Stab: If you were a shrink trying to get a handle on Kelly Slater, how would you describe him in clinical terms?
Kelly Slater: Obsessive-compulsive disorder mixed with a little borderline addictive personality
disorder when it comes to things he loves. Kelly’s used surfing as a replacement for intimacy and stability and goes from being very present one minute to seemingly aloof the next. He’s a pretty complex case study because he lives a lot of different lives in the sense that he travels a ton, and his surroundings and friends are constantly changing. I don’t think I’ve ever done an interview in third person. Maybe I’ll try this more often.
Raw talent aside, can you logically explain how the most dominant athlete in the history of professional surfing comes from America’s least likely world champion training ground?
You have to walk before you can run and surfing small waves is surfing’s equivalent of walking and crawling. Even if you’re a grom on the North Shore, you have to start in the small stuff. Florida’s waves are slow moving due to our continental shelf being so shallow, so it really slows down the whole process and makes it a little easier to translate that to bigger surf. It teaches you to tap into the power of a wave, in my opinion.
What is it you love about surfing? It’s a broad question, but I can’t imagine one can be this good at something without there being a healthy dose of love, infatuation, maybe even obsession.
It’s the whole experience, the sense of adventure and personal freedom, I guess, the feeling that you can always learn something and that it’s free to do and no one can tell you how you have to do it. The fun and the challenge of it never really go away. There’s always something there to put you back in your place.
Kelly is the greatest surfer ever to walk on the face of the earth so far. He has a tremendous drive. I don’t think it’s so much that he needs to win, but he hates to lose.
I remember playing golf with Kelly a few years back, probably one of the few times I’ve ever had him beat on the front nine of the course. And I said something to him like, ‘Looks like I’ve got you down pretty good,’ and I looked in his eyes and saw something change. That scary competitive side was coming out, that fierce determination. Immediately I knew I’d made a mistake, and then he just buried me on the back nine. Kelly just wants to rip your throat out competitively. He is definitely the most extremely competitive person I ever met in my life.
— Al Merrick, founder of Channel Islands Surfboards and Slater’s longtime shaper.
Surfing-wise, you’ve won everything there is to win. What keeps you competitively motivated?
Just the love of surfing and competing. I grew up a younger brother and learned to compete really well in order to get things I wanted — not because I was stronger (or smarter), but because I was either sneaky or good.
What surfers inspire you and why?
I get inspired by a lot of surfers. The first thing that comes to mind are the newest guys on the scene, Jordy Tappis … I mean, Smith … Dane Reynolds etc. Those guys are great competitors and pushing the sport a ton. Surfing’s best guys are now really trying things that are mind surfing and I think it’s only just getting started. I love body surfing and watching Mark Cunningham and Mike Stewart at Pipe [and] anyone who charges big waves pretty much. Shane Dorian, because he’s got it wired big and small, Laird [Hamilton] because he’s just totally on it with every aspect of fitness and surfing different equipment. You get the sense no wave scares him. My new favorite athlete though is a fighter by the name of Kimbo Slice. I know that had nothing to do with anything, but I love [Mixed Martial Arts].
Throughout your career you’ve had your fair share of rivals, all of whom you’ve methodically dismantled. Out of all of these guys, who do you consider to be your most formidable opponent and why?
AI (Andy Irons) is probably the only one who doesn’t really have a weak point competitively. His is more a personal struggle than anything and he is always able to push that into his surfing and increase his focus. It’s usually what makes great performers.
If you had to pick a weak point in the technical aspect of your surfing what would you say it is?
I’ve always wanted a little lower center of gravity and a stronger lower body. Even though I’ve got skinny legs, I would say I’ve got some power in my surfing, but I’ve always been able to hide some of my flaws by compensating in other areas. You have to use what you’ve got. I have always thought I should take a couple of months to get myself in amazing shape and then see how I surf. I’ve pretty much always been at a good level, but not great in terms of fitness.
What is your greatest fear?
I think it’s not knowing how to live to my full potential as a person and friend. I don’t ever want to get to the end and say I could’ve done this or that for someone. I think there are a lot of things right in front of us we either don’t know or are afraid to know the answers to. I think that’s why people seem more conservative as they get older.
What or who inspires you?
People doing what seems obvious, something we all know, but that no one else is doing; someone who won’t take no for an answer from themselves when they know inside that something can be done.
If you had to give a beginning surfer advice what would you say?
Big board – build the confidence and don’t surf with a bunch of other people.
You’ve been playing music for years. You’ve built guitars, performed on stage with Ben Harper, Eddie Vedder and Jack Johnson to name a few.
