There’s a scene in Gabriel García Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude where a giant rainstorm makes the air so humid, the fish swim through it. Saturday morning felt like that. The swell held, though, and after a morning of rain, the wind disappeared and the sea glassed off. At 11:00 am I was down on the beach, betting with a friend on heats.
“Five bucks on Taj over Dane,” I said.
“You crazy? I’ll take that any day, Endo.”
We had barely finished shaking hands when Taj dropped into one of the biggest barrels of the day and came shooting out. Ten. When I looked back, said friend had vanished.
Then, it was Slater and De Souza. In round four, the Brazilian had come within an interference call of sending the King to the repercharge, and in the post-heat interview, he was none too happy about it. “He was just being ridiculous in the water,” Slater said. “It was kind of silly.”
The terse words seemed out of character for Slater. What more can The Great One ask than for his opponents to want to destroy him? But regardless of why he felt affronted, he surely paddled out Sunday morning wanting to win a World Title, wanting to become the greatest competitive surfer ever, wanting to become one of the greatest sportsmen ever, and wanting to beat the hell out of this cocky Brazilian kid who just wouldn’t go away.
It was over in two waves. And although the significance of the moment was not lost on me, I selfishly felt deprived of the chance to see the King sweat. I wanted the tit-for-tat brinkmanship. I wanted the hassling and the glaring and cursing. I wanted to see Slater on edge, slapping the water and looking to the sky in frustration. If for no other reason, just to know that a little of my own frailty could exist in him, and by extension, a little of his strength in me.
The closest I got was watching him awkwardly stagger across the sharp reef, just like the rest of us. When he reached land, a pack of sweaty, shoving journalists and photographers jostled for position. Photos and questions fired left and right. Slater rarely makes eye contact during group interviews, but who would he look at, anyway? As usual, he stared out to sea with a distant, haunted expression, a few stray tears mixing with the water and sweat on his face. Despite being feet from him, most of his words lost to the din of the crowd, and they didn’t matter much anyway. We were all there to share a moment with this man. Aside from the warmth emanating from Slater’s immediate circle, our handshakes, questions, and congratulations amounted to a distracting white noise when compared with the savage ballet of his performance: that day, and every other.
The rest of the comp was a microcosm of Slater’s career: a half-step away from unbeatable. By the end of it, a sense of elation had gripped us all. Yet still, Slater surfed. Back in the VIP area, while popping a few Coors of my own, surrounded by a crowd already planning the night’s festivities, I watched him dance across wave after wave, no longer shackled by weighty expectations – but still out there surfing like he had a wager with the devil.
That night at his party with a tenth world title in the books, Steven Slater cracked jokes, Jordy Smith managed to entertain a group of starry-eyed kids while double parked with Coronas (courtesy of overzealous friends, not an overzealous drinking habit), Steph Gilmore sipped vodka tonics with her trademark smile, Mark Cunningham talked story, Michel Bourez hung in the corner, and we all celebrated as if we had won, too. Even if it was vicariously, we had all walked through the valley of a week that saw two champions made, one lost, and three legends solidified. After all that, even the toughest deserve a good, cold drink.
The parties ended late, and the next day the circus evacuated; some didn’t even bother going to bed. It seemed that the only remaining visitors were a few poor journalists who didn’t have enough money to change their tickets. After a long day of writing, I drove out to check Gas Chambers. Winding down the hill, I caught a glimpse of a monstrous, warbling tube devouring the point. I parked and ran up the point to watch. Among the crowd, Slater’s familiar bald head bobbed. He caught a few mid-ranged waves, then paddled up the point, twenty-five, thirty, then fifty feet beyond the rest. He was so far out that I thought he was paddling in around the headland, but then he stopped and waited. The crowd scrambled for set waves, hooted each other off, and dropped in. Still he waited. Then a set swung wide, and every man in the lineup turned to watch. When the wave was almost upon him, he turned, took two big digs, and slid to his feet. When he reached the bottom, the wave hit the reef, and he hurtled down into its gaping maw.