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It’s early 2017 on the NSW north coast and Stu Kennedy, that rock-jawed fire­ball who ig­nited last year’s Quik­sil­ver Pro on tran­scen­dent craft, has ev­ery rea­son to be feel­ing up­beat. In a cou­ple of months he will de­but on the WCT as an of­fi­cial qual­i­fier, buoyed by the knowl­edge that world champs Slater, Fan­ning, Me­d­ina and Florence were all amongst his scalps when joust­ing as a wild­card in 2016. Then, there’s the new model he’s got com­ing out with Dan Tom­son and Firewire Slater De­signs in April – the SKX will be slightly longer and more con­ven­tional in shape than the Sci-Phi, but still fea­ture those se­duc­tive bot­tom con­tours that reg­u­larly al­lowed Stu to make the jump to light speed while com­pet­ing in 2016. As he pre­pares for the 2017 tour, Kennedy is also about to start build­ing on a new block of land over the hill at his beloved Len­nox Head. “Yep, shed­ding the skin of the white snake and get­ting on with it,” he quips in ref­er­ence to his own dis­tinctly blonde fea­tures, be­fore ex­plain­ing that he’s lived in the same house since he was 13 – the same one he bought off his Mum when he was flush with spon­sor­ship cash as a cocky 19-year-old who seemed set to con­quer the surf­ing world.

Now 27, it’s been a long jour­ney for Kennedy to ar­rive at a point in his life where he seems poised to reach his full po­ten­tial. As a ju­nior, Kennedy earned a rep­u­ta­tion as ball of ir­re­pres­sive, snow-capped am­bi­tion who could steam­roll op­po­si­tion at will with his ag­gres­sive at­tack. At age 18, in an era when the Aus­tralian ju­nior se­ries was at its strong­est and a con­test win could net a teenager six or seven grand (now its closer to two), he won the cir­cuit with four con­tests in hand. His nat­u­ral self­con­fi­dence was fur­ther boosted by a Rip Curl con­tract that guar­an­teed him over $100,000 a year for five years be­fore in­cen­tives. “I think I made 180k one year,” he re­calls.

For a time in his youth Stu’s sin­gle-minded am­bi­tion helped him cre­ate an air of in­vin­ci­bil­ity. When he found out that Rip Curl sta­ble­mates, Matt Wilkinson and Owen Wright, had con­tracts, which stip­u­lated they re­ceived a wild­card into the Rip Curl Pro Bells, Stu re­quested the same clause be added to his own con­tract. Ac­cord­ing to Stu he even­tu­ally had to beat both of them in an in­ter­nal Rip Curl surf off to claim his first of three wild­card slots into Bells.

How­ever, de­spite the abun­dance of tal­ent, the moun­tain of ex­pec­ta­tion and the ob­vi­ous pos­ses­sion of the ruth­less streak that is of­ten nec­es­sary at the elite sport­ing level, Kennedy strug­gled to make the tran­si­tion from dec­o­rated ju­nior to WCT qual­i­fier. Toil­ing on the WQS there were mo­ments when his CT destiny seemed within reach, but some­where along the way the aura of in­tim­i­dat­ing, chan­neled ag­gres­sion was swal­lowed by self-doubt and volatil­ity.

Look­ing back, Kennedy claims a com­bi­na­tion of mis­for­tune and poor man­age­ment were partly re­spon­si­ble for his fail­ings. Af­ter win­ning the six-star Prime in Tas­ma­nia in 2010, a se­ries of other solid re­sults fol­lowed and put him in a solid po­si­tion to qual­ify for the WCT. How­ever, a bro­ken an­kle put a hand­brake on his CT quest and when he fi­nally did re­turn to com­pe­ti­tion he was un­der pres­sure to ful­fil obli­ga­tions with his spon­sors. “Rip Curl wanted me to pull out of three six stars to do a Search trip … I was say­ing, ‘but don’t you want me to qual­ify?’ and they were say­ing, ‘yeah we do, but we also want you to do these trips for mar­ket­ing.’ They

