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Kehu Butler: Knocking On The Door

Te Kehu Kehu Mokoia Ngawhika Butler is a man who needs little introduction. He’s been touted for years as New Zealand’s “Māori Prince” – our next hope of having a competitor on the World Championship Tour. He’s an explosive surfer with a good team around him and a work ethic that few can match. NZSJ sent Isaac Chadwick into the Butler household to find out where Covid has left him and what he’s building toward next.

Kehu at his grandparent’s home in Matapihi. Photo: Isaac Chadwick

I caught up with Kehu on a stinking hot Monday afternoon, a couple hours after we unsuccessfully tried to get a good surf under our belts in the typically sloppy summer conditions of the Mount coast.

The place he had chosen for us to meet was his grandparents place out in Matapihi. It’s a rural area. As you drive out the houses begin to become spaced out and you realise it is conveniently removed from the busyness of the surrounding beach suburbs. The only significant landmark being a small school.

After a quick tour of the place, we decided to set up shop in Kehu’s grandfather’s home gym, fully kitted out with everything an athlete could possibly want for their training.

“You don’t need to pay for a gym membership when you’ve got this in your backyard,” says Kehu with a grin.

As we set up the chairs Kehu mentions that he went to the all-Māori school that I passed on my drive out here. There were only about 70 pupils in the whole school when Kehu attended. His grandparents’ place is a nice snapshot of what Kehu gets up to when he’s not in the water.

For many years, Kehu has based himself over in Australia on the Gold Coast where the surf is far more consistent than the Mount and it is where his primary sponsor, Quiksilver, is based. It’s been an ideal move with Qualifying Series (QS) and Championship Tour (CT) events being held right around the corner along with some of Australasia’s best talent to surf and train with.

Covid has changed things up for Kehu. It’s the reason he’s currently back in Tauranga and not on the Goldie.

“Yeah, Covid had a huge role on this year,” he explains. “I’ve been living on the Gold Coast, and I’m still paying rent there – been getting stitched up with the old $180 a week, but it’s all good. Me flat mates are legends. One of them is Billy (Lee Pope.) I’ve been doing comps and training earlier this year, and then came home to the Mount for a holiday two weeks before lockdown happened and ended up being stuck here ever since.”

“I came home to the Mount for a holiday two weeks before (the second) lockdown happened and ended up being stuck here ever since.”

Kehu Butler

“I wasn’t planning on staying here for this long,” he smiles. “I only packed one board and a backpack full of clothes. So now I’ve had my first full winter at home in a while. It wasn’t too warm either, but yeah, it is what it is.”

While unexpected, being forced to spend several months at home definitely has its upsides when compared to the Goldie.

“The diving here is so mean – you can go diving and fishing here all the time,” Kehu shares. “Highlights have been hanging out with mates, catching our family and seeing the little cousins grow up. So, yeah, there are definitely positives to being home and being able to enjoy things that I wouldn’t really have time for overseas.”

Kehu’s whanau is something that means a lot to him. He has a large extended family and with him being away for a majority of the year there’s a lot to miss.

Kehu and whanau at Arataki. Photo: Derek Morrison

“I guess some of the things I miss when I’m away is just being around family, especially in the Māori world – our family’s huge,” he explains. “We have so many cousins and shit. So, being away from family is really out of the comfort zone. Seeing your family grow up as well – like all your cousins, you come back and you forget who they are because they’ve grown up so much, you don’t recognise them. But those are the sacrifices you make as an athlete. Everyone goes through them to be a successful athlete – you’ve got to go through them.”

However, if you can’t bring your family with you, you might as well find the next best thing, which in Kehu’s case involves our neighbors across the ditch.

“I guess one of the things I do to keep myself grounded [when overseas] is to always hang out with Kiwis and Aussies, like fuck, they’re pretty pure blokes,” Kehu laughs. “Australia is like my second home anyways. So when I hang out with the Aussies in other countries it feels pretty close to home. They’re all good blokes.”

