KEHU BUTLER BREAKS AS THE FIRST RED BULL NEW ZEALAND SURF ATHLETE.
Young Arataki born Kehu Butler has been closely watched since 2012, and this week has finally rode his wave into the Red Bull family, as the company’s first ever New Zealand surf athlete.
The 15-year-old has unquestionable talent and style, and enjoyed an afternoon earlier this week checking out the Warriors training at Mt Smart Stadium. After a tour of the club, Kehu was surprised by Red Bull expedition kayak athlete Ben Brown, who handed over Kehu’s new branded cap. Kehu was also welcomed by Warriors star Shaun Johnson in front of the whole NRL team, gifting Kehu his freshly Red Bull decaled board. It was a special moment for the teenager.
“That was probably one of the best days of my life,” says Kehu. “I’m a huge league fan and Shaun Johnson is one of my heroes. I got to play a quick game of one-on-one touch with him and I stepped him [laughs]. I’m a big Warriors fan so it was a sweet bonus.”
Surfing is in Kehu Butler’s blood. His grand-uncle Paul Bennett won a national title in the 1970s and was the first Maori surfer to compete overseas. His father Khan and uncle Matt both represented New Zealand and when Khan helped his young son onto a surfboard for the first time at the age of six, he knew his boy had inherited the surfing genes.
“I pushed him into the whitewash in the waves of Arataki, the small community in Mount Maunganui where we’re from, and he stood up straight away,” says Khan. “He hasn't looked back since.”
“We’d watch guys like Tom Curren, Kelly Slater and Andy Irons and I’d try to mimic their cutbacks, turns and style,” says Kehu. “Dad wanted me to have the basics down pat before I started to get into anything freakish!”
When he wasn’t surfing, Kehu and his cousin would go to the local skate park to work on his turns and transitions.
“We worked really hard to get his foundations right before moving onto the bigger stuff, like airs and tricks,” says Khan. “He’s having fun with that now, and breaking a lot of boards! We watched the old guys that surf the wave like they’re dancing, so we worked on his flow and nailing good rail manoeuvres. He has a real clean, smooth style. That’s his trump card.”
Kehu started winning local comps at a young age, but his first major win was in Piha at the Rip Curl Grom Search in 2010. Just nine-years-old at the time, Kehu won the U12s and finished fourth in the U14s.
“That was pretty sweet,” says Kehu. “I remember walking up the beach to Dad with a huge smile on my face. I started getting a few sponsors after that [Quicksilver, i.am global, Skull Candy, FCS, Gorilla Grip, Electric, Smoothstar] and started thinking about surfing as a career.”
The following year at a competition in Australia, Gary Cruickshank the head coach of the Australian High Performance Squad paid him the ultimate compliment.
“He told Kehu that he reminded him of Kelly Slater on the water,” says Khan. “Kelly Slater is one of his favourite surfers so that was huge.”
In 2012 Kehu won the U12 final in the Skullcandy Oz Grom Open in Lennox Heads. Two years later he was back to claim the U14 crown. That same year he won the New Zealand national U14 title and finished second in the U16 category. He also made his mark on the world stage, finishing 7th in the U16 ISA World Grommet Championship at Salinas Beach in Ecuador.
Kehu had another stellar year in 2015 winning the U16 and U18 national titles, finishing 3rd in the Rip Curl International GromSearch in Brazil and topping it off with a win in Occy’s Grom competition in Coolangatta, Queensland. The Occy Grom competition is one of the most prestigious junior surfing competitions in Australia and it confirmed Kehu’s potential as one of the best young surfers in the world.
“He’d been trying to win it for a few years and he absolutely smashed it in the final,” says Khan. “He pulled this huge big air reverse and he usually doesn't do moves like that in competition. He usually relies on his smooth style. His family were all there to support him and we carried him up the beach on our shoulders after the final and did a haka for him. That was pretty special.”
Kehu turns 16 at the end of March and his big goal this year is to win the U16 ISA World Junior Championship in Portugal in September. After that, the sky’s the limit.
“Long term I want to make the WCT but my ultimate goal is to be world champ one day,” he says. “I just want to go hard and give it my best every time I get on the water.”
Read Kehu Butler’s full profile on www.redbull.co.nz/kehubutler.