were pay­ing the bills so I did it, but it was prob­a­bly poor man­age­ment at the time… I think I still fin­ished 10 or 12 spots out that year.” By the time his five-year con­tract was due for re­newal, Kennedy’s re­sults weren’t re­flect­ing ex­pec­ta­tions and the re­la­tion­ship with Rip Curl had soured. With the ben­e­fit of hind­sight, Stu ac­knowl­edges that he didn’t al­ways have the best out­look. “I prob­a­bly had the wrong at­ti­tude. I was a bit of a spoilt brat with it … You’re 18 and you’ve got that sort of money com­ing to you, you think you’re fuck­ing killing it. ”

While in­sist­ing he’s still grate­ful for his time at Rip Curl and doesn’t hold a grudge, Kennedy still wishes things were han­dled dif­fer­ently.

“They were a sick com­pany to ride for ... I just don’t think some of the de­ci­sions that get made are the right ones, given how long our ca­reers can be. I mean at 22 you haven’t even come close to hit­ting your peak. They in­vested so much money in me and then there was just noth­ing … no of­fer on the ta­ble what­so­ever. They could have just gone, most guys on the WQS tour get 30 or 40 grand, bring it back to that… Maybe they could have just made it $50,000 orig­i­nally and said you’re with us till you’re 30 and if you get to the tour then this is what you will get paid.”

With­out the sup­port of a ma­jor spon­sor Kennedy, the seem­ingly un­stop­pable kid who had promised so much, found him­self con­tem­plat­ing the va­lid­ity of his surf­ing ca­reer while si­mul­ta­ne­ously con­fronting the prospect of be­com­ing a young fa­ther.

How­ever, while one pro­fes­sional re­la­tion­ship dis­in­te­grated an­other was rekin­dled. Dan Tom­son and Stu have a friend­ship that ex­tends well back into Kennedy’s youth. Both grew up un­der the spell of Len­nox Head’s long, rop­ing walls. When Stu was younger he lived fur­ther back from the beach and would reg­u­larly run the six or seven km’s to the point for a surf af­ter school. Of­ten it was Dan who saved his legs and gave the de­ter­mined 11-year-old a ride home. “He al­ways struck me as

a re­ally ma­ture kid,” re­mem­bers Dan. “And re­ally funny too. He was a real cheeky lit­tle bug­ger … his surf­ing al­ways had that X fac­tor, that flashy style and that speed that he still has now.” “I use to stay at his place be­cause it was right down on the beach,” re­calls Stu. “In the sum­mer hol­i­days I’d claim a room and pretty much not come home. He’s about eight or nine years older so it was a real big brother sort of thing.”

In his ju­nior ca­reer Stu rode Tom­son’s boards spo­rad­i­cally and re­mem­bers win­ning an Aus­tralian Grom-Search ti­tle on one, but when Stu’s pro­file and ju­nior ca­reer took off, Tomo was on a diver­gent path – hang­ing out in Amer­ica im­mersed in the process of rid­ing, re­search­ing and shap­ing fish boards.

By 2012, when Stu­art was strug­gling to find form on the WQS, Dan was de­vel­op­ing a low vol­ume per­for­mance model that in­cor­po­rated all of his knowl­edge of fish de­signs. “I was freak­ing out at how these com­pletely dif­fer­ent boards, these lit­tle rec­tan­gles, were to­tally go­ing be­yond any­thing I’d ever rid­den,” re­calls Tom­son. While an ex­cited Tom­son be­gan talks with Firewire about his new de­sign he also urged Stuey to try them. “I told him this stuff is go­ing to blow up … it’s the ticket … I’ve cracked the code.”

Ac­cord­ing to Tom­son Stu­art jumped on the boards straight away and the re­sults were spec­tac­u­lar. “It was just lu­nacy. Big ro­ta­tion airs and just ab­so­lutely go­ing men­tal… We just backed each other one hun­dred per­cent and he re­ally be­lieved in what I was do­ing. Stuey was re­ally in­te­gral to me get­ting that off the ground and it was a real home­com­ing for our friend­ship.”

