Words by Nina Zietman
A hush descends over the room as he walks in. It’s packed full of journalist all tapping away on their laptops. Some are trying not to stare, keeping their eyes fixed on their screens. Others shuffle their feet from side to side, catching glimpses as he pours himself a glass of orange juice and surveys the rooms. He shorter than I thought, a mere 5’9″ but built of solid muscle. Is it rude to stare at the greatest competitive surfer of all time or better to just ignore him?
The GoPro representative coughs. “We just wanted to introduce you all to Mr Kelly Slater, 11 times ASP World Champion. Welcome!” he says. Everyone laughs and claps as he sits down at the head of the U-shaped conference room table, waiting for the questioning to begin. Silence. Everyone is awestruck. If he’s uncomfortable in the face of a dozen gawping journalists, he doesn’t show it.
Slater’s competitive career spans over three decades. When you sit down to count his achievements, the list is mind-boggling. He is both the youngest and the oldest surfing world champion of all time. During the 1990s, he won five consecutive world titles on the trot. He’s topped every possible surf record – from most wins to most prize money.
He’s not just renowned within the world of surfing. There are few people in the western world who haven’t heard his name. GQ Magazine put him on the cover in 2011 as one of the “25 Coolest Athletes Of All Time”, while the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C. added one of his boards to their collection.
When he’s not travelling with the ASP World Tour, he’s supporting wildlife campaigns such as Save The Orcas, launching his own high-end sustainable clothing line, Outerknown and hanging out with his partner, former Roxy Girl Kalani Miller in Hawaii.
Race for the Title
When we meet Slater, it’s September – the start of the Moche Rip Curl Pro in Peniche, Portugal. He’s calm after winning his first heat. Little does he know what’s about to come next. “If I can keep myself in with a shot for the title at Pipeline, I’ll be happy,” he says with a cool assurance.
Just two days later, Slater suffered a crushing defeat in round three to Aritz Aranburu, a Spanish surfer ranked 26th in the world. It was a severe blow for the world number three.
Hours later, a video was released online of Slater walking backstage and smashing his surfboard on the ground in a fit of rage. Was this the typically cool-headed champion was coming undone?
“Sometimes you just get frustrated,” he later told Surfing Life. “Rockstars break guitars all the time and no one gets mad at them. I haven’t done that, ever – it was just an immediate release of emotion.”
Then just a month ago, the 42-year old pro broke two toes while surfing monster waves at Cloudbreak in Fiji. He’d escaped injury the day before when he’d broken the fin off his board with his knee. Luck was not on Slater’s side.
After his injury, the Internet was awash with rumours about Slater pulling out of the final ASP World Tour Stop at Pipeline in Hawaii. The champion put these myths to bed by posting on Instagram “#NotTrue on the title race but foot is hurt”.
Now with Slater’s toes on the mend, the competition goes to the finals, which kick off in Hawaii later today. Slater is currently ranked third behind Gabriel Medina and Mick Fanning. He needs to win the event with Medina coming in 13th or 25th position in order to claim his 12th victory. The chances are slim, roughly a five per cent chance, but stranger things have happened.
The best way to keep that feeling to win is to get second, to get really close two times in a row
When asked if he thinks he has the advantage at Pipe, he says he thinks he does “just based on experience alone.” After all, Slater has won the Billabong Pipe Masters here seven times, more than any other surfer in history.
“I’ve seen [Medina] surf really well at Pipe, but no one’s seen him yet on one of those big days taking off deep from behind the peak on a ten foot west bowl.” With a massive swell headed for the North Shore, conditions will be at their peak as the end of the season kicks off.
The drive to succeed
When we sit down with an altogether more calm Slater back in September, it’s the bigger picture we focus on. After winning 11 World Titles, where does he find the drive to keep winning? “The best way to keep that feeling to win is to get second, to get really close two times in a row,” he says. “That’s happened to me last year and the year before. When you get second, you get hungry.”
