The stakes have never been higher on the 2019 World Surf League Championship Tour. That’s because for the first time in history, the tour’s rankings will determine national team qualification for surfing’s 2020 Olympic debut.
As we reported by way of the New Zealand Herald recently, that fact isn’t lost on Kelly Slater whose retirement plans from full-time competitive surfing will be contingent on his Olympic prospects.
“There is a chance I could retire at the end of this year, at least from full-time competition, but if it looks like, or if I feel like I’m going to make the Olympics, I’ll probably end up trying to do that next year,” said the 47-year-old over the weekend.
Okay, but what’s the breakdown of Slater’s actual prospects to represent the Stars and Bars in Japan in 2020, really?
First, a refresher on the qualification scheme devised by the International Surfing Association and accepted by the International Olympic Committee.
According to the ISA, 18 slots are reserved for surfers that rank highest on the men’s and women’s CT (10 men and 8 women will qualify), the remaining 22 surfers will qualify through ISA events. Here’s the rub: only two surfers may qualify per country and once that happens the next highest ranked surfer representing a country that hasn’t met its quota gets the nod.
Here’s a perfect example to illustrate the point. Last year Gabriel Medina, Filipe Toledo, and Italo Ferreira ranked 1st, 3rd, and 4th on the men’s CT. All things being equal, Gabriel Medina and Filipe Toledo would have qualified to represent Brazil in the Olympics, and Italo Ferreira would not have.
So, back to the GOAT. It’s worth noting that in 2017 and 2018 Kelly Slater’s ranking on tour was impacted by a bum hoof. In 2016, though, the last year he competed at most events save Rio, he was the third most highly ranked American on tour, finishing seventh. He was beaten out by Kolohe Andino, who finished fourth, and John John Florence, who won his first world title.
In the past three years, the top two Americans on tour have consistently been John John Florence, Kolohe Andino and in 2018 (when John John was out due to injury), Conner Coffin joined Andino.
In other words, if Kelly Slater hopes to qualify he doesn’t have to beat out John John – who, if past performance is any indication, will likely rise to the top. But, he does have to beat out Andino and Coffin.
It’s tempting to question how likely this is, especially after two years of injury withdrawals where we’ve seen Slater’s name sink to the bottom rungs of the rankings. But, looking at the last nine years of men’s CT results reveals a different picture.
In 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015, Slater would have handily qualified for the U.S. Olympic surfing squad. As I said, 2016 would have been a different story and again 2017 and 2018, the 11-time world champ was injured. Suddenly 2019 doesn’t seem so bleak.
Plus, as you’ll recall, Kelly Slater Wave Company’s Surf Ranch was newly-added to the men’s and women’s CT schedule in 2018. To say Kelly Slater has a bit of a home-court (some might say unfair) advantage at the place is putting it mildly. The guy got third with an injured foot at the inaugural event last year and has likely logged the most hours in the tub of any surfer on tour. Not to mention he knows the bathymetry of the place intimately, he hired the engineers who crafted the wave to his specifications, and, uh, he’s got his name on it.
Looking back at 2016 rankings, subbing an equal fifth result at the Hurley Pro Trestles for a third (or better a win) at the Surf Ranch, Slater would have likely beaten out Andino in an Olympic qualification scenario.
The bottom line: it’s not crazy to imagine Kelly Slater and John John Florence representing the United States of America on the men’s side in surfing’s Olympic debut.
It’d be a fitting and well-deserved swan song for a highly-decorated competitive surfing career, and if Slater won gold, well, it’d be the perfect bookend. And at 47, he wouldn’t be the oldest Olympic competitor in history, but he’d likely be one of the oldest in Tokyo (during the 2016 Games in Rio, Quartz saw fit to highlight competitors in their early-40s as the “oldest Olympians battling it out at Rio”).
From Slater’s interview with the New Zealand Herald to his decision to compete at the Vissla Sydney Surf Pro – his first showing on the Qualifying Series, save Vans Triple Crown events, in years – it’s clear Slater aims to put everything into 2019. And we know what happens when he puts his mind to something – 11 world titles, an innovative artificial wave technology, a clothing brand that prides itself on raising the bar in sustainability, and innovative board designs that continue to re-invent performance. Point being: don’t count Kelly Slater out. It ain’t over until he says it’s over.