The two old friends re­con­nected and caused a stir on the WQS when Stuey started show­ing up to con­tests on the strange craft with the rec­tan­gu­lar out­lines and tri­an­gu­lar noses and the crazy names like The Death Star, the Vader and the Van­guard. “They were pretty wild look­ing boards but re­ally, re­ally good,” re­mem­bers Stu. So many peo­ple were quick to write it off but they ob­vi­ously don’t know much about surf­boards. I just copped it on the chin and kept work­ing with it.”

When Tom­son lists the di­men­sions and talks about the de­signs it’s ap­par­ent how ex­treme they must have looked along­side all the other reg­u­la­tion boards in con­tests. “Just re­ally minis­cule boards. They were 5’1’ x 17 1/4 x 2’ un­der 20 litres. … but he was go­ing ham on them. Those early boards were all about hav­ing max­i­mum rail line on the small­est pos­si­ble board which al­lowed him to do in­cred­i­ble ma­noeu­vres be­cause A: he had less drag and more con­trol over the board be­cause it was so tiny and B: It’s kind of like a skate­board or a wake­board that’s cen­tred un­der his feet.”

Al­though many found the boards aes­thet­i­cally con­fronting, the judges on the WQS couldn’t al­ways ig­nore their func­tion­al­ity and Stuey posted some solid re­sults rid­ing them. “I thought he was go­ing to qual­ify on them,” re­calls Tomo. “To this day those boards when they’re tuned just right are prob­a­bly the most ad­vanced boards ei­ther of us have rid­den, so it’s not out of the realms of pos­si­bil­ity that we could bring those back into the fold.”

As Tom­son’s ties with Firewire strength­ened, he in­di­cated that Stu’s in­volve­ment in test­ing and rid­ing the boards was an in­te­gral part of the de­sign evo­lu­tion. For­tu­nately Firewire em­braced the part­ner­ship be­tween the two Len­nox Head surfers, and Stuey found him­self part of a new surf in­dus­try fam­ily.

How­ever, de­spite en­joy­ing a re­vival on Tom­son’s boards and a mod­icum of sup­port from Firewire, Kennedy was hav­ing dif­fi­culty jus­ti­fy­ing his pur­suit of pro surf­ing. Af­ter be­ing dropped by Rip Curl, he still had a mort­gage to pay and a child on the way, so he laboured for builders, mowed lawns and did all sorts of odd jobs be­tween con­tests. De­spite hav­ing no ma­jor spon­sor in 2013, he had enough mo­men­tum to chal­lenge for qualification, how­ever he chose to miss a po­ten­tially cru­cial event in The Azores Islands to be at home for the birth of his son. “That could have been the dif­fer­ence to get­ting on tour, but it’s hard to miss things like that. That was my de­ci­sion at the time,” he re­flects earnestly.

By 2014 Kennedy had grown tired of work­ing dead-end jobs and jug­gling the re­spon­si­bil­ity of fa­ther­hood with chas­ing what seemed like an in­creas­ingly far-fetched pro surf­ing dream. “Mak­ing the sort of money I was mak­ing with Rip Curl it was hard to go back to shit money. It’s hard to come back from that and get 20 dol­lars an hour, work­ing your ass off, do­ing some­thing you don’t want to do.”

Stu started to con­sider more full-time forms of em­ploy­ment and even sounded out other surfers who had made the chal­leng­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal tran­si­tion from pro surf­ing to wage-earn­ing re­al­ity. “I ran into Dale Richards up the coast and I knew he was earn­ing good money in the mines and chat­ted to him about it … I was over just hav­ing no money and not be­ing able to pay my house off very well and I was over do­ing shit jobs so I was just go­ing to look for a good job.”

Mid­way through 2014, Stu was ready to, in his own words, “wrap it up,” when he de­cided to travel to the Azores for one last shot at a six-star event. When he fin­ished sec­ond, the sub­se­quent points, prize money and con­fi­dence boost were enough to reignite his am­bi­tions. He set his heart on se­cur­ing an­other spon­sor and whole­heart­edly com­mit­ting to the 2015 WQS cal­en­dar. “I came home and worked my ass off and locked in Carve as a spon­sor and then I had a good thing go­ing with Firewire as well.”

