to educate yourself is not often that you’re passionate about that subject. For me, one of the reasons why my life has not reconnected but came a lot closer with Laird is because of what he does, what his lifestyle is and that’s health and fitness. It’s getting yourself to feel good and be ready.
In this situation, in this time of feeling the worst I’ve ever felt by far. Never in my life have I been here ever. I’ve never sat in a wheelchair. I’m looking around me and it took a little bit to get the wheels rolling. I’ve seen in school growing up, those kids were excited to be at school and excited to get 100% on their test. I was always confused. It’s like, “Why? How are you getting 100% on your SAT?” Who gives a crap about this? I don’t. I’ll fill these out with my eyes blindfolded.
This was a situation where you know you’re getting all different kinds of people, techniques, doctors, scientists, and coaches. I found myself living in the moment and not in time and learning. Every day, I showed up to learn. I found a way to be excited and be interested in everything I did. I don’t know how it happened. You mentioned a couple of years ago looking at who I am with drugs, alcohol, and not showing any purpose or creating anything positive in my life or lifestyle. Why is it on the table if there’s nothing good coming out of it? I feel better without it. Let’s move that off the shelf.
All that happening in the year before and coming into this opportunity, COVID-19 is happening. If I wasn’t hurt, I would have been at a standstill anyway with my career, with no competition, with nothing. I look at it now and I had the best opportunity out of any athlete in the world at my time and place. At 30 years old, four kids, a wife, and in a pretty big transition time period as well as my endorsement side of things of sponsorship and everything. A big deal is about to happen but then it’s like, “This kid might not surf again.” It was pulled back from social media. I was trying to not fool people but there’s so much going on.
You don’t want to show weakness.
I didn’t want to show that this was going to be the downfall or the ending. The expectations from a majority of the people who know me or know surfing were like, “He did well. He won a world title. He won four Jaws events.”
That was great.
“He’s going to be remembered forever. One more Jaws event than anyone. This and that.” I thought that was all cool. It’s like, “Good. I’m glad you guys are thinking that.” I’m here in California with a handful of different people who are willing to open up everything for me. It wasn’t that I felt that they would be let down If I didn’t give them my 100%. To me, these people are the most knowledgeable people in the entire world. I want to learn everything. I want to know every mistake they made. I want to know every good decision and every bad decision. I wanted to learn the ins and outs, whether it was who and what Laird Hamilton does.
Dr. G or whatever you got going.
These people have worked on people who have been paralyzed, everything. I wanted to learn what fascia was, what ligament was, what swelling was, and inflammation. I wanted to know it all. As I was gaining more and learning more, I started to have people starting to reach out and ask questions. The more people asked, the more I wanted to go. The more people were coming to me, the harder I was going to train. It started this train of success. All of a sudden, there are no stop signs. At the beginning, I was hitting speed bumps, I was hitting stop signs. I felt like I was losing a lot. Back to the small victories. When I hit that turbulence of being like, “Shake it off.” I was able to walk ten steps in the pool without touching a wall or without stumbling.
[bctt tweet=”Losses became victories down the road because I was able to use them as an understanding. As soon as I get scared or get into this situation where fear is involved, I know something good is about to happen.”]
What do you tell yourself when you’re scared? For athletes, unfortunately, their livelihood hangs on it. It’s scary when you go, “I don’t know.” I’ll be honest, watching you, I thought, “This guy is going to grind it out. He’ll get there.” It felt like that. That’s what it looked like close up, from the outside. I wonder when you’re at the bottom of the pool trying to walk. You got a walker up to the side of the pool, by the way, and to get into the pool. It’s scary. You have four sons and you’ve got a wife and it’s all on you.
What I’ve discovered is that fear is temporary. It’s something that I’ve learned when I can turn that into adrenaline. There’s that fine line of those last few decisions. You have 2 or 3 left in you at the end of that pinch. Those decisions are my best decisions in life. They have been since I was 8 years old. I learned that through my upbringing, through loss, through victory.
Those decisions and fear have become my strength. This injury, this road to recovery, I felt like I was able to separate myself. I’m sure other people out there have it, for sure. I was able to find it in me and identify it and be like, “Holy crap. Everything I do in life is best at fear.” There’s always this moment of fear involved. That last decision is my best decision.
Maybe it looks like you lean into it a little bit too, Billy. There’s a lot of information about when we’re afraid to be like, “I’m afraid,” and not to hide from it or not to avoid it but to be like, “This is scary.”
