Being on the beach for the Quiksilver Pro at Snapper really opened my eyes to how much things have changed, in the water and more importantly inside the heads of pro surfing's elite during the last few years. Long gone are the days of "every man for himself" and "I'm just here to have a good time." The elevated standards (and stakes) on tour now require that WT surfers—especially those new to the tour—are perfectly in tune with equipment, conditions, strategy, nutrition, and fitness. When those five key factors are well balanced, they ultimately result in cashing big checks from bigger victories.
The driving force behind this change has been the one constant in pro surfing since 1992—Kelly Slater's outright dominance. Many surfers have the talent to compete with Kelly, but where Kelly crushes his competition is in the details. Having a support group making sure nothing slips through the cracks is one of a few possible ways to narrow the gap between Kelly and everyone else.
The saying goes, "It takes a village to raise a child." Well, lets say that child is Julian Wilson, as an example—who was only 4 years old when Kelly won his first world title in ’92—and he wants to defeat and one day hold a quarter the accolades of Kelly. It is going to take the collective power of Nike along with the support of the whole of Australia to ready him for a chance to fulfill his destiny. Many surfers—Julian included—looked capable of keeping Kelly off the winner's podium at Snapper. But, like we've seen time and time again, the man who single-handedly has re-shaped the face of surfing continues to lead by example from the top.
Over the span of Kelly's ridiculously long career, many surfers have come and gone after trying to break out of his shadow. He mostly quelled all comers with a sniper's precision over and over—when he wasn’t bored with the process. A victory over a bored Kelly doesn’t count for much. But when he is tuned in, motivated, and bleeding passion, any advantage you may gain on him will not last long. When down, he only fights back twice as hard. By the next time you face him, any weakness Kelly exposed will be a strength that he will use against you. The one surfer to consistently give Kelly more than he could handle—both mentally and physically—was Andy Irons. For a three-year period Andy was unstoppable. His greatest attributes—of which there were many—were the tremendous amount of Wolfpack family support, and his enraged animal aggression that he used to unseat the "King" by force.
In the final event of 2006—the Pipeline Masters—Andy and Kelly surfed one of the greatest finals heats ever. Kelly had been way out in the lead for the majority of the heat, but at the thought of handing over his World Title and the Pipeline Masters, Andy flipped a switch very few have. Andy was at his best when he was challenged, and being at Pipeline up against Slater (and losing) was the catalyst required for him to put on a show that could never be duplicated. Andy got back in the heat with brilliant surfing that was highlighted by an ending floater on a dry sand quadruple-up at Gums. The most pivotal moment came in the form of a paddle battle, with a perfect wave coming right to Kelly. The whole beach expected him to catch the wave, score a 10, and put a perfect finish on another storybook ending in Hawaii. That was when Andy came out of nowhere to command position over Kelly and score his 10-point winning ride at Backdoor, securing his historic come-from-behind Pipeline Masters victory in dramatic fashion.
You don't kill the King in the dark where none can witness; you kill the King in broad daylight with all eyes watching. Kelly is giving the newest generation a golden opportunity to validate their every victory by attempting to take his throne. But make no mistake; Kelly will only relinquish his position when met with an unrelenting opposition similar to that of Andy. Snapper showed a few surfers on the brink, but none that have gone over that ledge…yet. The common ground holding them all back: Kelly is their buddy, Kelly is happy, and without animosity there will be no end to Kelly's reign.