Fully backed by his new spon­sor and rein­vented on Tom­son’s craft, by the end of 2015 Kennedy en­tered the last event of the year at Sun­set with a solid chance of qual­i­fy­ing for the WCT. Rid­ing a gun­nier ver­sion of Dan Tom­son’s in­no­va­tive bot­tom con­tour de­signs, called the Jug­ger­naut, Stu ne­go­ti­ated Sun­set’s un­pre­dictable play­ing field all the way to the semis, but fell ag­o­nis­ingly short of qual­i­fy­ing as Con­ner Cof­fin, Davey Cathels and Ryan Cal­li­nan snatched up the fi­nal few spots avail­able. When Kennedy made his way up the beach at Sun­set af­ter los­ing his semi, for­mer CT surfer Nathan Hedge walked down and gave him a con­sol­ing bearhug. You sensed you were wit­ness­ing a solemn end­ing to a ca­reer that never re­ally found its proper tra­jec­tory. How­ever, fate is a fickle mas­ter and Pipe­line can be one of its cru­ellest ser­vants. A ma­jor in­jury to Bede Dur­bidge (dur­ing the con­test) opened the door for Stuey, and Bede’s pro­longed re­cov­ery meant he was guar­an­teed a wild­card into ev­ery WCT event on the 2016 cal­en­dar. The first event of the year,

the Quik­sil­ver Pro at Snap­per Rocks, was an op­por­tu­nity to prove to the world that he de­served to be part of the pro surf­ing elite; it was also a chance to re­alise a much hum­bler but no less wor­thy am­bi­tion. “As teenagers me and Adam Melling just wanted to get on tour so we got to surf Snap­per,” ex­plains Stuey.

Per­haps pure wave lust for Snap­per with one other guy out played its part, but as it hap­pened Kennedy’s per­for­mance in the 2016 Quik­sil­ver Pro will be re­mem­bered as one of the all-time un­der­dog mo­ments in pro surf­ing his­tory. Rid­ing his bizarre look­ing Dan Tom­son board with the pro­nounced quadru­ple con­cave and a triple flyer, bat-tail, Kennedy blitzed past op­po­si­tion. There were times where he looked faster, smoother and more dy­namic than any other surfer in the field; that air of in­vin­ci­bil­ity had re­turned and when he whipped the Sci-Phi into what be­came a trade­mark, high-speed tail slide, there never seemed any doubt that he would ride out clean. Kennedy’s vic­tory over Slater in round two was a Ru­bi­con mo­ment in his ca­reer. For Slater, there was also a kind of tragic irony in the fact that Kennedy’s Sci-Phi was in fact trade­marked un­der the newly-launched Slater de­signs/Firewire brand. “He’s the boss and he’s prob­a­bly not happy he just got beaten by me,” quipped Kennedy cheek­ily af­ter the heat. While Slater in­fa­mously bombed on his jet-black, Webber banana board, for Stu­art, there were mo­ments of gen­uine mas­tery when the surfer, board and wave ap­peared to be in perfect syn­ergy.

Even­tu­ally Kennedy was felled by just 0.03 of a point by Kolohe Andino in the semis, but by the end of the event stocks in both Kennedy and the Sci-Phi had gone through the roof. When quizzed about the ori­gins of his new craft, Stu was quick to point out that al­though the board was trade­marked un­der the Kelly Slater De­signs branch of Firewire that it was in fact he and Dan Tom­son who had worked to­gether closely on the de­sign. “I think me and Tomo have worked harder on it than him (Kelly) prob­a­bly. I’ve surfed this de­sign way more than he has but it is re­ally cool to have him on board.”