Drinking and partying at a young age, I could find so many left turns and right turns to get around it. Now, in life, I love when problems face me. I like unfolding them. I like figuring out a map to get through them. Problems and issues in life are things I look for because I feel like I can learn and I can gain from it. That’s where this was like, “Great, some more problems. Bring them on.” I don’t have anything to run from or hide from. I’m completely honest and present in my family’s life and my life right now. These are all pros. There are no cons to this situation. I’m going forward.
Every day, those losses were the best losses in my life. Losing a couple of degrees of range and motion were good things. Getting in the water too early after getting my stitches removed. It’s the little things, the smallest victory. Losses became victories down the road because I was able to use them as an understanding of, “As soon as I get scared or get into this situation where fear is involved, I know something good is about to happen.”
The breakthrough. Speaking of that, I’m feeling like it happened at Dr. G. I don’t know why but you’ll tell me. We say, “I’m going to come back. I’m going to do this.” The first year, you’re like, “I’m alive.” Let’s be clear on the order of things, “I’m alive. This is the hierarchy of importance.” It then starts to hone in towards like, “I want to surf again.” When was there a moment during your recovery where you’re like, “I can see the other side. I can stand on my feet and move my legs in a way that I feel comfortable enough. Not only do I believe it in my gut but now I’m believing it in my analytical mind that I’m going to be able to surf. I can see that.”
As far as a defining moment, I remember going home the first time after being injured. I got here at the end of February 2021. I had surgery at the beginning of March 2021. I went home on April 1st, 2021. I remember going home and my kids were doing everything for me. At home, I try to take on a role, not a mother and a father. My mom cooked for everyone.
You’re on it. I see you.
I’m gone a lot. When I’m there, I try to be extra there with four limbs all at all times. I even got to use my teeth at times. Going home and having my kids see the state that I was in and them being like, “When are you going to walk again?” It’s not like, “Are you going to surf?” Hearing them and seeing my little guys, I don’t say they doubted me. They had never seen me like this, let alone see anyone in our circle in this state.
That first trip home, as much as it was rewarding, was depressing for me. Yes, I was able to see my friends. I was able to see my family and recharge the batteries. It put me in a perspective of like, “I’m going to be me. I’m not going to do this for Jaws. I’m not going to do this to win a contest or to compete on tour. I’ll do it for my kids. I’m going to get back. I’ll be me in no time.” I knew that was the quest. The majority of me is in the ocean. The majority of me is what I do on a surfboard. That was probably at the top of the priority list, like, “There’s a lot of work cut out. How am I going to approach this? Am I setting goals, timelines, contests, this, and that?”
[bctt tweet=”It’s the fulfillment about being passionate in life, like wearing your emotions on your sleeves, being honest, and finding solutions.”]
It took a while to roadmap out and figure out, “What do I want to do? Let’s be honest with me. Do I want to go back to competing? Do I want to go back to that lifestyle?” After a couple of months of training and starting to see some progress, it’s like, “I know exactly where I am. I know exactly where I’m going.” It then became this thing of like, “I’m not training to come back. I’m training to be better.” I have an opportunity. I have outlets. I have people that have never asked for help from whom I had to ask. I had to go out of my way. I had to ask for help.
I was in that one time in my entire life where I was helpless. I couldn’t do anything. I was depressed. I was in a place that I hadn’t been. That being said, it was in a time of my life where I was like, “I don’t want to be me. I want to be better than who I was.” I have so many things I can learn about to better myself. Also, steer my family into a life that I’ve been trying to get to. This was the time and place for me to not fix all my wrongs but utilize all the bad decisions I’ve made and utilize all the bad relationships to focus on what’s important and that was my family and my circle of people. With that, when you bite down and focus on that, everything else comes with the wind.
Sometimes people don’t realize that in life, a lot of us will occur a knockout punch. Something will happen within a relationship or, in your case, maybe it was this accident. I’ve had things with Laird. We’ve had situations where it was like a knockout punch. When you come up and you get oriented, sometimes everyday living is like the speed bag. It’s the beat and it’s constant. I was like, “Sometimes I rather get the one knockout punch that jolts us into this next better place even though it’s hard.”
The speed bag, it’s there. You’re enduring it. Is it alcohol? Is it not communication in a relationship? Is it something that your kids are going through that they’re not communicating? A knockout punch is brutal but it can catapult you into these better places if you can endure, get over, move on, forget, whatever the things are, change, and things like that. You’re showing a defined example of this.
