Kai Owens is legally blind.
Already this summer, the 15-year-old has posted more than 100 Instagrams highlighting his exploits skimboarding “the liners” on Tybee Island, Ga., giving front shuv-it tutorials, doing “sick tricks” on his skateboard, or just mastering the highest flips on his trampoline he possibly can.
Oh yeah, and surfing. But more on that one later.
Clearly, vision “is optional” for daring feats with this kid.
In fact, it’s so non-essential for Kai – who has had impaired vision since he was 10 – that he has earned a skimboarding sponsorship from Exile Skimboards as the first legally blind sponsored skimboarder in the world.
You may be wondering how a kid who can barely see the waves he’s riding gets sponsored.
Well, basically, you are a badass teen that has no fear about trying something new.
“If I want to do something, I just do it – whatever it takes,” the ninth-grader at Southeast Bulloch Middle School told us last year. “And most of the time, I do it better than sighted kids.”
As a sponsored skimboarder, Kai is developing his “brand” via Instagram, boasting his #noexcuses hashtag while promoting his new sponsor. It’s a page out of the Austin Keen manual for self-marketing that the Tybee native and world skimboarding champ has taken to a whole new level.
Kai subscribes to that method.
“Basically, I just wear their stuff, promote their boards and get their name out there by posting a bunch to Instagram,” he said of his deal with Exile, which came about when Keen, also an Exile ambassador, put in a good word for Kai after meeting him at SkimTybee camp last summer.
“After camp I was just talking to Austin about how I could get sponsored, and he said just post every day on social media and I’ll put in a good word for you,” Kai recalls. “And then, boom! I was sponsored.”
Keen, who is an Instagram sensation in the water sports world with more than 225,000 followers, is a good person to know. But the world champ feels the same about knowing Kai.
“He inspired me actually,” Keen said after camp last summer. “His attitude of just going for it, being happy for whatever you have…that’s awesome.”
In fact, at the urging of his skimboarding friends from SkimTybee, Kai will participate in his first competition the end of August at Vilano Beach, Fla. He’ll be the kid wearing the bright yellow “Blind Athlete” shirt – and that will be the only way you’ll recognize he has any issues with his sight.
“With the mentality he has,” Keen added, “there’s no way this dude will be stopped.”
Scanning Kai’s Instagram page, it’s easy to see he was a quick study on the “Keen method” and loves being an extreme sports ambassador to all kids, not just those who may be visually impaired.
“Super sick time puddle boarding with @austingawthrop and Tommy!”
“First ever flip trick, I landed this heel flip today; sorry about the filming. @exileskimboards #inspiration #noexcuses#skateboard #skateboarding #skatelife#skateboardingisfun #fliptricks #heelflip#exileskimboards #extremesports#boardsports #actionsports”
“Landed my longest stand up longboard slide today! Vid- @sandy_o01 @exileskimboards #inspiration #noexcuses#longboard #slide #longboarding#skakelife #skateboard #summer#exileskimboards #actionsport#boardsports #extremesports#watersports #summertime #summerfun”
Although snowboarding remains on Kai’s “to-do” list, he settled for surfing as his challenge du jour this past summer.
And his willingness – or perhaps inherent need – to seek new adventure via surfing was no surprise to anyone, least of all his family.
His mom, dad and big brother Cash have been helping him figure out ways to satisfy his daredevil blood ever since he began losing his sight almost four years ago.
Kai has retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a rare and usually inherited degenerative eye disease that causes severe vision impairment. Where most of us have a wide range of vision – near, far and peripherally – Kai sees the world as a picture with many pieces missing and hardly any detail.
There is no cure yet (though gene therapy and stem cell research is in the works), and chances are high that the limited vision he has currently could disappear altogether.
“Sometimes I get anxious about losing my sight completely,” Kai said, who hopes to get a guide dog in the next few years. “Then I know I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing now or figure out a way to keep doing it.”
So far that hasn’t been a problem as there has always been a way.
“If he wants to do it, we let him do it,” Kim told us last year. “And we get creative to make it as safe as we can. We just sit back and say, ‘OK, how are we going to do this?’”
“How” to learn to surf came in the form of Indo Jax Surfing Charities in Wrightsville Beach, N.C., where founder Jack Viorel and his staff host a week-long camp for visually impaired kids.
The charity, which is committed to “empowering disadvantaged, medically fragile, and special-needs children” through surfing, believes the ocean has profound healing properties that can build self-esteem. Kids learn for free and just pay food and hotel expenses during the week.
“This was a really unique opportunity for Kai. It allowed him to explore a new board sport, in a safe environment that was tailored to visually impaired kids,” Kim said, adding that individuals can donate to the camp’s efforts via crowdrise. “It was so cool to meet other families who were passionate about keeping their VI kids participating in sports and outdoor activities as the majority of VI kids we typically encounter are sheltered and very introverted.”
Although Kai does not lack self-confidence, surfing still required a learning curve – and Indo Jax was the perfect solution for someone with limited vision. Compassionate instructors who knew how to communicate what the water was doing proved essential for Kai and his fellow campers.
“Surfing came naturally to Kai since he already skims and skateboards, but the depth of the water and the strength of the waves was new to him,” said his mother Kim, adding that the second day – with powerful and choppy waves – was especially challenging. “When he’d fall off his board, he’d feel very overwhelmed by the force of the waves and his inability to locate other people or touch the ground.”
Milking some fun liners today with @walkerbowerz • @exileskimboards #inspiration #noexcuses #skim #skimtrip #skimlife #skimboard #skimtybee #skimboarding #beach #waves #exileskimboards #extremesports #boardsports #actionsports #watersports #trustexile #surf #beachlife #community #skimmunity #liners #waveriding
But Kai was always in good hands, thanks to the support of his instructor Chad, who encouraged him to feel comfortable amidst the charging waves.
“The most challenging part was paddling out through the waves when there was a big set rolling in after my last ride to shore,” Kai said of his experience. “It was hard because it was scary trying to paddle into a big wave and having it throw me back 40 feet into the rough water. Then I’d have to start paddling again.”
But by the third day, the 15-year-old was well on his way, and those overwhelming waves were just another great adventure in the #noexcuses life of Kai Owens.
“My favorite part of the camp was the feeling of getting up on the big waves for the first time,” he said, highlighting the fact that some were more than three feet high. Any novice surfer knows that’s a daunting wave even when you can see it – much less when you can’t.
Like so much else that Kai does through his activities, the teenage ambassador is using it to promote the sport and the challenge for other kids with impaired vision.
“I would definitely encourage other VI kids to try the camp because it’s a safe environment for getting used to the ocean and having fun,” Kai added.
Plus, there are some “pretty sick waves.”
“I definitely like skimboarding better because with surfing you have to paddle way out just to wait for a wave, and even if you get a good wave, you’re punished by having to paddle back out there,” he laughs.
But Kai is already scheming how to incorporate surfing into his skimboarding regimen via a “board transfer” – another Austin Keen specialty.
And just like always, Kai is thinking of how he can do it, rather than worrying about why he can’t.
“I really don’t think it will be all that hard,” he says.
Yep, “no excuses.”