Who are some of your favorite musicians and how important a role does music play in your life?
Music is comfort to me. While I was in Brazil, I didn’t play guitar for a week and I realised I was getting very stressed out. For me, it’s like taking aspirin for a headache or something. It’s so hard to pick just your favorites, but you named three of them there. Jack Johnson is the best lyricist in music right now, in my opinion. I also like Brett Dennen’s lyrics a lot. I’ve been listening to Paolo Nutini and James Morrison a lot lately. Ben Harper just did this song with a Brazilian girl named Vanessa da Mata that I really love. I’m always looking for new stuff like everyone. Waiting to hear Jack’s new one right now. I think I’m the last one of our friends not to have heard it yet.
What does he mean? That’s what it’s come down to.
In the beginning, he was a prodigious athlete breaking records right, left and centre. Now, he’s morphed into the second greatest surfing ambassador since Duke Kahanamoku.
And, while most pro surfers are fueled by ego, rage and ambition, Slater is a man. He lives an expansive, interesting life.
How far can an athlete evolve in his personal life and still retain the hunger it takes to stay on top? That’s what he’s exploring. That’s even more interesting
than the Supermans, rodeo clowns, and 45-second tube rides. That’s what resonates beyond surfing.
— Jamie Brisick, author, photographer, retired professional surfer andformer editor of Surfing magazine
You’ve been in the limelight since you were 16, maybe younger. How do you think the fame has changed you? In your experience, has international fame been good or bad for you?
It’s caused a lot of frustration in my personal life, but it’s also created a lot of fun opportunities to do so many things in so many different places with so many great people. I don’t know if fame has changed me. I hope it hasn’t, but I guess in some ways I’ve been jaded from having so much disposable opportunity. I don’t want to change from who I am, but I’ve always wanted to become more aware of what life is all about.
Speaking of opportunities, for years you’ve gotten a lot of attention for having celebrity girlfriends. Is it easier for you to spend your intimate time with women who deal with similar things on a day-to-day basis?
It’s easier to not have a normal life and get caught up in that non-reality. Let’s just say that my so-called celebrity girlfriends have been totally blown out of proportion. Now it seems that every famous girl I know, I’m supposed to be sleeping with. Pretty lame.
Can beautiful women become an addiction? Can it destroy the chance of coming back to a clean, monogamous simple relationship?
Anything you constantly repeat becomes patterned in your life. [Beautiful women don’t] seem like a bad idea, but connecting with someone you really love and get along with is surely much more meaningful and important.
I like Robert (Kelly). A lot. You all know the good stuff about him; it’s all true. But I especially I dig when he is in his Clark Kent mode — sensitive, odd, weird, creepy and at times very Machiavellian.
Some inspiring shit, I’ve seen him pull — and that, to me, is art!
— Vava Ribeiro, fashion photographer and friend
Do you think you’ve sacrificed certain elements to live the life of a professional surfer?
I have felt that in certain times in my life I sacrificed a lot to totally experience given opportunity in my life. I have felt married to surfing and all it offers at times. I know what’s important.
If you could go back in time would you change anything?
If I could go back, I wouldn’t have sold no crack!
Have you ever actually used drugs, Kelly?
I’ve tried pot a couple of times, but just don’t get it. I don’t think it did anything the first couple of times. I mixed a lot of alcohol with it and threw up about three or four years ago. I really don’t think there’s anything at all I’m missing. I think any kind of smoking is a really odd way to spend any time or money.
Kelly is the man. He rips and is a really great role model for our sport. If you eat lunch or any meal with him, you’ll see why he’s got all the money and
you’re broke. Read into that whatever you want. Oh, and he gets all the best waves because he snakes guys. But Kelly is my friend and I think he’s cool.
— Kalani Robb, former ASP world tour competitor
How do you feel about the current US president? Do you feel proud to be an American when you travel abroad?
I think it all makes sense. There’s a big game going on between people in the world, in families, in social scenes. This all comes out in governments and on a world level. It’s easy to observe if you sit back and listen to what’s going on. People are not first. The important things are not health and happiness in the world. Media sensationalise hurt and controversy between people, not because there’s a conspiracy, but because we want it, we love it. In Iraq, I think the biggest story should be the infrastructure being completely devastated — no sewage, no food or medicine, electricity or running water in many places. [There are] startling incidents of pediatric cancers etc. These are humans on both sides just basically being disposed of. Some feel just and right; some feel they have no other option. We seem to feel we’re in the right, but I think America is starting to wake up if for no other reason than they are scared for the troops. I could talk all day about it, but basically what it shows me is that we aren’t truly caring for people. The finger is pointing forward when it should be pointing back.