Like most surfing enthusiasts, I have many memories of Kelly Slater. Some formed in person and others experienced vicariously through the broad media exposure someone of his stature receives.
During the early 2000s, I had the privilege of some first-hand experiences with the champ through commentating at the Billabong sponsored WCT events around the world. I was working for Billabong at the time, and Kelly won every one of the sponsored stops we worked on through that period–J-Bay (my old home town), Mundaka, and Teahupoo.
Aside from handing over multiple trophies to Slater on the podium, two moments stand out to me above the rest, both from 2005. It was the year he won his 7th world title, and more notably broke a 3-year world title-winning streak by the indomitable Andy Irons.
The first was witnessed from the second level of the judging tower while calling the final in Tahiti. After describing what was one of the best waves of his life against Bruce Irons in the 4th Round, Kelly went on to post surfing’s first perfect 20 point final against Taj Burrow at heaving Teahupoo. The waves were flawless and in true Kelly fashion, his feat deserved a victory lap. During quick paddle back via the channel, he picked up a can of Hinano (Tahitian beer) and pulled into one more barrel… this time emerging while taking a swig of the local brew.
It was a fitting exclamation mark to what was a remarkable event. I remember thinking I was experiencing history being written while all this was going down – 2005 was shaping up to be an interesting year on tour.
Fast forward three events, and we’re back in J-Bay. Andy Irons had just come off the back of three consecutive 9th places and was fired up for only his second final of the year after dispatching of local hero, Greg Emslie. It was a dream final– a final both surfers had dreamt of for years. I can still remember the day vividly. A beautiful Eastern Cape winter afternoon, the swell was solid but a light cross-shore southerly had come up during the break after the semi-finals. Andy was antsy in the competitor’s area below. He just wanted to paddle out and get on with it. I remember going downstairs for a drink of water, and he was pacing like a lion in a cage. “Let’s go already,” he said, wringing his hands. “It’s firing!” Kelly was in the other corner, calm and emotionless, at least on the outside. It seemed like he was intentionally delaying Andy. He knew it’d get under his skin.
The final eventually got under way and Andy took control early. The lion came out the cage and effectively marked his territory up and down the famous point break. Kelly was all but done when Andy rode a wave down past the bottom keyhole with only seconds remaining. I remember starting to count the clock down for the crowd, excited to call out Andy Irons as the J-Bay victor, but out the corner of my eye I saw a fresh set approaching as I reached for the siren. By now, Andy was on the beach and Kelly out the back needing a 9 + score. The crowd’s energy rose as Kelly weaved, carved and floated down the point, eventually falling on his last turn down at Impossibles. It felt like an eternity before the scores appeared on the monitor in front me. I didn’t think he had it.
I could see Andy gesticulating wildly towards the tower when I read the out the score. For a moment, I froze, thinking he was yelling at me. Had I over-hyped Kelly’s last wave on the mic? Back on the ground floor of the tower Andy was livid. He made eye contact with me and expressed his discontent with a grunt as I tried to coax him onto the stage for the presentation ceremony. He had just been unceremoniously beaten by his old foe, and he wasn’t happy. The presentation was even more awkward as Andy wore his tortured heart on his sleeve; he was still seething as he walked off the stage.
While this J-Bay experience may sound like it was more about Andy, it was as much about Kelly’s resolve under pressure. The way he never gave up has stuck with me. Andy got one back over Kelly at the very next event in Japan, adding even more spice to the rivalry, but it was Kelly who would wrestle the crown away from Irons in 2005, and go on to win another four world titles after that.
A lot has changed in Kelly’s life since 2005. He now owns surfboard business, is pioneering true sustainability with his apparel brand and stunned the world earlier this year with the Kelly Slater Wave Co.
So what can we learn from this enigmatic icon of our sport? Three simple things:
Never give up. J-Bay 2005 and countless other heats and events have shown us that. It’s truly never over until it’s over. But even then…
Re-invention is the key to longevity. Kelly is both the youngest and the oldest world champion, and that doesn’t happen by accident. From revolutionizing board lengths to pursuing his passions outside of surfing, he has always found a way to stay engaged, and more importantly, to stay relevant.
Have fun. It seems Kelly’s most dangerous when he’s having fun. That may look different for each of us, but when the fun’s gone, it’s time to re-access.
In a recent interview, Kelly was quoted as saying he still wants to be competing at the top level when he’s 50. Judging by his 2016 Fiji Pro form, he is still super engaged in competitive surfing, especially when the surf is good. Kelly hasn’t won an event in a little while, but he will be back in J-Bay this week, 11 years after his famous win over Andy Irons. I get the sense that this chapter of Kelly’s life is far from over, and there will be a lot more we will learn from him before he turns 50, but for now, let’s just sit back and watch history write itself.