Senior Editor

The Inertia

Kelly Slater is not afraid to share his opinions about things. He has many interests outside of surfing, and when he talks, people want to hear what he’s got to say, for better or for worse. Speculation about his retirement, his involvement in the MMA community, insights for a career that spans years, to say the least, and recently, of course, COVID-19 and the vaccines. The latter of which is a difficult topic to get him to speak about, at least outside of Instagram. But recently, he sat down across a screen from Ariel Helwani, a Canadian journalist who reports mostly on mixed martial arts, for one of the most open and wide-ranging interviews we’ve ever seen from the GOAT. It’s a long conversation — an hour-and-24-minutes, to be precise — so we took the time to pull some of the most interesting bits from it, just in case you don’t have time to listen to it.

On his relationship with MMA:
“When I was eight years old, I was doing Taekwondo in Cocoa Beach, Fla. with Don “the Dragon” Wilson. He had a dojo here in town for six months a year… his mom had a place here in Cocoa Beach and he used to come down here and train. I actually remember being on the beach for the first shuttle launch that ever went off — I guess it was 1980, 1981 — and I remember watching Don run down the beach for his daily run… I’ve always had an affinity for martial arts since I was a little kid.

“I have a real connection into the world [of mixed martial arts]… I really love and respect everything in the Jujutsu and MMA world. The level of skill that people have is amazing to watch, you know? I love watching people who are as passionate about their thing as I have been for my whole life about my thing.

“I actually used to like to fight a lot when I was a kid. I used to fight all the time when I was in school. I had no problem getting punched. I think when I got older I didn’t like getting punched. I kicked a kid in the back of the leg; in the thigh or the butt, and he started crying and I felt really bad and I didn’t want to fight anymore.”

On The Ultimate Surfer:
“The goal of it is to pick someone who is then going to have a chance on tour. The thing is that we have a challenger series that leads up to picking that person. We know who the best couple of guys are who are going to make it on tour next year. It’s not like some mystery… We know the whole crop of people.

“I’d like to see them do it with younger kids. A fun kind of young thing for 12, maybe 15-year-olds. I think it would be really fun for them to be at Surf Ranch for all that time. Get that time in at the wave. Also we don’t know how good someone is going to be yet, but when they’re about 15 you start to get an idea. At that age it leaves a lot of mystery. It leaves a lot of wonder in the skill set coming forward. I would like to see that age bracket have a chance. I don’t know what that would offer them in the end, but you know, some nice reward.”

On death:
“I’ve had a bunch of friends that have drowned. There are some terrible stories out there. A lot of near-death happenings for anyone who surfs big waves, mostly. A lot of the injuries happen in small waves — small, shallow reefs. You get a lot of cuts and boards hitting you and stuff. When the wave is small, all that energy is in one spot. It’s easier to hit the reef. It’s easier for the board to hit you because it’s not getting thrown 50 feet away. Everything is calculated for each person in their own skill. Wakeboarders are scared of sharks. Surfers are scared of alligators. I see a gator and I’m like, ‘that thing is fucking hunting me.’ A shark will just kind of come up and give you a bite and take off. Sharks don’t really scare me… but alligators… alligators are one thing, but saltwater crocodiles? You go down the coast of Costa Rica and some of these places where they’re protected and there’s tons of them. It’s frightening.

“You’re never as real as when you might die. That fear creates an intense focus; an intense presence. I think that’s what draws people to sports that are filled with adrenaline and danger. It kind of defaults you into the place where you should be all the time: present and clear and not distracted. The modern world is making that even harder. With our phones — we’re all addicted to that and information and news and all of that. Especially with COVID now, everyone wants to  be up to date on the latest thing. Things that bring in a certain level of danger and fear and the reality that you could die, obviously that’s going to bring you into that present moment. It is like a drug. That’s what drugs do for people.

“I’ve had countless amounts of friends pass away from all sorts of things. From suicide, drownings, murders, drug overdoses, cancer, you name it… I hate to say that I’ve become conditioned to it, but you start to understand the emotions around it, you know? When someone passes away, you experience it and you get through the emotions of it. Then you realize that life goes on and you have to remember them for the good stuff and be present enough to spend good time with the rest of the people that you have in the time that you have here.”

On retirement:
“I’m really contemplating this being my last full year of competing. Coming up when I’m 50, it’ll be 30 years since I won my first world title. It’ll be my sixth decade of surfing, technically. I first started competing when I was eight.

“I still think you have to be learning. If you’re not learning, you’re losing. If you’re not learning, you’re falling behind. Basically everyone I look to now is younger than me. I think the only thing I fear is that my godson will get on Tour before I get off.

“It’s a real rewarding thing as an older athlete — it makes you feel like you’ve had success in your life if people say they were influenced by what you did, how you spoke, or your approach to something, you know?”

On the Surf Ranch:
“I think people are bored with it. The same wave over and over again. I think people like that excitement of what might happen in the ocean; what wave might come. A big part of the skill of a surfer is learning how to read the conditions better than someone else.

“I always envisioned Surf Ranch to be its own thing where you’re comparing skills; comparing the skill set strictly on the same wave. There were so many competitions over the years where people were like, ‘oh, he got the better wave, she got the better waves.’ So the idea that you could all ride the same wave, then it’s about your skill… but it becomes a little bit monotonous for people because they feel like they know what they’re going to see ahead of time.”

On COVID-19 vaccines:
“It’s a constantly changing conversation. Day to day, there are different rules and different lockdowns. You see what’s happening in Germany and Austria right now. They’re basically saying if you’re not going to be vaccinated, you’re going to be locked out of society completely. You’re going to get fined… all that kind of stuff. I think the best we can hope for in the end is that this thing mutates, like SARS-1 did in the end, and becomes less lethal.

“For some people it’s not even a sniffle. For some people it’s the end of their lives. It’s a very peculiar situation that we’re dealing with, and no one really knows what it’s going to be like for them if they get it.

“Statistically speaking, the healthier you are the better off you’ll be, but that’s not necessarily the case. I’ve had friends who have had horrible trouble with COVID. I’ve also had really healthy friends had trouble with side-effects from the vaccination. It’s a tough one. Man, it’s such a shitty situation for everybody. For the world.”


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