When Billy Kemper won the Pe'ahi Challenge in 2015, some called it a fluke. When he backed it up in 2016–taking home $75k for Ride of the Year in the process–that fluke became a pattern. Then, when he just barely missed a three-peat, finishing second to Ian Walsh in firing Jaws last October, that pattern became outright domination.
But for Kemper, that wasn't enough.
He was angry with his second place at Jaws. But rather than dwell on it, he turned that anger into fuel.
While he came up just short to Lucas Chianca in the final of the Nazaré Challenge, it didn't matter: By finishing higher than Kai Lenny in the final (Lenny got fourth), Kemper leap-frogged him in the rankings, and, since there wasn't a big enough swell to run Mavericks before the waiting period ended today, that was enough for Kemper to secure his first Big Wave Tour championship.
We caught up with Kemper in his North shore home to hear how he's feeling.
First off, congrats.
Thank you so much. I’m a bit overwhelmed with all of the emails I’m getting right now.
Are you home at the moment?
Yeah, I’m home. My family and I made the move to Oahu from Maui a few years ago, so I’m a full-time North Shore resident now. I’m actually getting ready to go on a snow trip, and from my snow trip the WSL is flying me to Australia to get crowned world champ, and then I’m flying straight back to the snow.
Yeah, for sure. But it’ll all be worth it when I get to call myself a world champion.
Definitely! Speaking of which. Last year, when we spoke after you won Ride of the Year at the Big Wave Awards, you said winning a Big Wave World Title was next up on your list of major goals. How does it feel to accomplish that feat so quickly?
I actually put a lot of pressure on myself for it. As I spoke about it last year, my family has been going through a really hard time, with my mom being sick, battling for her life with cancer. Even though I’m healthy and strong, I feel like I have so much to do in so little time, to show my mom that I’m not just a dad, I’m not just a guy who’s won some contests, but that I can be a world champion for her. I’m absolutely blown away that I did it and that it happened so quick.
This season saw three of four possible events run, and you made all three finals. What’s your secret to consistency in such an unpredictable ocean?
To tell you the truth, I was really let down by the majority of my performances this year. Puerto was hard for me — I wasn’t training because I was coming off an injury, so I was out of shape. My whole game plan when I’m in a jersey is to win, but going into that event I told myself I’d be happy to make the final, which I did, but I was so fatigued that I had no gas left.
Coming home to compete at Jaws, I put a lot more pressure on myself this year than I had both years prior. And then coming up short, getting a runner-up, I felt like I had lost in the first round. I was angry. I felt like a child. I really took it to the heart and I was so let down in the way that it ended.
I walked away from that event and I went back to my coach, Kahea [Hart], and my family and at that point, I wanted to make it a point to learn, not lose. I knew Mavericks and Nazaré were still left, and I was right there in the running for the title, so I forgot about getting second at Jaws and put all my focus on winning the world title.
At Nazaré, all I wanted was a win. But it’s hard–you’re dealing with big waves and Mother Nature and you can’t ever predict anything. But I prepared myself mentally and physically to where I had everything set up, all I had to do was perform and do what I do best. From there, everything just seemed to fall into place right where it belonged.
Being that it’s weighted with more points than Puerto or Nazaré, that runner-up result at Jaws was a huge part of your world title. It must feel pretty special looking back. In three years competing out there, you’ve only lost to one surfer [Ian Walsh].
Yeah, for sure, and my family helped me realize that. I know it’s easy for others to see, but it’s harder for me, because I was so close [to winning three years straight].
But yeah, in large part thanks to that result my name is on a new list [of world champions], and I’m forever grateful for that. It means so much.
When my mom first got sick, I almost wanted to stop surfing. It was hard for me to find motivation. But my mom told me there’s one thing she wants, and that’s for me to keep doing what I’m doing. She told me the second I stop competing and stop doing what I love, is when she’ll stop fighting. That was the start to the fire. Since then I’ve just been pushing forward.
And it’s not just the big wave thing. Obviously that’s something I’m really pursuing, but I like competing in other events just as much. To start 2018 off with a win at the Sunset Open–it might have only been a QS1000–but, as far as motivation, and something to start my year off right, it was exactly what I needed. I set my goals the same in 2-foot waves as I do in 50-foot waves. I surf every heat the same.
Back to your world title for a second. You took the ratings lead after your runner-up finish in Portugal. Afterwards, knowing there was about a month for the Mavericks event to possibly run, did you hope for the chance to compete out there this year, or did you kinda hope the ocean would go flat?
To tell you the truth, I was so pissed off we didn’t run Mavs that Monday after the Jaws swell. I would take Mavs over Nazaré any second, any day of the year. For me it’s Jaws and then Mavs. I love that wave, and I’ve had some really good sessions out there, so I’m really excited to put on a jersey out there.
But when it came down to it, we were in the 9th inning, so it was the right call to run another event [at Nazaré]. It’s really hard to call someone a world champion after only one or two events. And had Mavs run, I would have been ready, 200 percent.
I talked to Kevin at Surfline and it was pretty obvious, even going into Nazaré, that there was nothing out there [for Mavs to run]. So I was pretty confident it was going to end right there at Nazaré.
I don’t think a lot of people knew what was on the line. But I did. That was the best second place I’ve ever gotten in my life [laughs]. I was crying after the horn blew, because I knew what was on the line out there, and what I had likely just accomplished. On the podium, I was just as psyched as Lucas [Chianca], if not more. Going into that final, Kai [Lenny] and I both knew what was on the line. Basically, whoever finished higher would win the world title. I knew that. He knew that. I had that in my mind. And that was my gameplan and my approach that entire event.
Kai has the heart of a world champion — he is a world champion in other sports. But this is my court, and I’m not ready to hand the ball over that easily.
We grew up together, we were wrestling in diapers. There’s no hard feelings, it’s nothing but great competitiveness between us. He made me step up to the plate and train that much harder, and do things like go to Nazaré and compete somewhere I’m not usually that stoked on.
I was calling Snips [Mike Parsons, Big Wave Commissioner] every day, asking when the event was gonna run. I didn’t care if it was 12-foot and onshore or 80-feet and offshore, I just wanted the event to happen, because I wanted this opportunity.
I had everything to gain, and I’m stoked to make it happen. As it turned out, the waves weren’t great, but we’re not gonna have every event in 60-foot glassy barrels – that shit just doesn’t happen very often. People have to realize riding big boards in big waves isn’t always pretty.
Same with the 'CT. Not every event is gonna be firing.
Exactly. But you gotta have a lot of heart and determination to come out on top. I have a family and kids, and a mom who’s fighting for her life, and for me to step away from all of that and put my mind towards one thing was really hard. I feel like I did for my family, more than for myself. I’m so stoked to share this with everybody.
Just like my first Jaws win, I don’t want people to think this was accidental, so I’m just as fired up as ever. I’m gonna train harder than ever and I’m ready to make a statement. I’ll be back to back it up.
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