Stab Magazine | An Ode To Kelly Slater’s 27th (And Final) Year On Tour

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An Ode To Kelly Slater’s 27th (And Final) Year On Tour

Seriously, have you seen this goat?

style // Apr 4, 2019
Words by Stab
Reading Time: 6 minutes

Take a second to think about Kelly Slater being an 11-time World Champion.

It sounds almost farcical, doesn’t it? Like a feat that could only be achieved in some obscure, fringe activity like bowling, lawn darts, or even real darts – but certainly not surfing.

Right?

Or perhaps I’m just too close to all of this. Maybe surfing really is that fringe, making the claims that Slater’s greatness is on par with Jordan, Woods, and Ali laughable to the other 99-percent of the world.

But I really don’t think so.

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How many post-heat pressers you reckon Slater has done in his day?

Photography

WSL

While it’s impossible for most of us to think “objectively” about surfing, we know that some of the world’s foremost (non-ocean) athletes have called surfing the most difficult sport they’ve ever attempted. This points to the notion that there’s at least a modicum of athleticism required to ride waves.

Then when you think about the true challenge of surfing, being the pursuit of commanding the ocean, you start to gain even more appreciation for what Slater has achieved.

Every time you win a heat outside of a wavepool (which is true about all the heats Slater surfed in his 11 World Title years), you’re competing not just against the other guy in the water, but also against Mother Nature.

In basketball, everybody’s shooting at the same hoop. In golf, everybody plays the same 18 holes. In boxing, you’re both bashing each other in the heads. But none of these sports has a playing field that is constantly in motion. Nor do the hoop, hole, or head you’re bashing fluctuate in size, making it more difficult to score at one time than another.

Meanwhile in surfing, everything is based around waves. Waves that come and go. Waves that break here, then there, then back here again. Big waves and small waves. Strong waves and weak waves. Waves that won’t stop and waves that never go.

And despite certain similarities, no two waves are the same. Meaning that every time you take off, you’re reacting to a novel challenge.

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Although, Slater seems to have this particular wave down to a science.

Photography

WSL

The fact that Kelly Slater, while in his prime, could so consistently defeat the opposition in this dynamic playing field is incomprehensible.

And when exactly was Slater’s “prime”, you ask? Hard to say. Slater won five straight Titles in the late-90s before taking some time off competition. He returned in the mid-2000s to relative success (read: three more Titles). Then in the 2010 season, Slater won close to 80% of his heats, leading to victories at four of the 10 Tour stops (despite missing one of the events) and ultimately his tenth World Title.

An 80% winning rate is remarkable in any sport, but thanks to the ocean’s ever-changing platform, it’s especially difficult to achieve in surfing.

However, this type of dominance is not sustainable. Age has finally taken its toll on the GOAT, leading to injuries and sore spots that didn’t exist in Slater’s youth. At the same time, younger generations have pushed the sport to a point of near non-recognition. While Slater has done his best to keep up with latest surfing trends, the truth is he lacks the agility and muscle memory to maintain pace with his mid-20s “peers”.

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Today, at the age of 47, Kelly surfed the first heat of his 27th season on the Championship Tour. Coming up against Italo Ferreira and Yago Dora – two of Brazil’s most nimble talents – at a wedgy beach break with air wind into the left, Slater was the underdog, despite his 11 Titles to their collective zero. 

And Slater has made peace with that fact. In fact he kind of enjoys it.

“So, there is no shortage of critics of all things pro surfing so before that starts for the year, what is it you’re looking forward to or love about the @wsl tour?” Slater asked on his latest Instagram post. “I can’t wait to see the levels this year and get back into the flow of surfing heats and hopefully start smashing all these kids! Oh, and I’m also working on a little documentary series of the year ahead. Let’s have some fun!”

Slater ended up getting third in the 30-minute match, a result of sticking to the face while his competitors soared. He’ll surf again in Round 2. 

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This infamous foot injury, which Slater earned on a flimsy J-Bay closeout in 2017, has given the Champ worlds of trouble over the past 20 months.

Photography

WSL

Slater has claimed that the 2019 season will be his last on the WSL Tour. He’s said the same thing a number of times throughout his career, but for whatever reason, this time it seems real. That no matter how Kelly finishes this year (and he wants to do well, considering there’s an Olympic slot on the line), he might actually choose to walk away, forever, from full-time competition.

As a true fan of surfing, this brings a wave of emotions over me:

Sadness. Excitement. Intrigue. Confusion!

Just take another second to think about Kelly Slater winning 11 World Titles.

Do you think that could ever, ever, happen again? Genuinely consider: what incredible series of events would have to occur for another human being to win the CT 11 times over?

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Could John even get close?

Photography

WSL

At this moment in history, we’re bearing witness to the most naturally talented surfer, perhaps of all time, in John John Florence. We also have one of the most remarkable competitors in the history of our sport, Gabriel Medina. At 26 and 25 respectively, both surfers have two World Titles to their names.

Neither of them will get close to 11.

Four apiece is likely, six would be a feat, but 11 is out of the question. Even if you combined the future Titles of these two generational talents, 11 would be a remarkable achievement.

What I’m trying to express is how lucky we have been to witness Slater’s dominance in real time. It’s something that, by all logical projections, we will never see again. Slater is and likely will forever be the winningest surfer of all time.

On top of that, he’s one of surfing’s most intelligent and creative thinkers. Although occasionally misguided, his Instagram is a bastion of modern consciousness, and from a low-level writer’s standpoint, Slater is the editorial gift that keeps on giving. I’m so incredibly grateful to have seen it all (or at least most of it) firsthand.

The wins. The losses. The perfect 10’s. The perfect 20’s. Pipeline. Andy. Pam. The wavepool. And whatever the fuck is going on in his IG story.

Of course, Slater won’t just disappear once he’s off Tour. He’ll continue to do all of the cool shit that he’s done over the years – probably even more of it, considering his newfound freedom – but the difference is we won’t have direct, live access to him and his surfing on a regular basis.

Despite his competitive decline, Slater’s is a heat we always make time to watch, whether it’s at one foot Manly  or 10-foot Pipe. 

He’s earned that privilege through decades of inspirational performances in the jersey. From his boards to his surfing to his post-heat interviews, you never know what you’re gonna get with Slater, but you always know you’re gonna be entertained. Without his presence, the Tour will have a noticeable chasm.

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Speaking of chasms, how’s this guy at Pipe?

Photography

WSL

So, I’d like to take this time to thank Kelly for everything he’s done for surfing.

He’s a champion, an alien, an innovator, a Florida Gator, an influencer, a lover, he cares! 

And no matter what you think, we’re all better off for having Robert K. Slater in our lives – even those of us never met him personally.

Good luck this year Kelly – I think I speak for most surf fans when I say that you’ve got the whole world in your corner.

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