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Big waves, the inner attitude and right preparation: an interview with Lena Kemna

Lena is originally from Germany and has now been living in Portugal for a few years. Since then she has dedicated her life entirely to surfing and being outdoors. In the interview I talk to Lena about how she got into surfing, how she prepares for the big waves of the winter season and how surfing and the inner attitude are connected.

Dear Lena - even though you have surely answered this question many, many times already, first of all: how did you get into surfing?

Actually totally classic on vacation at a beginner surf course on Fuerteventura, together with my dad. And I knew more or less on the first day, in the first hour: I think this is it. A bit like when you watch an inspiring movie and then think: I'm going to become a soccer player. And it was the same for me with surfing. First day, first surf and I said: I'm a surfer now.

But I didn't live by the sea yet, so the first 1-2 years were a bit slow. But then I did a semester abroad in Australia relatively soon. I bought a relatively small board very soon (real kook move). And from then on I went to the beach every day with my board and more or less taught myself. After that I had to go back to the Netherlands for half a year, where I studied. There I went swimming in the pool like a mad person for 6 months. And I remember, the first time I went surfing again, my surf level had improved unbelievably, because I had become so much stronger.

Yes, and then I moved to Portugal as fast as I could to live by the ocean.

Lena Kemna
Lena Kemna

Can you remember what surprised you or what was the biggest 'cliché' you started surfing with?

In fact, I didn't have such strong clichés in my head, I didn't really know surf movies or anything. I knew that surfing was kind of cool ...

And I think one thing that I still think is a shame is that surfers are really uncool with each other. And especially girls. There are so many other cultures, like bodyboarding or skating, where it's not like that. But surfers and especially female surfers are very uncool to each other, arrogant or unnecessarily competitive. It rarely happens to me that I surf with other women and we really connect. That's really the exception.

Why do you think that is? Why surfing is such an egoistic sport?

I don't know. And strangely enough, that's the case even among longboarders. Not quite as bad, but there are also the 'retro' / mega stylish longboarders who are really not cool with each other. And in competitions it's especially bad. I once competed at the German championships and the atmosphere wasn't mine at all, and none of us surfed at international level. But why is that? I have no idea. I just try to ignore it.

Surfing is a sport that takes a lot of time. Sometimes I have to think about how many hours of experience are sitting in the line-up. What do you think is the most important attitude to keep the fun in surfing and not to give up?

I think that's totally individual. For me personally it's not so much the surfing but the connection with nature. If I didn't surf I would do something else, like sailing or diving. Personally, for example, I don't like surfing at all in knee-high waves on a city beach, then I'd rather do something else. Because that has nothing to do with a nature experience for me, what I am looking for. That's why I go to spots where I'm alone, even if it means that the wave is worse, or that I have to get up really early when it rains on a Tuesday in November. Then I have fun and the feeling that it is something special and I have a connection with nature. And that's also how I choose my surf.

And in the same way I would advise someone who is afraid in big waves to simply surf in small waves. If that's what you enjoy. And if you're a person who loves surfing in ankle-high waves on a city beach with a soft top on a Saturday afternoon, that's exactly what you should do. I think with surfing, and really anything else, you just have to be honest with yourself about what you really enjoy.

You surf pretty big waves in the winter, when did you start getting interested in the big waves?

That was super early. Actually, before I could even surf properly. I think I'm just fascinated by the extremes of nature. The bigger and stormier, the better I find. First of all, there's hardly anyone in the water then and, as silly as it might sound, nature just feels so 'raw', so extreme. And I remember one of my biggest waves as a beginner in Bali, when I was riding a plastic board. I could barely ride straight or duck dive, or anything like that. But I just paddled into the wave and thought 'Wow! That's amazing!' And then it actually started. The size of the wave changes every year, of course, in winter I surf the biggest wave of my life almost every week, but the fascination remains constant.

What do you do when faced with fear in the water?

I have a lot of fear in the water. Often people say to me 'wow you are so courageous and never afraid'. But for one thing, I'm one of the most cautious surfers I know. The people who are out in the same conditions with me have a much, much higher surf level. They could surf totally different waves.

And secondly, I am much more prepared than most. Physically but also from my equipment, I often wear an impact vest, even if no one else is wearing one. Even though I was laughed at for it in the beginning. I also usually have a huge board and a huge leash. I just take it very, very seriously. I'm usually much more scared than everyone else, but at the same time I'm much better prepared than many. And so I manage my fear through preparation. All the factors that I can prepare for, I control through that as much as I can.

This includes that I pack my car the night before, I check if all the fins are in correctly, I check my leash constantly. I am really totally German. I train my body, and have my entire life geared towards that.

Lena Kemna surfing big waves
Lena Kemna surfing; Credit: @barrelsniper

And if it does happen that you're in the water and it's bigger than you expected and you get scared or have a bad wipe-out, do you have certain strategies that you use?

