An Open Letter To Kelly Slater On His 50th Birthday - Stab Mag

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An Open Letter To Kelly Slater On His 50th Birthday

Subject line: Please do not retire.

news // Feb 11, 2022
Words by Occy S Toilet
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Dear Kelly,

Happy birthday. I hope this letter finds you well. You may be getting up and waxing your Billabong Gerry Lopez trophy or, perhaps, drinking a smoothie. How do the waves look out at the beach park? It doesn’t matter. I just wanted to take a moment to say happy birthday.

Half a century on this planet is a remarkable feat for anyone. But how about for an extreme athlete? That happens to still be competing – and is number one in the world at his sport?

I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up. 

Kelly Slater, accomplishing professionally, Teahupo’o. Photo: Ryan Miller

Congratulations on winning the 2022 Billabong Pro at Pipeline. It was a masterful performance at the most important venue in surfing. Incendiary, even. Unparalleled. But you hinted at the award ceremony that you may “…not show up at Sunset.”

Can we talk about retirement? I get the feeling that I’m not the only one hoping you keep going this season. Somehow, you kind of connect a lot of surfers. We all feel it on some sort level when we paddle out. Rooted, yet free in the ocean at the same time. It’s hard to explain, but watching you out there is…us. Even though it could never be, us, of course. It could only ever be you. But there’s this energy in you – Kelly – that we all wish we could tap into.

And maybe we even do every once in a while… when the set of the day is coming and another guy is trying to get into position. Or when we’re dropping in late on a drainer. Or racing our buddy on a bike, or golfing against our dads, or fighting for a promotion… or just trying to stay consistent for any significant length of time. You embody this energy for us. You retiring won’t change any of this. But… it’s kind of like being a kid and not wanting Christmas to be over. You’re our guy. 

But enough about you. You’re well aware of your professional accomplishments. I don’t feel the need to rattle them off here. I also don’t feel the need to compare you to other athletes — because there truly is no comparison (I jumped into this on my Instagram page, if you’d like to peek).

What I’d like to do is talk about us. What have we done since your first CT win at Trestles in 1990?

I, personally, was in middle school then. You have been competing and winning since I was 13 years old. I’m married now with two kids. The world has gotten into multiple wars, almost all of the bands we love have formed, put out our favorite albums, and broken up. We’ve lost people, we’ve met the loves of our lives. We’ve graduated, we’ve raised children, we’ve had many dogs – raised them well, buried them and gotten new ones. Napster has come and gone, Facebook arrived, Apple took over. September 11th happened. So many presidents, and TV shows, and apps.

You surfed against Occy. You surfed against Potter. You dominated. Any surfer that ever wanted to do anything had to go against you. You changed the surfing world along with Taylor Steele and the Momentum Generation. Then you did it again with Jack Johnson and September Sessions. You surfed with Brown, Sunny, Chesser, Rob, Andy…. Think of all that has happened to the world, to us, since you started competing. What a constant, awesome, show you’ve put on for us our entire surfing lives. Your face should be on stamps and money and everyone should know it. 

Wonder what advice Kelly would give himself at this age? Photo: Tom Dugan

So much of the world is about timing. There’s such a natural beauty in the rhythms and meter of the sea. I’ve seen you tap into it time and time again. I swear I’ve even seen you conjure waves by tapping some ancient morse-code-type-pattern onto the surface during heats.

“Oh shit! Kelly needs a wave” the ocean says.

There’s also a natural beauty in competitive surfing… that a lot of folks like me will never know. The way the waves lined up for you and Rob and the famous high five in ‘95. And for so many Pipe heats between you and Andy in the early and mid ‘00s. And most recently, your heats vs Barron Mamiya and Seth Moniz.

I just can’t imagine what you feel when you stand there alone and look out at that wave. It’s this natural ability to fall into the rhythm of the world that makes me think that you will surely know when it is time to hang up the jersey.

Maybe you’ve already decided to hang it up — to go out on top — and this is all futile. But if there’s any place at all in the salty lockers of your mind that is experiencing hesitation, perhaps it’s still just too hard to let go? You’ve already done everything and have zero to prove to anyone, but it’s been so fun to have in our lives all of these years… that it’s hard for us to let go too. We will and we’ll be fine. But maybe not yet. 

I saw a photo of you walking home after Pipe. You were with Kalani and had the trophy under your arm. You were barefoot and walking along the side of the road with a crowd of people around you. I couldn’t help but imagine Michael Jordan walking home from Chicago Arena with the NBA trophy under his arm or Tom Brady and Gisele waltzing through downtown Boston with the Lombardi. It just wouldn’t happen.

You’re the people’s champ, Kelly. Like Rocky. Did Rocky retire at 50? I think he was like 60 in that last movie. But let’s talk about the first Rocky. The one that won the academy award for best picture. The point wasn’t that he won the title in the end (he didn’t). It was that he went the distance.

Now, these are just movies and you’re real. But I think the point of these movies is that they inspire people. You’ve definitely gone the distance. More times than anyone ever has. But have you done it at 50? You’re the closest thing to Rocky we’ve got.

See you at Sunset, Champ?


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