The first sign that the deep-pocketed Oracle team might be in trouble in the America's Cup came in July, when a 20-year-old on a $1,500 kiteboard nearly outraced the $15 million catamaran. But there's not much that Kai Lenny can't do in the water. In addition to kiteboarding, he's an avid big-wave surfer, tow-in surfer, windsurfer and stand-up paddleboarder. Last year he won the SUP racing world championship, and this year, he's leading the SUP world tour.
Impressive for a kid who's been a pro only since 2012: First he had to graduate from high school, which he did with a 4.0 GPA. "I like to do everything at 110%," says Lenny. That helped explain how he has become one of the biggest names in the burgeoning realm of stand-up paddleboarding, a sport in which competitors row long distances while standing on a surfboard. In a July race, for example, Lenny paddled 32 miles between the Hawaiian islands Molokai and Oahu, working against a strong tide and a final two-mile stretch that was entirely upwind. (He finished in just over five hours.)
To prepare for these grueling races, Lenny starts his days with a 6 a.m. surf that, three times a week, he follows with a five-mile run to the gym. When lifting, he focuses not on maximizing weight but on maintaining form in surfinglike situations: For example, Lenny might close one eye while doing single-leg deadlifts on top of a balance apparatus. At the end of the day, his dad, Martin, decides on a "joker's wild"—a random workout that might put Lenny back in the ocean or even on the skateboard half-pipe the family recently built in their backyard.
That's nothing compared to what Lenny went through this spring: An experiment named Project Acheron, after the river that bordered hell in Dante's Inferno. Red Bull (which sponsors him and also set up the race through San Francisco Bay with Oracle), sent him and three other athletes to Patagonia, Chile, where a former Navy SEAL administered an intense eight-day workout that involved everything from kayaking across glacial lakes to mountain climbing in the Andes. (The totals for the group: 124 miles traveled with a 23,000-foot gain in elevation.) The idea was to see how athletes react out of their comfort zones. Lenny pulled his Achilles tendon on the fifth day but he pushed through the pain, and he's brought that improved mental toughness into the water. "When I reach my limit, I know I can rely on my previous training," Lenny says. "I always have those experiences in the back of my mind."
That's a good thing, since he has upcoming events in, among other places, California, France and Oahu, where next month he'll compete in the world championships. "My biggest problem is trying to take a rest day," Lenny says. "When I'm riding the waves, nothing exists except that single moment."
Lenny trekked 124 miles with a 23,000-foot gain in elevation during his grueling trip to Chile.
COURTESY OF RED BULL (BOAT RACE)
IT'S A BREEZE The wind nearly pulled Lenny past Oracle, but he does most of his damage propelling himself (below).
ERIK AEDER/COURTESY OF RED BULL (PADDLEBOARD)
[See caption above]