Just days after falling off tour for the first time in a career spanning four decades, Kelly Slater has been given the WSL’s 2023-2024 Season Wildcard. Slater’s name headlined a list of athletes chasing the mid-year cut coming into the Margaret River Pro and he was officially eliminated from qualifying in the Top-22 of the CT rankings when Liam O’Brien eliminated Slater in the Round of 32 — the third time he’s failed to make it into the Round of 16 in five events this year.
The league announced Johanne Defay will receive the same wildcard, granting each athlete entry into the remainder of this year’s Championship Tour events along with automatic qualification for first half of the 2024 season. Defay had previously sat out the first three events of this season due to injury but finishing in the WSL Top-5 in each of the past two seasons likely made her an easy choice for the league’s Tours and Competitions team. Meanwhile, Brisa Hennessy and Miguel Pupo received 2024 Season Wildcards, which will automatically enter them into events for the first half of the 2024 Championship Tour.
The decision concerning Slater is obviously the most newsworthy. Jessi Miley Dyer cited that the WSL’s rules “allow(ing) for only former World Champions and previous WSL Final 5 competitors to be eligible to earn points in the second half of the season as the Season Wildcards.” Considering he’s the only competitor on the men’s side who failed to qualify for the cut and still meets the criteria for this league rule, it does make his wildcard meaningful for the remainder of the season. The Inertia’s Joe Carberry pointed to the same rule earlier in the week while exploring options that could bring Slater back to the World Tour roster.
“From my perspective, he doesn’t seem like he’s ready to stop competing anytime soon,” Carberry wrote.
The decision(s) also impact(s) surfing’s outlook for the 2024 Olympics. This year’s rankings are the Tier 1 pathway to qualification for the 2024 Paris Games, where the Top 18 competitors (10 men and 8 women) will qualify via the 2023 WSL Championship Tour’s final rankings. Each country can only qualify a maximum of two men and two women, so both Defay and Slater will be earning points toward Olympic qualification by being granted their season wildcards. Defay is the only French athlete on the women’s world tour and has already provisionally qualified, while a top eight overall finish this season would essentially secure her spot. Slater, on the other hand, isn’t even in the top five among American men on tour, with Hawaii competing in the Olympics as part of team U.S.A.