Sport

HELL OF A RIDE

The king crests — Kelly Slater, surfing’s GOAT, bails

The king crests — Kelly Slater, surfing’s GOAT, bails
Eleven-times world champion Kelly Slater on the final day of the Billabong Pro in Jeffreys Bay 22 July 2007. He was placed second in the competition. (Photo: Gallo Images)

Kelly Slater, the greatest surfer of all time, is likely leaving professional wave riding.

In 2019, 47 years after Kelly Robert Slater was born in Florida, US, to Irish and Syrian parents, the Wild Fig restaurant in Jeffrey’s is buzzing with excitement.

The Billabong Pro Jeffreys Bay has attracted the world’s best surfers, a goodly chunk of whom are here because it offers a little more than the starchy steakhouse fare found in small coastal towns. A big part of the buzz is that the greatest surfer who has ever lived is sitting in a corner quietly having dinner.

As founder of surfing website Wavescape and a surfing journalist covering the event, I am dining with some JBay locals and assorted photographers and other wizened salty sea dogs when our waiter excitedly shows us his bald head inscribed with a signature procured earlier in the day during the women’s event. Scrawled on his sunburned dome are the words: “With love, Carissa Moore.”

“I am never washing my head again,” he says. I never saw him again, but I often wonder how long it took for him to break his unlikely promise never again to rub soap on his hairless dome, especially after Moore won the women’s event a few days later.

King Kelly

But for the other bald man in the room sitting in the corner, with 11 world titles under his belt, a win in this event would do nothing to dilute the compound value of his signature accumulated over 55 event victories during a very successful 32-year career.

Slater did not win the JBay event, and would not win in JBay again, but it didn’t matter then, and it doesn’t matter now, such was the impact he has had on the surfing world. His JBay track record is solid anyway. He won the inaugural event in 1996 and has won it another three times.

Besides, two years later, in 2022, he won the 56th at one of the most dangerous and scary waves in the world, the Banzai Pipeline on the North Shore of O‘ahu in Hawaii. Not bad for a guy about to turn 50.

“Do you think I can ask Kelly to sign my head?” asks our waiter. Of course, is our consensus. We notice a few minutes later the waiter standing shyly at Kelly’s table, hands twisted together in front of him.

Slater speaks, and the waiter bows. The serf surfer submits before King Kelly the almighty, and his shiny head is anointed by the flourish of Kelly’s koki. 

It is easy to say that Kelly Slater is the surfing greatest of all time, or GOAT, certainly among the legions of fans he has left in his wake after his involuntary “retirement” from the World Surf League (WSL) Championship Tour this week.

Slater fought fiercely against his opponent Griffin Colapinto, aged 25 to Slater’s 52. But the veteran could not prevail and his younger American compatriot knocked him out of the Margaret River Pro in Australia.

This means Slater misses what in surfing is called the mid-season cut, which means he will not be surfing the remaining events on the world tour, and does not automatically qualify for the 2025 season. He would have to surf in the feeder Challenger Series, something he has not done in many years.

Though not officially announcing anything, the emotion around his defeat, the way he was stretchered off the beach in a ritual reserved for winners, and the way those cobalt-blue eyes teared up in the post-match interview poignantly suggest that the greatest surfer of all time will no longer be a fully fledged member of the WSL elite tour.

Best of all time?

If one were to step into the hazardous minefield of the greatest sports hero debate, there is a convincing case for Kelly. In the grand pantheon parade of athletes whose careers have come and gone – names like Ali, Serena and Phelps – and those still going such as – insert your hero here – how many were competing at the highest level after 52 orbits of the sun?

Of all the greats, do you know anyone competing at the top of their game after 32 years? How many can say they hold the record for being the youngest and oldest world champion? Slater claimed his first world title as a 20-year-old in 1992, and won his last at 39 in 2011.

But this debate is moot and shouldn’t really be entertained other than to highlight the intractable differences in career paths, personal achievement and, not least, the vagaries so unique to sport that they make comparison impossible.

Slater is the best surfer of all time for a number of reasons, mostly forged in his almost inhuman ability to focus on what it takes to win – and then follow that tactic with a burning and relentless competitive intensity. Everything else is just noise, even his opponent.

Unlike many sports conducted in a static and finite environment, surfing is one of those in which you must conquer a fluid and sometimes frightening environment.

Many athletes have weak areas in their game, or certain places that hold bad omens for them. Slater has the mental steel to ignore the ferocity of the venue, the size of the waves, or the opponent he is facing. He competes with a mesmerising consistency of thought and action.

As top Australian surfing coach Martin Dunn says: “Competing in waves from two to 25 feet, the versatility and confidence to play with the varied ocean conditions and to school his fellow competitors – year in, year out. It’s just amazing.”

Dunn points out that not only has Slater kept himself extremely fit, he has also always been a clever tactician who thinks deeply about what he is doing. His surfing ability is also unsurpassed in the way he reads the wave and can surf going in any direction, right or left.

“He makes good decisions, is tactically strong and is able to handle – even thrive – under the pressure to succeed. His package of skills is without peer,” Dunn says.

Wave pool

Apart from his otherworldly skills in surfing – a friend once said he was convinced that Slater’s back was double-jointed – Slater pioneered the world’s most innovative artificial wave pool in California.

The Surf Ranch is now one of the events on the WSL world tour, and the Kelly Slater Wave Company is building wave pools around the world.

Slater has also innovated in surfboard design and fin systems and even started a clothing and surf brand called Outer Known, which has a strong conservation component. He is an outspoken advocate of ocean awareness and sustainability.

In the words of Colapinto, the man who beat Kelly in his last heat on surfing’s premier tour: “It’s crazy, he’s given me and everyone on this tour so much. We owe him so much. We make a living because of how far he has taken surfing. It’s pretty incredible. I used to watch his videos and imagine myself being like him.”

Though comparisons are odious, Slater shares attributes common to other greats, from self-discipline and consistency to a sense of timing about when to fight and when to surrender, which put him right up there with the best the world has seen.

Oh, and he is also quite a nice guy. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R35.

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