I call it the “mom test.” Or “dad test,” not to discriminate. Go ahead, try it. Ask your parent who doesn’t surf who Gabriel Medina, or Julian Wilson or any “star” surfer is, and you’re likely to get a blank stare and a shoulder shrug. But mention Kelly Slater and there’s a good chance you’ll see eyes light up in recognition. He dated Giselle before Tom Brady. He was Pamela Anderson’s beau. He was on Baywatch. He was mainstream.
Despite competitive surfing’s best efforts, it can’t get off the Kelly high. It can’t get away from the fact that headlines happen at an increased rate when Kelly Slater – the magician that he is – pulls off a magic trick like he did at the Pipeline Masters this week. The guy doesn’t even have to win (he finished an even third). As long as his name appears at the top of anything, people will watch or click or read. Mainstream publications could not care less if Medina catches a Backdoor bomb on his backhand, controls himself through the barrel on a frighteningly heavy wave – a technically savage wave to negotiate – and scores a 10 to get himself out of combo against Connor Coffin, who had him on the ropes. The fact that Medina won his second world title was pretty much lost on mainstream media. But if Kelly shaves his head differently, Rolling Stones, TMZ, Sports Illustrated, Deadspin, all scurry to feature the King on their social media accounts.
You can’t really blame them, right? I’m admittedly a fan, too. I mean, the guy’s pushing 47, and he’s still surfing so incredibly well. He knows Pipeline better than any surfer on the planet. His turns are beautiful. His air game is good enough to compete with kids 25 years younger than him. I wouldn’t mind if he surfed competitively until he was 60, chucking age expectations like a Filipe Toledo alleyoop. If the “sport” wants mainstream eyes, Slater is good at attracting them.
But is he good for developing the sport’s new stars? From an American perspective, John John Florence is next but in reality, he should be now. He’s won two world titles. His surfing, with its ease in the air, its beauty on rail, is certainly worthy. So try the “mom test” with John John. Go ahead, run downstairs and ask her. Get on the phone with dad. As long as Kelly’s involved in the sport, John John’s fame has a cap (not to mention John John’s personality might be the polar opposite).
Medina, who’s undoubtedly huge in Brazil, is anything but stateside. He drums up controversy when he cuts people off in the lineup at Lowers, or works his cut-throat-like wizardry to push someone out of contention at any given contest. He can do it all competitively. Airs, rail game, barrels, hassle. He’s a competitive technician. But can he lift the sport to new heights like Mr. Slater? Maybe in South America.
It can easily be argued that Kelly affects young careers, too. Look at the wildcard situation this year. Caio Ibelli told us this could essentially be the end of the road for him. Along with John John and Kelly, Caio is vying for the two wildcard spots for the 2019 CT. If Caio–the 2016 Rookie of the Year–doesn’t receive one of them, that might be it (update: he didn’t get it). He has one sponsor. Can the Brazilian afford the QS slog to re-qualify? “Whatever Kelly did, some of his decisions (with his injury) weren’t very smart: he was going to Fiji, surfing on and off in some events,” Ibelli said. “I think in the eyes of everyone, nobody was happy that he was playing the system a little bit.” I’ve heard whispers from inside the industry that many competitors are ready for Kelly Slater to step aside so the limelight can shine elsewhere.
Remember Adriano De Souza’s World Title? Yeah, hardly anyone does, because Slater unveiled his new wave a day after De Souza claimed the championship (and yes, that’s probably another nod to the 11-timer’s ability to create viral content).
Here’s something you can’t debate: Kelly Slater is the greatest surfer to ever live. The GOAT, the Great Bambino of wave riding, the One. He’s made the sport what it is. Taken it to new heights, literally given it new waves. But is he great for up-and-coming young talent bent on carrying the sport for years to come? That’s certainly debatable.