Kelly Slater | Is Time Really Up For The Greatest Surfer In History?

GOAT status is assured, but at 47 surely this is Slater's last competitive lap of the sun (or maybe not)

Featured Image: World Surf League

“It was surreal and pretty special. The sun had just come up and I was sitting in the Bells lineup alone with Kelly Slater,” pro surfer Ryan Callinan told Mpora. “The waves were giant and then ACDC’s Hells Bells blared over the loudspeakers. I looked at Kelly, I mean he’s the GOAT. I had posters of him on my wall as a kid and so I had to reset. I had to get my ahead around beating him.”

“He’s the GOAT. I had posters of him on my wall as a kid and so I had to reset. I had to get my ahead around beating him”

Callinan, 26, was surfing against Kelly Slater, 47, in the Quarterfinals of the Rip Curl Pro at Bells Beach held this Easter. The day before had seen waves that were as high as skyscrapers, just coloured a green- black, moving at warp speed and being whipped out of shape by a 30-knot onshore wind. The 50 Year Storm hashtag wrote itself. Slater had prevailed, dodging and riding massive sets and making it, yet again, to the Finals Day of a Championship Tour (CT) event. Going into that final day there was hope that he could add to his 55 career victories and four Bells trophies. If, and it was a big if, he could do that it might be possible that he could win a 12th World Title in this his final year on tour.

Pictured: Kelly Slater (right), as Jimmy Slade in Baywatch

Kelly started competing full time back in 1989 as an 18-year-old but had started surfing at the age of three at Florida’s Cocoa Beach, encouraged by his father – a fishing-tackle shop owner of Syrian descent – and his older brother, Sean. He had always seen surfing as a preordained calling. “I remember one day when I was in kindergarten thinking, ‘Oh, well, I guess I’m a surfer now,’” he once told me back when he had just won his 11th World Title as a spritely 39-year-old. That feat meant he became the oldest ever surfing World Champion, 18 years after he became the youngest in 1992.

“A new realm of media attention, especially when he started dating his co-star Pamela Anderson”

When he first arrived the surfing world had never seen anything remotely like Kelly. There had always been surfing stars of each generation, but Kelly’s talent level was unprecedented. That the package came with piercing green eyes, chiselled features, fierce intelligence and an undeniable will to win meant that surfing suddenly had new charisma. It’s also worth noting that back then he had hair.

As a 19-year-old Slater was on People magazine’s list of the 50 most beautiful people in the world. But it was undoubtedly his appearance as the fictional pro surfer Jimmy Slade in 27 episodes of Baywatch in 1991 that propelled him into a new realm of media attention, especially when he started dating his co-star Pamela Anderson.

Pictured: Slater catching barrels at his wave pool (via GoPro)

Their relationship lasted two years, but their on-again/off-again status ensured he featured heavily in the tabloids throughout the 1990s. Further romantic links with supermodels Gisele Bündchen and Bar Rafaeli, as well as the actress Cameron Diaz, didn’t harm his tabloid pin-up status.

However those days are long gone. For the past 10 years he has travelled with his girlfriend, Kalani Miller, a 33-year-old Californian. Instead of racking up girlfriends, he instead compiled World Titles. His haul of 11 is four more than the record held by next best Layne Beachley and Steph Gilmore and miles ahead of his nearest male rival, Mark Richards who has four.

“I beat him at Bells, but he’s still the best surfer. He’s the best surfer there ever has been”

Such has been Slater’s longevity and dominance it has placed him in a very elite pack of athletes. As he has transcended his own sport the comparisons between stars in other sports have been inevitable. In 2011, GQ listed him as one of the 25 coolest athletes of all time – joining the likes Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Björn Borg and Arnold Palmer. Comparisons with Tom Brady, five years his junior, also resurfaced after Brady won a record sixth Superbowl at the age of 42 last year.

“You know, that stuff comes up,” Slater told Sports Illustrated recently, “but it’s a conversation I prefer not to have. It’s like comparing apples and oranges. I’ve just dedicated myself to the sport I love, and since I was a kid I’ve been able to spend most of my energy trying to improve the way I surf and the way I compete.”

Credit: World Surf League

That improving arc, a seemingly ever upward loop, however may have finally reached its plateau point. In the Quarterfinal with Callinan at Easter at Bells, he was easily outscored and his fairytale run was cut short. In the first event of the year, the Quik Pro on the Gold Coast, he suffered two early defeats and was one of the first four surfers of the 36 man field to be bundled out of the competition.

