Why Kelly Slater is So Good

Why is Kelly Slater so good? Because he can do turns like this. Photo: Ellis

Shea Lopez

The author of SURFER’s Top 32 Review, Shea Lopez spent 11 years competing on the World Tour and now reigns as our resident expert on the pro surfosphere.

My very close friend Donny Hirsch suggested all so kindly I put together a piece on “Why Kelly Slater is So Good.” It sounded pretty corny at first to me, kind of like doing something about “Why Steph Gilmore has Such Great Legs.” (Well, that actually would appeal highly to a certain crowd.) But when I thought a little more about “Why Kelly Slater is So Good,” I saw why it too would be informative to a certain crowd. Here’s my two cents on “The Ruler of the Surf World,” Mr. Robert Kelly Slater:

Kelly was destined to succeed from birth. Of Irish and Syrian nationality, somewhere in his past was a family member that carried the genetic makeup for the athletic body type perfect for surfing. When you see Kelly, the first thing that jumps out at you are his baseball-shaped calves. I can’t remember ever seeing a similar shape on any other athlete, except maybe the very best sprinters. The power and quickness with which these muscles direct force through his toes and onto his board is beyond comprehension to the average surfer.

If you watch his movements closely, you would then notice that he hinges in multiple places throughout his back. This much talked-about genetic anomaly has single handedly earned him numerous victories. This double joint in his back allows him to recover from the impossible far too easily. And by not falling on critical turns, while making average turns look more dramatic, wave scores in the average range will jump up to excellent in a heart beat, leaving his competitors dusted once again. Those two special features combined with a very well balanced and strong physique led Kelly—from a very young age even—to do things in the surf no one thought possible.

Surfing competitively is very unique in the combination of skill and mental capabilities required to dominate routinely. Surfing isn’t like track and field, as track is all about the physical and hardly any mental. It isn’t comparable to basketball either, even though there is plenty mental game involved. A basketball court is always the same in every city, and if you have a bad night, there are always your teammates to cover for you. What sets surfing apart, and what Kelly has been dominant with over the years, is the mental skills needed to play a 25-minute heat perfectly in different oceans, against different competitors, and in much different conditions every event.

Even if someone begins out-surfing Kelly, he has the ability to use a limitless number of tactics that will leave his competitors feeling dumbfounded and victimized. Kelly’s famous Huntington Beach heat against Shane Beschen—back when the event contributed to deciding the World Title—is a perfect example. At the time, they were rated first and second in the world and Shane was looking to be the form surfer of the event. But Kelly has a way of becoming very familiar with his competitors’ tendencies in heats. By knowing that Shane would be very in-the-moment, focused solely on destroying waves and destroying him in the process, Kelly slid behind Shane without him knowing as he took off on a nice right. The obvious interference was called on Shane. That technicality killed Shane in the event, while also putting a halt on any and all momentum he had. Kelly cruised on to win the World Title. When the world’s greatest surfer is willing to take it that far to win a heat, his opposition just gets demoralized time and time again.

So without going on for days about the many things that make Kelly so good, I’ll end with this: The writing was on the wall from Day One. His god-given ability to surf, matched with his mental capabilities and special character traits, are way beyond any of his fellow competitors. It isn’t a matter of how long he can stay at the top now or could in the past; it is always about how long Kelly can keep himself focused enough to compete at his best, because no one else has been able to compete anywhere close to Kelly’s best.