Date: February 11, 1972
Place: Cocoa Beach, Florida
Moment: Kelly Slater is born, and surfing is never the same.
“Seeing Slater surf for the first time is like being led by the infant Jesus to the promised land.” – Derek Rielly
For the last few months, we’ve been working on the Disruptors series. We had a list made up with thirty of the most disruptive and influential moments in surfing’s history. This one, however, wasn’t on the list – but it might be the most important: The day Kelly Slater was born.
There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Kelly Slater is one of the greatest surfers of all time. But it’s not just his freakish talent on a surfboard that has had such an impact on the sport. He changed the way the whole game is played. Somehow, Slater has managed to endure a lifetime of competitive surfing, all the while not only keeping up with the times (something that has been notoriously hard for the older generation to do), but continually stamping new marks all over the sport. Innovation has been one of his trademarks. He’s broken every competitive record in surfing. In every condition, in places all over the world, Slater has proven time and time again that he is the man to beat. Riding strange boards in different ways; doing things in places on waves that most wouldn’t think of; drawing lines that only he could see – Kelly Slater’s impact on how nearly everyone on the planet surfs has been substantial, to say the least.
His life began in a place that one could think of as less-than-ideal for a surfer. Although it has churned out its fair share of amazing surfers, Cocoa Beach, Florida, isn’t exactly a wave machine, although now that Kelly’s building one there, it will be. Kelly began surfing at age five and quickly showed promise. He put six Eastern surfing championships on the board, along with four national titles. Throw that in the pot with looks that eventually landed him on Baywatch and none of that stereotypical Spicolli-ism that the general population equates with surfers, and you’ve got yourself a combination that’s going to change the world.
Although the foundation was set for the upcoming castle in the sky that Kelly would eventually hold the keys to, it wasn’t until he turned 18 that he really started laying the bricks. At the OP Junior at Huntington Beach in 1989, Slater beat a skinny, young Rob Machado. His performance there was incredible, and sponsors immediately began banging down his door, nearly begging for the chance to pay him to surf. He signed with Quik for a rumored six-figure salary and got on the road to a lifetime of fame.
Kelly Slater in Black and White was released soon after he was signed. It was only a half hour, but it showed something that was previously unseen in surfing: Slater’s approach was a mix of the old school (although it was the current style at the time) and something new. He took the powerful fluidity of surfers like Tom Curren and stirred in a large helping of aerials with an almost supernatural reaction time to anything the wave threw at him. He turned sections that were previously considered un-makeable wave-enders into a whole new canvas, and the paintings he created on them opened up an entire generation’s eyes to what was possible.
Three years later, to no one’s surprise, Kelly Slater became the youngest world champion in the history of surfing. It was 1992, Slater was 21 years old, and it was his first full year on the tour. The rest, as they say, is history. He has gone on to be the most successful surfer – and possibly the most successful athlete – who’s ever lived. It’s hard to overstate the significance of his achievements: generation after generation, Kelly Slater has beaten them all, and he’s done it with ease, grace, and style. He wiped the floor with legends like Carroll and Curren, destroyed Machado, Knox, Parko, Fanning – all of the old guard – had a storybook rivalry with Andy Irons and has continued on to beat the Medinas and John Johns of the new generation, full of hyper-talented youth. He’s won nearly every type of contest, from Pipe to Huntington to the Eddie.
And it all started in Cocoa Beach, a town famous for space programs and I Dream of Jeannie. The day Kelly Slater was born was the day surfing began to emerge from the cocoon that everyone before him had spun. And now, after 11 world titles and a lifetime as a darling of the surfing world, he’s still writing on the blank pages of a book that that won’t ever be finished. But Kelly’s chapter, whenever it is done, will unequivocally be one of the most incredible stories in all of sporting history.