RISE AGAIN - STU KENNEDY
THE SECONDCOMING OFSTU KENNEDY
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.”
RIGHT: FORMER WCT SURFER, TRENT MUNRO, IS ANOTHER FIXTURE IN THE TRENCHES FOR STU KENNEDY.
LEFT: TRUE BLUE STU' AT TRESTLES, RELISHING THE OPPORTUNITY TO BE ON TOUR WITH THE BIG BOYS.
STU MAKING GOOD USE OF FRONT-ARM LEVERAGE TO SCAR THE FACE OF A FROTHY 040 RIGHT.
TOP: KENNEDY LAYS CLAIM TO THE GOLD COAST SKYLINE DURING LAST YEAR'S QUIKSILVER PRO. PHOTO: JOLI. INSET: STU'S SCI-PHI WEAPONS.
CLOCKWISE FROM ABOVE: IN ADDITION TO MAKING STU'S WAVE ARSENAL, DAN TOMSON IS OFTEN THE GUY CALLED ON FOR PRE-HEAT PEP TALKS. PHOTO: MILLER. A SNOW-BOARD-STYLE CARVE DEMONSTRATES THE SCI-PHI'S PROPENSITY FOR GLIDE. PHOTO: MILLER. TWO-TONE SLASH WITH...
OPPOSITE:ONE MINIMALOF DAN VOLUMESTU TOMSON'S PILOTING MODELS. PHOTO: MORAN INSET: PARRALEL OUTLINES AND ANGULAR NOSES. BOARDS LIKE THE ONE DAN TOMSON IS CLUTCHING WERE A MAJOR PART OF THE EVOLUTIONARY JOURNEY FOR THE KENNEDY AND TOMSON TEAM.
MAIN: STU SHOWING DEFT POISE AND POSITIONING INSIDE A TEAHUPOO PIT. PHOTO: MILLER INSET: LAST YEAR'S PERENNIAL WILDCARD IS NOW A FULLY FLEDGED WCT WARRIOR.