“Sometimes your back is against the wall and it breaks, mentally,” Slater said immediately and mixed metaphorically after that loss on the Gold Coast. “The last three days something came over me and I’ve been really struggling. All the pressure and the build up has thrown me and I haven’t enjoyed my surfing.”

“De Souza’s win was quickly forgotten as the greatest surfer of all time again ripped the fabric of the surf time continuum”

It was relatively new territory for Kelly. While his last two World Title were won in 2010 and 2011, he finished runner-up in the next two years and had been, at the very least, in contention in all the World Title races up until 2016. He also managed CT victories in some of the gnarliest waves on the planet like Pipeline, Teahupoo and Cloudbreak. And even when Kelly wasn’t winning surfing’s ultimate prize, he still managed to be at the heart of the surfing conversation.

A prime example was on the next day after Adriano de Souza won his World Title in 2015. That morning Kelly dropped the first footage of his artificial wave on his Instagram account. Now artificial waves had existed before, but none came close to the length and perfection of the version him and his backers had created in an old waterski lake in Lemoore, Central California. De Souza’s win was quickly forgotten as the greatest surfer of all time again ripped the fabric of the surf time continuum.

Pictured: Kelly Slater at Bells Beach. Credit: World Surf League

Three years later that wave remains a game changer. Now dubbed the Surf Ranch, the WSL, sport’s governing body, bought the technology and so placed it at the heart of its push to bring the sport to a mainstream audience. Some may question the idea of surf competitions being held out of the ocean, but for Kelly, it was simply an extension of his imagination. It just turns out that like his surfing, his imagination is at another level.

However back in the ocean, Slater’s competitive results were finally catching up with his age. Any chance of claiming a 12th World Title may have ended in July in 2017 at Jeffreys Bay. Whilst freesurfing the famous South African pointbreak Kelly broke two bones in his right foot, a sensation he described as like, “smashing my foot with a big hammer as hard as I can.” Whilst Kelly had suffered from back pain throughout his career, he’d never suffered a major injury that forced him out of the water for an extended length of time.

“I really underestimated both the severity of the injury and the time it would take to get over,” he admitted down at Bells. “I probably needed a good 12 months out of the water and focused more on a complete rehab.” Instead Slater came back prematurely surfing in events at the Surf Ranch and Pipeline, all be it in serious pain. Having surfed a few events and missing qualification for the CT in 2019, the WSL opted to give Slater a Wildcard ensuring his place on tour for the 2019. Of course the injury, and the fact that he is just three years shy of his 50th birthday, only fuelled the retirement rumours.

Pictured: Kelly Slater doing what he does best in Tahiti. Credit: World Surf League

When asked just a few months ago on a golfing trip to New Zealand Slater was ambivalent. “There is a chance I could retire at the end of this year, at least from full-time competition, but if it looks like, or if I feel like I’m going to make the Olympics, I’ll probably end up trying to do that next year,’’ he told the New Zealand Herald, before adding more cryptically, “I’ll make that decision the day I do. So I’m not sure.”

So far this season, Kelly’s competitive results haven’t exactly followed the ‘game over for Slater’ narrative that was getting bandied about after this year’s first WSL event. That third place at this year’s Corona Bali event, where he was unlucky to lose to Japan’s Kanoa Igarashi in the semi-finals, reminded us all that you can never totally write off the GOAT.

“Just to compete against Kelly is an absolute honour. That’s the gift he has given to the next generation”

The talk of an extremely unlikely world title push has faded somewhat since then, with Slater bagging a couple of back-to-back ninth place finishes at Margaret River and Saquarema respectively. While these weren’t bad results by any stretch, they’re probably a touch short of the mark required to make this season the Hollywood ending many would love to see.

Slater’s surfing at Bells and Bali provided flashes of the old brilliance, and coming not long after Tiger Woods completed his remarkable win at Augusta it was easy to let the imagination get carried away. The fact that Slater, at the time of publishing, currently sits at seventh in the WSL rankings, ahead of Gabriel Medina  who alongside John John Florence and Filipe Toledo is cited as someone who could one day take up the ‘greatest of all time’ mantle , shows how far he’s recovered from 2019′ early disappointments.

Whatever happens from here on out, one thing’s for certain. Nothing will diminish who he is, or what he has done for the sport. “Just to compete against Kelly is an absolute honour,” concludes Callinan. “That’s the gift he has given to the next generation. By staying so relevant and surfing so great for so long, it’s enabled us to watch and learn from him. I beat him at Bells, but he’s still the best surfer. He’s the best surfer there ever has been.”

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