The Kelly Slater Question
Tour heavyweights weigh in on Kelly’s uphill battle.
*Editor’s note: Kelly did, in fact, give a post-heat interview!
A week is a long time in surfing. After losing out in round three of the Rip Curl Pro, Bells Beach, marking Kelly Slater’s worst start to the Tour in his 25 years elite level career, he turned out and gave one of his more candid and uplifting interviews in recent memory. “I don’t think anything is impossible,” he said. “I just think things haven’t been done. People haven’t been on tour at my age, and it’s real easy for people to expect it could be the time (to retire) and that adversity can’t be overcome at this age… It comes down to freeing your mind up, keeping your body healthy, having goals, and desire.”
It was warm, it was honest, and it was inspiring to see such vulnerability from a living legend in the midst of arguably the greatest hurdle in his career, at the age 44. It was a different scene when he once more slumped to a last place finish at the Margaret River Pro yesterday. After a quick interview with Rosie Hodge on the beach he was gone, leaving us to contemplate the uphill battle he now faces. Commentator and longtime friend and rival, Peter Mel, told Stab nothing can touch what The Champ’s achieved.
Margies is a hard event to make a strong event, for any surfer. How different might things have looked for Kelly if it’d run at The Box or North Point? Stab suggests: Very.
“No matter what, whatever happens from this day forward, nothing will change the fact he is the best surfer ever to don a jersey,” Pete said. “Not only that, but the best surfer ever that I’ve ever witnessed.
“People can argue that left and right but the stuff he’s done for the sport in regards to, y’know, surfboards… whatever, from now forward, whether he dwindles off and doesn’t make a heat for the rest of his career or he turns it around and blows minds it doesn’t matter. The legacy won’t change.”
Pete got to know Kelly when the Floridian was 14 and competing on the US Surf team at a Pan-Pacific Games in Australia. KS won the Mens and the Juniors, beating Pete in the final of the Mens.
Kelly’s been losing to guys that he shouldn’t be losing to, way too much this year. Hopefully it’s a slump he can shake – soon. Once the tour hits some heaving, tropical, left barrels things should change.
“He was doing amazing things at 12 years old, he was beating guys twice his age at that time,” remembers Pete. “He’s always been that guy, doing things no one else is doing, riding things no one else is riding. He’s been God for so long. It’s hard to see him in a situation like this in these last three events where things just don’t go his way. It’s tough to watch.”
As a commentator, Pete’s been privy to Kelly’s surfing outside the jersey and he says he’s lost nothing. The problem lays elsewhere.
“There’s obviously something going wrong that’s affecting his performances and his decision making. That magic that used to come so easy to him isn’t there anymore and he’s the first to admit it. He’s also the first to not know what it is.”
Kelly can’t help but be classic.
As for the rumours doing the rounds, Pete says it’s premature to speculate.
“We can all attribute it to, y’know, it might be age – he is 44 – but to tell you the truth, you watch his performances outside of a jersey, I got to watch him all through the Gold coast, his surfing is there, it’s as good as its ever been. People will try to dissect his equipment, but the reality is I watched him at D’bah blowing minds, doing big airs, pulling them, huge gaffs. It’s not his surfing, there is something else going on there.”
Kauaian pro and one of the form surfers of the event so far, Sebastian ‘Seabass’ Zietz, says Kelly might be getting the worst of a mild tweak in the judging this year.
Round two Kelly was a closer shade to what we expect to see. But, maybe our expectations are no longer realistic. Doubtful, though.
“I think maybe the judges have been judging the wave a lot, like wave height, and Kelly has always just out-surfed guys on the not-as-good waves,” says Bass. “Maybe he just needs to wait for the good waves.”
Seabass admits to hating on Kelly during his heated duels with fellow Kauaian Andy Irons in the early naughties. But since qualifying for the tour, has had nothing but respect and adoration for the 11 time champ.
“It’s funny ’cause I still think he’s one of the best surfers for sure,” says Seabass. “It’s amazing what he can do on a wave. He hasn’t lost anything. When he was battling Andy for the title, I went through a little Haterade phase; I think everyone in Kauai went through a little Haterade phase. But actually seeing him in real life, there’s no doubting that he’s the best surfer ever.”
Like Pete Mel, Seabass believes Kelly’s form slump isn’t as simple as being over the hill.
There were certainly moments of brilliance at Bells. Just not enough of them.
“I’d like to see him keep doing it because he can still do it. He’s not satisfied. He’s gonna stay on until he wins another world title, that’s what’s on his mind. I dunno, I think he’s surfed a lot better on his Merricks (Channel Island surfboards), that might be one of the things going on.”
World number three Jordy Smith is of a similar opinion – it’s not Kelly’s age. “It’s the ocean – I think you battle that more than anything,” says Jordy. “If it’s not gonna give you the opportunities, it’s an uphill battle.” Despite his poor start to the year, the competitive fire is still there, says Jordy. Beware the champ as the tour rounds on his happier hunting grounds of Fiji, Tahiti, and Trestles.
“With Kelly he’s a hard one to predict,” says Jordy. “He’s got that poker face on 24/7. Maybe he’s got some stuff going on business-wise, or something personal, I’m not sure. He’s not gonna let some random guy on tour in on his emotions.”
There’s two things that are going nowhere: Kelly’s popularity, and the time he gives his fans.
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