Al­though most fans re­mem­ber the break­out per­for­mance at the Quik­sil­ver Pro, Stu’s own per­sonal high­light for the year came at Tres­tles. Un­der pres­sure to wrack up points to se­cure his 2017 WCT qualification, Stu drew Mick Fan­ning in round three. “As soon as my name came up against his I ac­tu­ally had a mas­sive smile on my face. Ev­ery­one was think­ing he was go­ing to win the event. He was the de­fend­ing cham­pion, he had no pres­sure on him for the year and he just came off win­ing J-Bay.” Us­ing the birth of his sec­ond child as mo­ti­va­tion, af­ter the up­set vic­tory over Mick and sub­se­quent quar­ter fi­nals fin­ish at Tres­tles, Kennedy went on to post round five fin­ishes in France and Por­tu­gal, and en­sure his place on the 2017 tour.

Kennedy ad­mits that he’s mo­ti­vated by set­tings which pit him against big­ger named op­po­si­tion. “I’ve al­ways been like that with big­ger names but I def­i­nitely thrive a lot harder be­cause it can make such a dif­fer­ence to your ca­reer beat­ing those guys.”

How­ever, Stu’s also con­scious that try­ing to play the peren­nial un­der­dog can be ex­haust­ing. Last year he didn’t win a first round heat un­til Tres­tles and sounds de­ter­mined when asked what he needs to do to rec­tify a quirk that only al­lows him to pro­duce his best when his back is against the wall. “Con­sis­tency in all sorts of ar­eas with men­tal work and train­ing, con­sis­tency of be­ing on your own time pro­gram. Where my re­sults were pretty good I had a con­sis­tent regime. If I stuck to a sim­i­lar rou­tine that’s where I’d get my sim­i­lar re­sults and if I’d change a bit of rou­tine that’s when the re­sults didn’t come.”

In ad­di­tion to util­is­ing the High Per­for­mance Cen­tre’s coaches, in the lead up to this year’s tour Kennedy has also been work­ing closely with sports psy­chol­o­gist, Ja­son Patchell. Kennedy now walks and talks like the ded­i­cated pro­fes­sional ath­lete, who is hy­per-aware of the role psy­chol­ogy plays in per­for­mance. “We’ve al­ready had the meet­ing to do our de­brief and the goal set­ting, so we’re all up to speed with what we want to achieve. As long as you can de­brief and be

re­ally crit­i­cal on your­self. Know where you’re re­ally good and know your faults. My main goal is not to be do­ing the QS’s so I can en­tirely fo­cus on the tour so that I can achieve the goal that I set … If I can be in the top 10 by the end of the year I’ll be pretty stoked but I feel like with the re­sults I got and the guys that I beat I can def­i­nitely push for that top five. ”

Kennedy may well be util­is­ing the mys­ter­ies of mod­ern sport psy­chol­ogy, but he will also be chan­nelling a much more tra­di­tional form of mo­ti­va­tion – Aus­tralian back­ing. Al­though his surf­ing has plenty of daz­zle and spin, Kennedy doesn’t shy away from the blue-col­lar-Aussie tags that have been thrust upon him.

“I think there’s a lot of peo­ple out there who like who I am and what I am ... it hasn’t all been handed to me and think that’s why a lot of peo­ple like me… I try and give peo­ple a lot of time. If any­one wants to talk about con­tests or boards or any­thing I usu­ally give them the time, even if it’s a cou­ple of min­utes.”

Stu is also quick to point out that pro surfers, like for­mula one driv­ers, of­ten rely heav­ily on their pit crews. “It’s kind of work­ing with your team … It’s not all just up to you, it’s up to the peo­ple that you trust as well to stay on top of it and keep you mo­ti­vated – and check­ing in…”