I want to ask you something as a dad. You have four sons. I get asked a lot about, “Do you want your daughters to be athletes?” Athletes are interesting. You’re in a lifestyle sport so it’s different from ball and stick and we were talking about that. A lot of times, lifestyles, athletes, they’re connected to their environment as well. It’s like the mountain or the ocean or what have you. A lot of times, ball and stick. Yes, we’ve loved it. For a lot of people, it was an opportunity, it was a way out, it was an overcompensation, fear. A lot of things that are not positive create great champions.
You have your children and you are trying. This is for my own curiosity. I’m always interested. You try to build this life. You try to be peaceful in your relationships, in your conduct, hard-working, and things like this. When you see your boys, you don’t have to live vicariously through them. You have your own identity. Do you go, “I want them to do that? “Do you see the other side of when everything’s pretty nice at home? What can occur? I’ve wondered about your experience with that as a father.
It’s such a frequently asked question, “Do your kids surf? Are they going to surf big waves?” I don’t care what they’re doing. For me, it’s another thing in life where I feel like I have the opportunity to give something that I didn’t have. It’s the fulfillment about being passionate in life, like wearing your emotions on your sleeves, being honest, and finding solutions.
What I’ve brought to my kids’ attention is it’s not about you having to do this or do that. it’s like, “Do you want to ride a boogie board? Do you want to go skateboarding? Do you want to play basketball? Do you want to make music at home on your iPad? Are you guys doing that because you love it? Are you doing it because somebody else is doing it and you think it’s cool?”
It’s hard. I do what I do so seriously at times and I take life on. My kids see that sometimes. They’re probably like, “We never want to be a surfer.” At the same time, to be able to share that with my kids and at home. As far as the outlook on this whole thing, it’s keeping it organic, it’s keeping a family moving without force. I’ve noticed that by forcing things and doing that, the outcome is synthetic.
It’s hard to do it though, isn’t it?
It is. To trust your instincts with children, with family is hard. You know it. I know your daughters. To trust your instinct with a child is like, “Breathe.” It’s not normal. At the same time, what they learn on their own is more knowledgeable than what we can physically tell them. That being said, to be able to position them in a nice home with positive parents and health is everything. I try not to speak for other people or get involved with other people. To lead by example is the best thing we can do. You do it. I look to you guys for answers.
I know nothing. Have you met my daughters? Who’s telling them anything? I left one of them a message. We’re talking because she’s going her own route. I said, “I realized that we all have a path. Sometimes it’s maybe a traditional path. In the end, in the long run, there’s a fruitfulness to it but it is unknown. It’s harder. It can be scarier. You have to go through that. As your parent, I want you to know, I understand that.”
That goes back to your knockout punch. When you’re thinking about that, I didn’t want to talk over you. A speed bag is what you deal with every day. That becomes a routine. A routine becomes normal. All of a sudden, you get knocked out unconscious and you don’t know where you are. That’s not normal. I feel like with Reece, she’s encountering something that’s not normal and scared. With fear, with that being said, you start to explore. When you explore, you find what you’re put here for. That’s how being knocked out put me on the best ride of my life.
You recover and you go surf the first wave back. We all have mind chatter, the monkey mind, “You can’t do that. What are you doing? Who do you think you are? Don’t do this. Don’t do that.” All big wave riders will tell you the worst thing you can do is to hesitate. Number one, you’re either going or you’re not. At least that’s my understanding. What are you thinking?
My first wave back was in Waikiki with my wife. The waves were about six inches.
By the way, Tahiti is not a surfer.
My wife is terrified of the ocean.
That’s important for people to know.
We’ve been together. We’re over ten years. I can count on almost a little more than one hand. She’s probably surfed seven times in over ten years. All of a sudden, this is a complete shock out of its own. I was like, “It’s Father’s Day. Let’s go paddling. I’m not going to stand up.” We’re out there hanging out with our friends and we get this little wave and I was hesitating. I paddled on this wave. I told her to stand up and I stood up without even thinking.
I remember my feet touching the wax. Something that was so familiar to me, that felt so new. It’s like you’re going and gripping sand the first time you’ve got back. I hate saying the word rebirth or reborn but it was almost like my first real breath of oxygen. It’s what I breathe. That’s what I do. That was like, “Holy crap.” It opened up a different caliber of life that I didn’t ever experience. I’ve never fought back from something like this or physically had to deal with something like this.
