Writer, Surfer
With Photo: Dewey Nicks/ESPN

Is it too farfetched to think that 74% of athletes on tour closely matching the king’s body type is not a coincidence? Photo: Dewey Nicks/ESPN

The Inertia

If surfing is The Matrix then Kelly Slater is Neo. Slater’s influence on every aspect of our culture is so widely acknowledged that it stopped being comment-worthy long ago. However, it’s possible that Kelly has achieved something greater than that of any athlete, in any sport, ever. It’s not hyperbole to state that the sport of surfing has been shaped in his image. And it’s entirely possible that Kelly Slater has altered not just surfing, but the physical characteristics of a whole generation of surfers.

As a preface, it’s fair to assume that Kelly has influenced every single surfer on Tour. Most of them are on record to confirm it. Slater joined the ‘CT in 1990, an entire decade before other Tour vets like Mick Fanning and Joel Parkinson. In fact, Slater had claimed six world titles before Fanning and Parko had even surfed a heat. If that context isn’t shocking enough, then consider this: Slater’s first world titles pre-date the birth of several current Tour competitors, including current world number one, John John Florence.

Recently I wrote a piece about success in surfing relative to height and discovered that more than one third of the current WCT Top 34 (Men’s Division) are 5’9″ – exactly the same height as Kelly Slater. If we dig a little further into the heights and weights of the best male surfers in the world (as listed on the official WSL site) Kelly’s influence over the physical size of his competitors becomes even more striking. Slater is listed at 5’9” and 159lbs. If we consider him as the base model we find:

  • 13 surfers are exactly 5’9” tall, identical to Kelly.
  • 25 surfers are +/-2” of Slater’s height.
  • 24 surfers are within 4.5kg (10lbs) of Kelly’s weight, with 13 being within 2.2kg/5lbs.

In summary: up to 74% of elite competitive surfers share closely matched vital statistics with Kelly Slater. Aside from perhaps horse racing, such physical similarities at the top level of any one sport seems unfeasible. Why is it – in a sport not known for any size limitations – that the majority of the world’s top surfers have body shapes and sizes that fall within such a narrow range? Is it coincidence that so many elite surfers are physically akin to the greatest surfer of their generation?

To understand how Slater may have influenced the body shapes of surfers we can look first to board design. Over the past decade surfboard design and production has evolved, and the variety of boards and styles commercially available is headache-inducing. But this wasn’t always the case. There was a time when nearly all shortboards existed around 6’0”- 6’6, were paper thin, frighteningly narrow, had rockers like an elf’s slipper, and less volume than a child’s bath toy. And the majority of surfboards existed like this because of Kelly Slater.

The problem, of course, was that none of us are Slater, and so many of these boards were unsuitable for the general public – a fact largely ignored by shapers in lieu of demand and revenue. The challenge of surfing these boards was recently highlighted by the Red Bull “Decades” web series, in which iconic boards from surf history were replicated and tested by pros Kolohe Andino, Ian Walsh, Jamie O’Brien, and Julian Wilson. The boards tested included Greg Noll’s “Elephant Gun”, the Gerry Lopez “Pipeline Gun”, the T&C “Saint” – ridden by Martin Potter – and Slater’s multiple world title winning Al Merrick shape from the 1990s (in the original dimensions of 6’1” x 17 ⅞ x 2 ¼).

You could reasonably assume that pros could surf pretty much anything – in JOB’s case it’s documented fact – but it was revealing to watch all of them struggle with the thin, narrow, rockered-out Merrick. In comparison to the other boards each of them found it to be a struggle. They bogged rails through turns, missed sections, mistimed connections with the lip, and blew airs. As Julian Wilson (he of the normally impeccable form and technique) said: “I don’t understand how it works! It’s really quite difficult to ride.” All of these surfers are significantly taller and heavier than Kelly Slater. Wilson, O’Brien and Walsh all stand at over 6ft tall, and Andino is just an inch shy. As Al Merrick says about the influence Kelly’s boards: “things (rocker and narrow width) got a bit carried away…you can’t have a 190lb guy riding boards designed for a 140lb guy.”

Can you imagine Usain Bolt winning gold medals if he forced himself to run in children’s bowling shoes? What about Allen Iverson dribbling with a golf ball? These images are bizarre, but not any more so than expecting someone of 6ft and 200lb to surf a board designed for Kelly Slater.

In the 90s the relationship between what worked for the everyday surfer and what was available to them was vastly skewed. Surfboards were made for aspirational surfing, not realistic surfing. Kelly’s equipment was so niche, so specialized that it was only really applicable to him – and perhaps others fortunate enough to share a similar body type.

What if the surfboards that were available throughout the 1990s and early 00s essentially advantaged and disadvantaged surfers according to physicality, helping those of similar stature to Kelly to progress but hindering others? What if countless surfers were severely handicapped because the equipment available to them was completely unsuitable? But then what if a select few had an advantage…

To stretch the theory a little, it’s possible that Kelly Slater is responsible for the “Brazilian Storm”. The first surfer to really challenge in this era was Adriano De Souza, whose journey to a world title famously began with a board bought for him by his brother for $7. I wonder what that board was like? Perhaps it was a yellowing, narrow, banana-rockered toothpick that was cheaply available on the secondhand market – utterly useless for most surfers, but ideal for the diminutive Adriano. Most people fortunate enough to learn to surf in an economically disadvantaged country like Brazil surely do so on cheap, second-hand boards. And the majority of these boards in the 90s must have been imported or replicated models of what Kelly Slater was stacking world titles with.

The average height for a man in Brazil also just so happens to be 5’ 8.25” – pretty damn close to the ideal-surf-body blueprint laid out by Slater. Perhaps this gave an advantage to a generation of young Brazilian surfers by providing them with boards that were optimized for their body type. 50% of the current Brazilian representation on the men’s CT are precisely the same height as Kelly, and all the others (except Medina at 5’11”) are a mere couple of inches shorter.

But regardless of whether or not you buy the Slater-responsible-for-Brazilian-storm theory, you can’t deny that Generation Kelly exists. And the thing is, it won’t ever happen again. It’s already changing. There are just too many facets of surf culture now. Diversification of board design and the ubiquity of shapers and shaping machines means that we have a board for every mood. “High performance surfing” is spread thinly across a range of styles and subject to conjecture. Young surfers aspire to be Italo Ferreira or Craig Anderson or Albee Layer or Connor Coffin or Mason Ho…or the hundreds of other variables. It’s impossible to keep up with the volume and variety of surfing beamed around the world daily. Surfing will never again be so eclipsed by the influence of just one man.

And if it seems unlikely that any athlete could influence a sport to such a degree that over two decades the majority of top competitors in that field evolve to have almost identical body types, remember that Kelly Slater isn’t just any athlete. A couple of days ago he won in Tahiti with a virtuoso performance that guru-of-surf-history Matt Warshaw proclaimed on Twitter as: “Kelly Slater’s finest day as a competitor.” I wasn’t ready to make that call, but only by virtue of the number of times I’ve jumped off my seat whilst watching him in competition, and spent the next few hours in a trance pondering the nature of the universe. Maybe Warshaw is right. Slater isn’t claiming fluke victories or competing against sub-standard competition the way some sporting legends do at the tail end of greatness. Instead, he is dominating from start to finish, just as he has for two decades. At the risk of laboring the facts – Kelly Slater is 44 years old, has seen off multiple generations of elite competition, claimed every accolade and broken every record; and he’s still doing things which place him somewhere between untouchable and inhuman. Is it really so far fetched to believe that he has created surfers in his own image?


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