In ad­di­tion to Dan Tom­son Kennedy’s core pit crew will in­clude the HPC’s head coach, Andy King and for­mer WCT surfer Trent Munro. And what about Kelly? Is there any kind of work­ing re­la­tion­ship be­tween them given that Stu is now fully backed by Kelly Slater de­signs for both boards and apparel. “We talk. He’s proud of me for what I’ve done, and what I’ve done for the com­pany. He’s just got a busy life­style. It’s not like we’re best friends but we’re def­i­nitely mates.” When Kennedy ar­rives at this year’s Quik­sil­ver Pro the cir­cum­stances will be dif­fer­ent. In­stead of pad­dling out with the ‘noth­ing to lose’ mind­set that is the wild­card’s key as­set he will be a fully-fledged WCT mem­ber, shoul­der­ing higher ex­pec­ta­tions than ever. Al­though fans will have a hard time for­get­ting last year’s serendip­i­tous run, Stu is con­scious that wal­low­ing in fond mem­o­ries could steal all his fight. “I’m kinda just not get­ting too wrapped in the me­dia and the hype about what hap­pened last year, and fo­cus­ing on this year,” he sug­gests. “It doesn’t mat­ter how well you went last year if this year’s al­ready here.”

One thing that won’t change is the pres­ence of Dan Tom­son in Stuey’s corner, ush­er­ing him to­wards the right de­sign at the right mo­ment and call­ing on more than 15 years of shared knowl­edge to in­stil con­fi­dence. The Sci-Phi may again be his cho­sen weapon, but, as Dan ex­plains, Stu’s new model, the SKX, will give Stu more ex­act­ing op­tions in a range of con­di­tions.

“I feel like it’s kind of like a 10-year evo­lu­tion/ rev­o­lu­tion for Stuey and I. It’s go­ing back to more of a short-board tem­plate and then ap­ply­ing the stuff I’ve learnt along the way … a short board that will ben­e­fit him in cer­tain con­di­tions in con­tests where the con­di­tions are kind of funky and you need the board to per­form in pow­er­ful waves that are also lumpy and sloppy – times where a highly-tuned plan­ning sur­face might skip or be two ad­vanced – like a for­mula one car on slicks in the wet… It’s got a

lit­tle bit of width and a lit­tle bit straighter an out­line than most guys are do­ing and it’s still got a bit of the DNA of the de­signs I’ve de­vel­oped and ob­vi­ously the Sci-Phi bot­tom con­tours that have been tuned to a squash tale in­stead of a bat tale.”

Stu also has an added in­cen­tive to per­form well on the SKX be­cause, un­like the Sci-Phi, it will be mar­keted as the Stu Kennedy model un­der the Kelly Slater/Firewire de­signs ban­ner and there­fore de­liver Stu a roy­alty pay­ment for each sale. Ac­cord­ing to Tom­son he’s only just start­ing to meet the de­mand for sales of his Sci-Phi model, so if Stu can match his per­for­mances at Snap­per last year then the SKX, which is due for pub­lic re­lease just af­ter the con­test, should make him money while he sleeps. Kennedy seems con­fi­dent. “Our boards are pretty tuned in for point breaks,” he in­sists with all the cer­ti­tude of one who has clocked up thou­sands of miles at Len­nox. The fact that the dual fates of Kelly Slater’s board com­pany and Dan Tom­son’s shap­ing ca­reer are also closely hitched to Stu’s per­for­mance cre­ates an in­ter­est­ing sub-plot in the Kennedy show. Not to men­tion his ca­pac­ity to con­tin­u­ally in­flu­ence the evo­lu­tion of boards and what the gen­eral pub­lic might be rid­ing in years to come. What­ever tran­spires, watch­ing Kennedy on this year’s tour will be in­trigu­ing. His equip­ment is a rad­i­cal de­par­ture from the norm, his per­son­al­ity a com­plex mix of sim­mer­ing ag­gres­sion and like­able Aus­tralian lar­rikin and his surf­ing an eclec­tic rage that loses none of its pri­mal qual­ity in the pur­suit of the con­tem­po­rary. Af­ter earn­ing his spot on the WCT the hard way, Stu has reached for new realms to find a bet­ter ver­sion of him­self, and if his lan­guage is any­thing to go by you can likely ex­pect a re­vi­tal­ized war­rior to stride across the sand come March when the Quik­sil­ver Pro com­mences. “I’ll take the pos­i­tives from last year and use it for fuel and stay in at­tack mode. That’s what we like to call it.”















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