A teary-eyed Billy Kemper is celebrating his first WSL Big Wave Tour (BWT) World Title, now that the 2017 big-wave season has officially come to a close. The 27-year-old Maui surfer finished the season on top after turning in strong runner-up finishes at the Pe’ahi Challenge on Maui and the Nazaré Challenge in Portugal. With time running out on the Mavericks Challenge event window, the Final heat in Nazaré is what clinched Kemper the World Title over his lifelong friend and rival, Kai Lenny.
While Kemper is a two-time winner of the Pe’ahi Challenge, every other stop on the Big Wave World Tour was a source of frustration, as up until this season he’d failed to advance out of a single heat. This year, however, his tireless training and nutrition routine served him well. When he opened the season in Mexico with a fourth place finish at the Puerto Escondido Challenge, Kemper knew the work was paying off. When he won the 2017/2018 Title, this is what he had to say.
WSL: Let’s start with a big congratulations. You’re the World Champion. That must feel pretty good.
Billy Kemper: Man, when I just saw your text come through it really hit me. This is the best I’ve felt in so long. It’s been such an emotional year for me, the ups and downs have been insane. My wife and I had our second baby a few weeks after the Puerto [Mexico] contest. He came a month early but he’s happy and healthy. But at the same time my mom’s battling Stage 4 cancer, which I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Chemo didn’t work at all. So to be able to pull this off while she’s here is everything I can ask for. This World Title is hers. I’m calling my mom the World Champion. I’m so grateful for this moment.
Did you realize what was at stake as you paddled out into the Final in Nazaré?
Oh yeah. I knew exactly what was at stake. I knew there was a good chance that it would be the last event of the season, and that I had to finish in front of Kai if I wanted to have a shot. I knew there was a World Title on the line. I’ve known Kai forever. He was in my mom’s day care when he was a little kid. Our families have known each other since before we were born, so we’re close, and we push each other. I think we both felt the tension before that Final. We shook hands ahead of time though. I’m a huge fan of Kai’s, and he knows that. I knew going in that I had more experience in contests though, just from all the Qualifying Series (QS) experience I’ve built up over the years, and it’s helped me a lot in big wave events.
You didn’t have much luck last year in Portugal. How did you your approach differ this year?
Well, what makes Nazaré so heavy is that there’s not a lot of reward for the punishment you take, y’know? It’s such a gnarly wave, and honestly, it’s not my favorite. At least at Jaws [Pe’ahi] you can get the biggest barrel of your life. So the first thing I had to do was get past that, and Kahea Heart, who’s really my coach and trainer, he was the one who really put my mind in the right place heading into that one. He said, ‘Just picture yourself going home right now. You’re there to put on a show. Just take it wave by wave and have fun with it.’ That was exactly the reset I needed in my head, and it’s a huge testament to his coaching ability.
I surfed as smart as I could in that Final. I couldn’t get a big score to save my life. Got an okay one mid-way through. But with 10 minutes to go I knew Lucas [Chianca] was going to own the left. That kid is amazing out there. So I just went over and held my ground on the right. I got behind Kai and I wasn’t going to let him past me. I would have paddled him up to France if I had to just to stay in position for my last wave, which is what put me in second.
So you knew you didn’t win the event, but sensed you’d nabbed something bigger?
Oh yeah. I was super excited because the whole game plan came together. I was throwing a few fist pumps back on shore and guys were looking at me all confused like, ‘Dude, why you claiming it?’ Haha. But I knew. I was like, ‘You have no idea what this means.’
You’re a very driven and determined individual. What’s fueling that? Family for sure. My mom, Lisa, of course. But just being a husband and a dad now to four kids at home: Nyjah, Zyah, Haze and Lion. My wife, Tahiti, she does such an incredible job with them while I’m out there chasing my dream. I’m gone a lot during the season. I’ve been working with Kahea forever now. He’s been another huge source of motivation. He took me under his wing when I was about 19, and he’s so good with both the mental and the physical. From September to October we work out together five days a week, and on a lot of those days we’re doing two-a-days. And it’s not like he’s standing there watching me, he’s right there with me: swimming laps, doing burpees, the whole thing. He’s so gnarly. He’s got all these certifications now, and he’s 47 years old and he still rips so hard. In fact, there’s no other trainer out there who rips as hard as he does. That’s just a fact. But he’s just as good with his mental advice. He’s not happy or satisfied if I finish second, but if I make a mistake everything comes out so smooth. I never lose, I only learn.
How did your first victory at Pe’ahi change your career outlook?
It’s funny because that first year I think a lot of people thought it was a fluke that I won. To a certain extent that motivated me even more. I was super tired after that Final, so right after that event I hooked up with Matt and Cherie Chan, these other friends of mine who are nutritionists. I was like ‘how do I better myself?’ They put together this program for me and when I was combining that formula with Kahea’s workouts…I mean, the next year I felt invincible out there. When the Final ended after my second win I could have surfed for three more hours. It was a huge difference. And I’ve grown up competing in NSSA [National Scholastic Surfing Association], and doing QS events. I love surfing in all kinds of conditions. But once the WSL locked down Jaws as a Big Wave Tour stop, that’s when I started to look at a big-wave career as an opportunity. The idea of being a World Champ took precedent over trying to qualify for the CT. But my dream now is to win the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing. In a lot of ways I feel like my career is just starting. I love it, too, because focusing on big waves gives me a lot more time at home.
Lest we forget, you won the QS event at Sunset this year. That was just days after your runner-up at Pe’ahi too. Did that feel like a little redemption?
I’m not going to lie, coming second this year at Jaws hurt. That was a painful one because I basically gave Ian [Walsh] the winning wave in the Final without realizing it. I was looking for 10-point rides after seeing his Semifinal, and I held my priority longer than I should have. He ended up getting a 6-point ride underneath my priority that gave him the win. That was the hardest second place to take ever. So when I got to Sunset I was pretty ice-cold emotionally that day. But the nice thing was I kept making it through heats and my mom was there. Where I’m at in my life…and what’s going on with her…my family is everything. All I want right now is to be with them. So to win in front of her and to be able to thank here while she’s here was something I’m so grateful for. Again, she’s the real champion.