Surfing’s greatest Kelly Slater waxes up for another world title battle at 50

Surfing’s greatest Kelly Slater waxes up for another world title battle at 50
Kelly Slater of the US celebrates after winning the men's competition at Banzai Pipeline in Haleiwa, Hawaii on 5 February 2022. (Photo: Koji Hirano / Getty Images)

Kelly Slater, unquestionably the greatest surfer of all time and one of the greatest athletes, recently won the first event of the 2022 World Surf League season. At 50 he is ready to make an assault on the world title again.

Kelly Slater, the world’s best surfer, nearly called time on one of the most storied careers in sporting history after his eighth and best win at the famed Pipeline Pro in Hawaii last week, saying that at times he hated what he had dedicated his life to.

Instead, as he turned 50 on 11 February, Slater confirmed he is preparing to again battle for a record 12th World Surf League (WSL) Championship title, 32 years after turning pro.

“When I got my last wave in this (Pipeline) contest and I finished it, I said to myself, ‘It’s done, all this stuff is done, (I’m) done with it’,” Slater told Reuters.

“Because there’s just such a release of the pressure, when you’re competing at a high level, when you’re competing with the guys who are the next generation, and the next generation, and the next generation, for years and years,” he said.

“Look, I know a lot of people’s lives are a lot harder than mine is, but those moments are so exhilarating but so much pressure at one time, it’s hard to contain it and to process it.”

At a post-final interview at Pipeline, after defeating a surfer half his age, an emotional Slater said he loved his surfing life, but conceded that “I’ve hated lots of it”.

Kelly Slater celebrates with the crowd after winning the men’s competition at Banzai Pipeline in Haleiwa, Hawaii on 5 February 2022. (Photo: Koji Hirano / Getty Images)

Momentum Generation

It is hard to overstate Slater’s contribution to surfing. He became its youngest world champion at 20 in 1992 and its oldest at 39 in 2011, and now has a record 56 World Tour victories, drawing comparisons with sporting greats such as Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods.

With his “Momentum Generation” peers, Slater redefined the sport in the 1990s, bringing a new era of explosive, fast-paced surfing with radical new aerial manoeuvres and deep, technical tube riding.

Slater also rode waves of fame as professional surfing’s popularity exploded at that time.

He formed friendships with movie stars such as Bill Murray and musicians including Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, appeared on numerous magazine covers and had a role on the hit show Baywatch whose star, Pamela Anderson, he dated.

His eponymous artificial wave pool, revealed in 2015, was a game changer. Other ventures include a sustainable clothing brand and surfboard companies.

Not since Hawaii’s Olympic champion swimmer Duke Kahanamoku introduced surfing to the world in the early 1900s has a surfer so captured public attention.

But Slater’s recent scepticism around Covid-19 vaccines has been contentious, with Australian authorities insisting he will not be allowed in for contests there unless he is inoculated.

“It’s sad to see the celebrated division by the ‘virtuous vaccinated’,” Slater wrote in a since-deleted comment on Instagram. “If you’re vaccinated why are you concerned/worried about anyone else’s status… unless, of course, it doesn’t protect you?”

Slater told Reuters he planned to surf the Australian leg, but declined to directly address whether he had been vaccinated.

“It is an important question, and there’s a reason I’m not talking about it that is personal. I do believe that medical privacy is a real thing. But I think my answer is that I’ll see you in Australia.”

Kelly Slater celebrates victory in the men’s competition at Banzai Pipeline in Hawaii on 5 February 2022. (Photo: Koji Hirano / Getty Images)

Competitive king

Born Robert Kelly Slater in Cocoa Beach, Florida in 1972, Slater spent much of his childhood at the beach as his parents’ marriage collapsed.

He was talked about as a future world champ before he was a teenager and won five straight world titles between 1993 and 1998 before his first attempt at retiring in 1999.

He rejoined the tour in 2002, establishing a fierce rivalry with the late Andy Irons from Hawaii, a three-time world champion. Slater won world titles in 2005, 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2011.

Since his last WSL world title 11 years ago, Slater has remained a major threat to the new generation of world champs, including Brazilian Gabriel Medina and Hawaii’s John John Florence.

Slater’s dominance, competitive approach and the unrelenting spotlight on him sometimes drew criticism in the sport.

At the Tahiti Pro in 2005 Slater was up against Damien Hobgood, who dislocated his shoulder midway through the final at the infamous reef break of Teahupo’o.

Slater surfed on, giving a masterclass in tube riding and scoring the first perfect 20/20 in the sport’s history as Hobgood struggled to fix his shoulder.

“By the time I get back out there, here comes Kelly flying out of another barrel, drinking a beer,” Hobgood said in the 2019 documentary And Two If By Sea. “I was kind of like, maybe that was a little disrespectful, celebrating when I was hurt.”

Kelly Slater of the US (right) and Miguel Pupo of Brazil surf in the first heat of the semifinals at Banzai Pipeline in Haleiwa, Hawaii on 5 February 2022. (Photo: Koji Hirano / Getty Images)

Slater said he never meant disrespect to Hobgood or any of his competitors, but wouldn’t change a thing.

“Celebrating by drinking a beer in the barrel was probably my greatest celebration I ever had,” he laughed.

After winning at Pipeline this month, Slater was lavish with his praise of his young rivals, including finalist Seth Moniz, whose father Slater surfed against early in his career.

In high-level competition you want rivals who push each other and the sport, he said.

“You want them at their best, trying their hardest and then the real winner comes out on top.”

Thirty years after winning his first world title and ranked No 1 on the 2022 World Championship Tour, Kelly Slater is still on top. Reuters/DM


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