The wave was six inches but I remember what that wave gave. It didn’t tell me, “I’m back.” What it did give me was this feeling of being so unfamiliar with something I’m obsessed with. I’m addicted to this. It’s not a part of my life. I’m a part of it. I’m a part of the ocean. I belong there. Feeling this was like, “Okay.” It motivates you to get back and work a little harder and stronger. You’re talking to your doctors. You’re getting clear.
“I’m I allowed?”
You start knocking on the door. I’m knocking 3, 4 times a day. It’s like, “Come on, guys. It’s that time.” The first surf back, my first real-time riding waves was in freshwater on a manmade wave up in Lamar. Thank you, Erik Logan, Kelly Slater, Dirk, Graham Stapelberg. You guys all made a wave that’s great for me. Mother Nature is one thing but to be able to do it in a controlled environment by yourself was iconic. It was such a monumental moment for me.
[bctt tweet=”It’s not about beating red, yellow, green, or blue. It’s about me beating myself. It’s about overcoming that last bit of Billy. That’s where I will make myself the best.”]
Not having to worry that another rider or a ski getting picked up, white water. It’s like, “I can focus on one part.”
It felt like those days of paddling out when my friend said no and they weren’t paddling out. It felt like that moment of fear getting into that area where you’re alone where it’s dark for a second. You’re scared and then this wave pops up. That last decision is my best decision and it’s to keep going forward. Surfing that day put it into perspective so much more of not the career. I always try to say that it’s not about the career or any of that. It’s about riding the waves. As much as I say that, I’m such a competitive person. For me, it is so much about the wins.
Laird asked me that. He goes, “Why does he need to be the best?” I said, “You could ask him for anything.” Besides your why, which I get, he’s like, “Why do you need to be the best?”
With real love and real passion, you become territorial. Position me anything in the world. As soon as you say go, if it’s a contest, I’m going to go till the end and keep going until I get on top. I don’t know where that came from in me but it’s there. I don’t know how long it’ll be there. While it’s there, I enjoy it. I enjoy the challenge. It’s not about beating them.
I’ve been doubted a lot. The feeling of outdoing doubt and finding a way to win, that’s not normal. Finding a way to win where I’m doing what I love doing, I can’t get enough of it. When it comes to competing at Pe’ahi, it’s different from anywhere in the world. A lot of it has to do with preparation, with what it takes to get there. I’m obsessed with what happens leading up to that moment because I know in myself that I’ve done it over and over.
If I do what I’m not supposed to do, if I do more than what’s expected, if I can sit out there and look around and know that I can outwork anybody in this lineup and I’m that confident mentally, I know that I’m the best. It’s not about beating red, yellow, green, or blue. It’s about me beating myself. It’s about overcoming that last bit of Billy. That’s where I will make myself the best.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about big wave riding?
When I was a kid, being a younger pro surfer, or a younger kid wasn’t normal. Surfing big waves wasn’t normal, for one. If you’re going to compete, go on the CT and you’ve got to be the next Kelly Slater. That’s what it was supposed to be. You have these random astronauts like Laird, Double D, and Dave who are not normal. There weren’t contests for them. If there were contests, they probably wouldn’t have done them. What does this do for us? What does this take us away from? What will this do for us in the second chapter of life? This isn’t forever.
Have you told Laird that?
He’s moved on.
That’s right. He’s getting older.
He’s gone faster.
He can’t find big where there’s no humans. There’s something interesting though that people think, “These guys aren’t afraid. Look at them, they’re crazy. They don’t have fear.” That’s not the case.
It’s fighting fear. It’s that tipping point of the people who turn fear into adrenaline. It’s our meditation. I’m not trying to get all spiritual but it is. That’s our flow state. That’s where we belong. There’s a handful of people on earth that belong in those situations. What would Kobe Bryant have been doing if he wasn’t on a basketball court? We probably wouldn’t be alive. There’s a lot of us that wouldn’t and it saved us. The fear saved our life. Being scared and being put in life-threatening situations has saved me, has bettered me, has made me make better decisions, and it’s taken me away from all the BS online.
Billy, I know that you are older by a few years than your brother lived on this planet. Do you ever reflect and think, “His inspiration has helped me transcend what he was able to accomplish.” It’s pretty beautiful.