“And, just remembering that home’s not going to go anywhere too when you’re overseas,” he adds.

“I guess one of the things I do to keep myself grounded [when overseas] is to always hang out with Kiwis and Aussies, like fuck, they’re pretty pure blokes. Australia is like my second home anyways. So when I hang out with the Aussies in other countries it feels pretty close to home. They’re all good blokes.”

Kehu Butler

Our conversation then drifts to what Kehu’s life is like on the Gold Coast and, in particular, who his flat consists of and the antics three young men get up to when left to their own devices.

“So, we’ve got Billy Lee Pope and my mate, JJ, Jordan Jason, and they both work at Quiksilver so it’s an all Quickie affair at the old flat. Everything’s always surf related, or footy related at home.”

“We’re pretty stupid at times – just young idiots,” Kehu smiles. “I think Billy’s the oldest and he’s 25 at the moment. He’s like the dad, but we all do our own stupid things at home. Our flat situation’s pretty crack up and we wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“I did my yardy at our flat for my 21st and it took me so long. I don’t even know. I was ages, like under 10 minutes maybe,” chuckles Kehu.

“Hold up, surely it didn’t take you that long?” I ask as we burst out laughing.

In all fairness, one of us is a professional athlete and the other is a university student who sits on the beach all day filming everybody else. So Kehu’s rather underwhelming yardy time can be somewhat excused given the circumstances.

“On my 21st birthday, we had heaps of Māori food, had all of the boys around and then I did my yardy,” Kehu continues. “And then we went straight from there to this Quickie women’s party – it was so mental. We got free drinks. Thanks to Sam (Kehu’s manager) for shouting us the free drinks. It was mental. That was probably the most mischief we got up to. We ruined the place.”

Kehu makes power surfing look easy. Photo: Jean Pierre Guillotin

Kehu has enjoyed being part of the Quiksilver family and all of the perks that come with it.

“Yeah, Quiksilver has been real helpful,” Kehu explains. “They’ve always put me on board with everything. We’ve done shoots with Mikey Wright and they’ve included me in heaps of their ads and product shoots and everything while I’m in the Goldie, which is one of the main reasons why I’m living there at the moment.”

“Then Red Bull as well last year – when we had nothing on, they wanted to shoot that doco series that we did. And we spent most of last year doing that. I couldn’t really ask for much more to be honest. A couple years of not much going on and they make something out of nothing. So, it’s been sick, just surfing and filming when there’s no comps.”

I ask him if he found it refreshing to go back to just free surfing while there has been a contest hiatus.

“Yeah, bro. I feel like free surfing and competitive surfing are ridiculously different,” he offers. “It’s so hard to transition from one to the other. I have so much respect for guys like Mikey Wright who can transition from free surfing to competitive surfing so well. Sometimes you go surfing before a comp and you just see one big section and all you want to do is just race and punt, but then you have to slow down and do two softer turns. So, it’s just, yeah, it’s hard transitioning I reckon.”

“Oi, get out of it, your ruining the interview oi!”

The family German Shepherd decides that my laptop needs a bit of a clean with the help of its mouth. Kehu shoos him away.

After the dog has found a suitable park up spot where it isn’t going to insert itself into the interview, we get back to talking about how Kehu’s year has gone competitively … and his mindset around it.

“It was pretty much just to get some results and get back into competitive surfing,” he confides. “This year was really different because of Covid. They changed the whole rules. Now you have to be top 10 in your region to get into the Challenger Series. And then obviously do well in that to qualify. Australasia is hard, man. There were so many good surfers that didn’t make it as well. It is what it is. It’s not really just up to you – it’s up to the ocean as well. So, yeah, I’ll just keep knocking on the door.”

Naturally this talk lead us to the inevitable topic that has captivated the surfing world. Is the new format for the CT really shit, or only slightly shit?