With young surfers like John John Florence and Gabriel Medina snapping at his heels, will he continue a career in professional surfing if he doesn’t win the World Title this year? “I think so. I haven’t made a decision yet. I’ll probably do another year. I’ve been struggling with some injuries – both my shoulders, my hip and my back. When the season finishes, I’m really going to focus on getting my strength and body together.”
Slater’s life has been an epic journey – he’s lived and breathed surfing since he was a teenager. Now faced with middle age, the world looks a whole lot different.
He grew up in Cocoa Beach, Florida where he learnt to surf with his dad and brothers aged five. Slater shot to fame in the early 1990s, signing a six figure contract with Quiksilver aged 18 and winning his first World Title aged just 20.
Surf journalist Derek Rielly once described watching Slater surf for the first time as “like being led by the infant Jesus to the promised land.”
Not long after his first world victory, Slater announced he would be starring on the American TV show Baywatch alongside Pamela Anderson, whom he went on to have an on-off relationship for the next seven years. After a brief drop in rankings in 1993, Slater came back the following season to win the first of five consecutive world titles from 1994 to 1998. Then came an unexpected retirement. Slater left surfing to play in his band, Surfers.
His return to the competitive World Tour scene in 2002 saw a change of tack in Slater’s personal life. His father died from throat cancer just a month into his return to the World Tour. They’d recently reconciled after years of estrangement.
However, it wasn’t many years later that Slater went on to claim his seventh title in 2005. The wins just kept on coming until 2011 when he scored his 11th world victory aged 39, making him the oldest surfer to win a world title.
The future of surfing
After all these years in the game, where does he think the world of surfing is heading next? “Surfing is changing a lot. There’s a real definition between guys who can carve good and guys who can do airs good. There aren’t many who can do both. In the next generations, we’re going to start to see guys who can charge, who understand the real power of surfing but can spot an air opportunity too.”
Who does he have tipped as great surfers in the next generation of wunderkinds? “John John and Medina. They’re young. Medina is just 20 years old. Then you also have Kolohe Andino who’s really starting to figure out how to do really well in contests. Filipe Toledo is probably the best guy at airs in the world today. He makes everything and goes huge.”
Fitness obviously has a huge part to play in Slater’s life. Not only is he the king of surfing, he’s also the king of healthy eating. He loves chia seeds and coconut water. His Instagram feed is a constant stream of healthy diet tips and advice on clean living.
“I do eat really well,” says Slater, “My fitness is good but rarely great, like top level.” This seems hard to believe. “Surfing is usually pretty short paddling and a short ride. You don’t have to be a triathlete. I’m really trained for that 30 minute period of time.”
Come winter, it’s time for the 42 year old to buckle down in preparation for the coming season. “You have to keep your cardio up. You also have to keep your breath hold up.”
Winter is typically big wave season for surfers around the globe. “Dealing with big waves is dangerous stuff. I start to focus more on that. I usually go to Fiji and do a bunch of freediving, just training for breath holds and getting ready for really big waves.”
I get a lot of inspiration from people who tell me I influence them. I surf more for those reasons now than trying to win a contest...
Just two days after we spoke to Slater, he went and landed an internet-halting frontside 540 on camera. It was a world first – and a clear reminder that he’s still the best surfer of all time. After 11 world titles and numerous records, what is left to achieve? “It changes everyday you paddle out. After competing professionally for over 20 years, just trying to win a heat is a pretty thin excuse for inspiration. I don’t really value that the same as when I was young.”
Inspiration comes from other sources, namely his work with charities such as Save The Orcas, his push towards healthy diet and work towards his own sustainable clothing company, Outerknown, “I get a lot of inspiration from people who tell me I influence them in some way – whether it’s diet or humanity. I feel like I surf more for those reasons now than trying to win a contest.”
Whether or not Slater wins his 12th world title at the upcoming Billabong Pipe Masters remains to be seen. There’s one thing we do know – he’s not done dominating the world just yet.