That has a lot to do with my mom, too. When you see someone suffer, how can I make bad into good? How do I convert it? You know it as a mother. I know it as a father now to see happiness in your children. What better reward in the world? That’s the goal of life. My whole life, it was me. Now, it’s them. For me, it sucked to have to do what I did at a young age but it taught me to make my mom proud and utilize certain things for adrenaline and fear rather than going down a bad route. That was what brought light to my mom’s life. That’s what made her better. When she was better, I was better. When we were better, life was better. That’s the situation now. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still is me.
We all need parts of that. We have to know how to take care of ourselves so we can take care of other people in our life. I’m bringing to light that a figure that you looked up to that you were inspired by helped propel you beyond where he was able to go. That is a beautiful continuation of that story.
My brother, Carl, puts in a good perspective. My brother, Eric, walked in big shoes. I felt like I was playing catch-up. I wanted to be him. He left a legacy. It’s something not for me to live up to but more roots to grab on to. I had something to hold on to. I had something to carry with me. Whether it was a torch, pride, love, fear, I had something to keep moving me forward. It’s the little things.
I remember one of my last conversations with my brother, Eric. He told me that he was going to be in it and that he was going to run it and he’s going to win it. I remember getting my first invitation. I have the trophy in my room. I haven’t surfed in the event because since they’ve invited me, it hasn’t run. Given that invitation, if you asked me right now what’s my biggest accomplishment? What’s my biggest achievement in life? It’s getting that trophy.
For much of my life, it was an echoing thing. I’ve accomplished a lot to make my mom and my brother proud. That one thing, that’s it. I did that. I brought it to him. As weird as it sounds, I do feel like that is something. I’m proud of it. It’s been quite a bit of time since then. I still reflect and I still admire those times so much even though it’s been so long.
[bctt tweet=”Things happen for a reason.”]
I would never have wished, knowing you, to have to go through such a catastrophic injury. I encourage anyone if they want to see your documentary, BILLY. That is a six-part series. I don’t care what waves you ride or have ridden. The thing that I admire, there are many things. To watch you recover from that injury was astounding. The attitude, the tenacity, the rigor, everything that you approached because it was a reminder. We’re talking about serious obstacles. Foot by foot, step by step, you got after it.
There are people who are reading this and they have something that they’re dealing with or they have an injury, maybe they think they’ll never recover from and maybe they won’t fully. The other thing is sometimes we become better in other ways. In some things, we’ll always have this thing that we’ve got to deal with it. We can still perform, meaning show up in our lives. Besides that, beyond that, watching you with your boys, watching you with Tahiti, that’s the thing about us. The spirit in what you do and all those things allows you to ride big waves. That’s sexy and cool. People will give you trophies for that. It’s ultimately who you are. I appreciate you. Thanks for hanging out with me.
Thank you. When I was a teenager, I learned so much from Laird. You get into these stages of life or you become selfish and you’re like, “Eff everyone else. This is my territory. This is what I want to do. I’m going to do me.” The circle of life for me was my children and my wife. I hopped on a whole different boat. I was driving this dinghy around and now all of a sudden, I’m on a big old ship.
From where life brought me back around, things happen for a reason. What your family does, this is the example of drafting and propelling from people. What you guys have here is what I see. Every day, I’m here. Whether we’re training, eating dinner, arguing, there’s so much to gain and learn from it because of what you guys have already done. For me, I come here to be ears.
Smart. I want to be ears. Billy Kemper, thank you for coming in and showing up in your life in an inspiring way.
Thank you for inspiring me.
Thanks so much for reading. If you’d like, rate, subscribe and leave us a review. All of my music was graciously done by Frank Zummo and Tom Thacker. If you want to see some of the behind-the-scenes action, follow me, @GabbyReece. Remember, don’t miss new episodes every Monday.
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About Billy Kemper
Growing up on the island of Maui comes with underlying expectations to achieve a high level of success in the water—and to say that Billy Kemper has exceeded those expectations would be an understatement; it’s more like he has obliterated them. Only 30 years old, the 4-time Pe’ahi Challenge Champion has etched his name among the best big wave surfers of all time.
It’s not just Billy Kemper’s surfing that people admire him for, but also his capacity to stand up in the face of adversity. Having dealt with several traumatic events over the course of his career, Billy has still secured victories in several WQS events at Sunset Beach, won multiple XXL Ride of the Year awards, became the Big Wave Tour World Champion, and dominated the lineup at Jaws, among other accolades.