“Um, yeah, that’s a good question,” he smiles. “I didn’t like the CT. That whole format is flawed, like if Medina didn’t win it would have been pretty bullshit to be honest – he pretty much won every event except for like one or two. It’s kind of exciting in a way when it comes down to the last event, but, yeah, I’m not really a fan of it. I think if you do well around the world, you should be world champion. There are guys and I’m not calling out anyone, but surfers like Filipe might do shit at Chopes and Hawaii, but then win the small wave stuff and then get to the final and could potentially win Trestles. The world champion should be the most consistent surfer around the world. Not just at the one spot.”

Unlike most New Zealand surfers who have gone before him, Kehu has a great team in his corner and they’re helping him in his fight on the QS.

“I’ve been training heaps with Bottle,” he offers. “He trains Liam and Morgan J Thompson. I’ve been training with him for ages now and Adam Robertson as well before that. Those guys are so good at what they do. They set me up on the gnarliest program, which is sick. They’re always so positive in the way they speak and they have so much belief in the way they speak, which I guess they should – they have to believe in you. They want you to do well.”

“The best thing about it is that Bottle and the crew are just good guys out of surfing. I’ll go have a beer with them at the surf club, or we’ll go play tennis on a Monday night or something. They’re just good blokes. I love that with coaches – where they’re your coach, but at the end of the day it’s up to you what you do in the water. Guys like that are definitely people you need to surround yourself with. Guys who you’re comfortable in and out of the water and have good humour as well. I love guys who have humour. I can’t stand straight and narrow fellows.”

That being said, Kehu doesn’t mind a bit of parental advice. His father and grandfather are important role models in his life.

“My dad and my grandfather … they have a huge influence on me, more so as a person outside of surfing,” Kehu admits. “They always keep me grounded and keep me doing stuff around the community. They teach me how to be a better person outside of surfing. My grandad takes me to his indoor gym, which is where we’re at now. And he flogs me at everything. He’s so ripped, he’ll do like 10 more chin-ups than what I can do. So, I guess he pushes me in those terms as well. I’m grateful to have them in my corner.”

“My dad and my grandfather … they have a huge influence on me … They keep me grounded and keep me doing stuff around the community. They teach me how to be a better person outside of surfing … I’m grateful to have them in my corner.”

Kehu Butler

“I feel like my determination really comes in from my grandparents and my parents as well,” he considers. “Sacrifice and determination. They sacrificed so much for what they wanted to do and they really kind of honed in me the understanding that from hard work and effort come good results.”

“I’m grateful for those, otherwise I definitely wouldn’t be here. I’d just be a lazy fella around here,” he laughs.

I ask Kehu if he could invite any three people in the world for dinner, who would they be?

“Ah, well, if it could have been anyone, I’d have to tell my missus to stay at home,” he laughs.

“Probably my cousin Kiah just for a laugh because he’s just a funny guy all around, and he doesn’t give two shits,” Kehu begins. “And then I guess my second person would have to be Sonny Bill Williams. It’d be sick to pick his brain on everything. Then I’m going to say Nathan Cleary from the Penrith Panthers, because it looked like he had a hell time when they won the championship, aye. They went huge. I wouldn’t mind having a beer with him and picking his brain about that, too.”

With Covid still throwing plenty of curve balls and looking likely to be a long way from over, I ask Kehu what his plans for the coming season look like.

“I go back to Aussie in a few weeks,” he explains. “I’ll start up training again with Bottle and then our comps start early in the year. I think there’s a mid-year cut-off next year, but we don’t actually know the full roster of events. So obviously I’ll try to do the comps and if I do well, carry on and try to qualify. If I don’t then, I’ll free surf, maybe shoot some clips with Mikey and that for Quickie. So, yeah, two ways to go really.”

We wrap up the interview. Kehu comes across as just a quiet Maori boy, but we know he has a huge passion for surfing heats and the steely mind of an athlete. He turns 22 in March and carries with him the aura of his ancestors and the drive to do something special. More than ever, it’s his time.

Kehu has a big future ahead of him. Photo: Isaac Chadwick
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