This depends. I'm not afraid underwater because apnea training means that holding my breath is no longer a big issue for me. What I am more afraid of are the distances when it is very big. Because then it can happen that I am suddenly half a kilometer out at sea. And then when the current pulls me out and the overall situation feels unpredictable, that's what I'm afraid of.

But I have a very strong intuition, which I also respect. There have been moments when I had the wetsuit on and my feet were in the water, but I realized, "No, somehow it does not feel right". And then I turn around and go home. And even when I'm already paddling out and realize in the channel "does not feel right" then there are days when I push against it, but there are also days when I turn around and just go home. Usually it's all in or all out with me. Certain thoughts sometimes help me pull myself together, because you can't always get out of every situation right away. But I usually listen to my intuition and just stop the session if it doesn't feel right.

How do you handle frustrating days in the water?

In fact, I don't think it's that bad. I'm also often asked how I find the motivation to surf so much and train so much. In fact, I don't need motivation for that at all. I need motivation to sit down and work. That means even on days like today, where the waves were knee high and really boring, I'm not really frustrated.

Earlier this year, for example, I didn't have a single good surf session from the beginning of January to mid-March. And that although I surf at least four times a week. So it was really a lot of not-good surfs. What I do then is, I just keep going. I go to the gym, I work out like that and I just keep surfing. I think that's just normal. The phases where you don't have visible successes are at the same time the times where a lot of training happens. I try not to over-analyze these phases, but just keep going. The success will come at some point.

For bigger waves I am still a beginner. This also means that I often don't get a wave at all or only one per session. Then I often still think 'Wow. A year ago I wouldn't have even thought of going into the water in these conditions!." Summer can be more frustrating when it's small for months but then I always look for those moments early in the morning or late in the evening when no one else is in the water. Or yesterday for example the waves weren't great either but there was super much sea kelp in the water, that was cool, too.

And I am also always trying different boards. That helps me. For example, I don't like to surf shortboards in small waves but then I like to surf with a single fin, longboard or with anything else. Or I go diving.

Lena Kemna Freediving
Lena Freediving; Credit: @jannanadjeja

I also saw that you prepare very well for the bigger swell and winter in the fall. How exactly do you prepare and what do you pay attention to?

The most important things for me are:

Number one: absolute rest. Luckily I don't have any real injuries, like a slipped disc or knee problems, but of course, if you surf a lot, your shoulders can hurt or your lower back. So my number one goal is to completely heal over the summer, i.e. not have any muscle strains, etc. anymore.

Number two is strength. For me, this also includes building muscle mass. Over the last one, or two years I have gained about 8 kg and although I am still quite petite, I notice that I have become much stronger. Because at a certain point it's really the paddling strength that counts.

The third point is apnea training. There I used to do more training, now I just go free diving. That is also training and is more fun.

What are your goals for the next surf season or overall?

My goals in terms of surfing or anything else are that actually everything should stay the way it is. And that it continues step by step. My biggest difficulty in life is to manage surfing, training and job at the same time. Because it's just hard to work when you're constantly tired from surfing. Surfing or working out twice a day and working productively and managing social media alongside that is difficult. And I know it's a great situation to be in and I'm not complaining. Still, that's the biggest difficulty for me.

So my biggest wish is that I continue to manage this balancing act and develop my surf step by step. Maybe next winter I will try out jet ski towing. I've already done that a little bit, and I don't really enjoy it that much, but I'd really like to have a JetSki with me to paddle into big waves, that would be really cool. But other than that, I just want to keep doing what I'm doing and surf the new biggest wave every winter.

Lena Kemna surfing
Lena Kemna Surfing; Credit: @barrelsniper

You just said it: surfing and work can't always be perfectly combined. What would your perfect job look like? If you could create a job for yourself, what would you do?

I currently work in marketing / branding strategy. And have been working at the university for five years now. I really, really like teaching. I think my perfect job would be my own little course at uni and doing some consulting projects on the side, plus creating content. Here I also work partly with brands, and they often give me freedom to do what I like. Currently, for example, I have a project where I proposed to shoot a film about surfing and free diving, only at night, and the client just said: 'Yeah cool, we'll do it like that'. Doing projects like that even more, I would be really into that. I'm starting to make some money with Instagram, but I'm not really into that sales direction. So actually my perfect job would include everything that I do now.

Although I would like to have the freedom to work relatively little.

If you could take one thing into the lineup with you, no matter what, it doesn't have to be anything you can really use in the water, what would it be?

Coffee. Definitely.

Dear Lena, thank you for your inspiring answers and for sharing your attitude towards surfing and the big blue with us. We are excited to follow you and your surfing and are super happy to have you on board as a team surfer!

You can find Lena on Instagram: @lena.kemna.


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