On Saturday, Hawaiian Keala Kennelly accepted the award for the Women’s Big Wave World Title for her performance at the 2018 Jaws Challenge in Maui – making her the world’s first lesbian world champion surfer.
In her acceptance speech, Kennelly spoke passionately about her time in the closet and called on fellow LGBT+ athletes to embrace their identities.
“How many of you knew what you wanted to be when you were seven years old?” she said. “I did. I wanted to be a world champion.”
She added “I wasn’t dreaming big enough. Now I’m part of an elite group of athletes pushing the limits of what humans are even capable of.
“I needed to dream bigger because when I was 25, I was hiding in the closet, soaked in shame, living in fear and I hated myself. I didn’t think you could be world champion and gay at the same time.
“Now I get to be the first openly gay world champion. I get to be proud of who I am and I get to love myself exactly as I am, not as people would want me to be. It’s my hope that I’m going to inspire other LGBT athletes that are suffering in silence to live your truth.”
The champion surfer also spoke about her efforts to close the gender pay gap between male and female athletes. As a member of the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing, a coalition formed by six leading female surfers in 2016, she was one of the key advocates behind a decision by the World Surf League last year to grant equal pay to female surfers in all its competitions from 2019 onwards.
“Big wave surfing risks are the same for everyone,” she said, speaking on the issue last year. “It’s like female soldiers going out to war. Maybe they don’t run quite as fast as men, but they’re putting their lives on the line, and when they’re shot they’re just as dead. Would you pay women soldiers less?”
When she was 25, she said in Saturday’s acceptance speech, the pay gap was much wider than it is now.
“Now I get to be world champion with equal pay,” she said. “Dream the big crazy dreams because you never know which ones are gonna come true.”
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