CHAPTER 1: Meet Kelly Slater.
“We all live an illusion of who we are. Probably lots and lots of illusions of who we actually are. And it’s hard to know the truth of who you are.”
First of all, I have no idea how Kelly Slater sleeps.
If I was forced to hazard an answer, I’d say “well”, because he answered yes to two critical questions that I asked him: 1) Have you made enough money that you never have to work again? and 2) Is it true that you’re staying in a house with your girlfriend and her seven female college roommates?
Yes to both, he told me, and that sounds like a nice eight hours and a couple of solid REM cycles to me.
Second of all, and truth be told, I don’t much care how Kelly Slater sleeps. Or where, for that matter.
I’m much more interested in what Kelly Slater thinks, and if what he says he thinks is true.
Like when he perpetually tells people that he doesn't know if he'll continue to compete on the World Tour. Or when he tells his competitors that he loves them.
Is it true? Or is it simply what a guy who lives his life under constant scrutiny says to muddy the waters and protect himself in the process?
Those questions I don’t know the answer to. What I do know is that Kelly Slater is charming, charismatic, intelligent and eminently believable, which makes him refreshingly different from many of the mouthbreathing, entitlement-minded pro surfers for whom he paved the way.
It also makes him a dutifully skeptical journalist’s worst nightmare. Aside from the times when he’s being downright transparent in trying to plant something into a story, he is hard to read. Like when he told me about the chicken heart that scientists kept alive in a Petri dish for seven years because, you know, “What you put into something, you get out of it.” That’s the type of line that might put a syrupy sportswriter’s pen to bubbling, but makes most people cautious.
This, of course, is because he knows the game. He’s been interviewed thousands of times by now, and as a writer friend of mine who’s one of the dozens of writers to have profiled Kelly once told me, “He always gives you the goods.” So you can’t blame Kelly Slater for sounding as refined as he does when he speaks to you. Because he just may be.
But what, exactly, does that leave you with?
The greatest surfer ever is 36, and that’s about all we know for sure. As a sportsman, he’s at the top of his game, dominating the professional surfing tour at will (“I know I can go out and win a heat when I want to,” he says in a way that somehow succeeds at not sounding arrogant). As a celebrity, he’s found ways not just to cope with his fame, but to make it work for him. And as a person, he may just be hitting his stride.
Of course, in the end, it probably doesn’t matter whether any of us choose to believe him. Because, at 36, Kelly Slater is finding new ways to make the system work for him.
CHAPTER 2: The greatest surfer of all time.
“I always had this theory since I was a young kid that if I made every aspect of what I do better than I know how to do it, than I’m going to win.”
Kelly Slater has always won. The statistics and the numbers and the individual details of that competitive surfing dominance are both too numerous and too well-reported to bear repeating here. The fact that he’s trying to decide if he wants to win ten world titles or not should speak for itself. This was something that has been on his mind for the last year and a half.
“If I were to win the ninth world title,” he says, “then I don't know what kind of excuse I’d have to come up with to not go for ten. And that gets me totally obligated for the next year or two years of my life.”
But what’s not so obvious is the degree to which the depth of Kelly Slater’s professional dominance is completely unprecedented. In Kelly Slater’s rookie year on tour, 1991, the oldest surfer on tour was Tom Carroll, who that year had turned 30.
On the day that Kelly and I sat down to talk, he was 36 years old and fresh returned from seamlessly dusting the competition at his second consecutive ASP event on a tour to which he has refused to commit.
“Ten years ago, there's no way that anybody would have said that somebody who was 36 years old was going to even be on the world tour,” he admits, allowing me to fill in for myself that he’s not only on the tour, but ruling it. In sweeping the Australian leg of this year’s ASP tour, he succeeded in trouncing his fourth generation of competitive surfers.
This is not happenstance, he insists.
“I think that if you were to do some kind of biological body test, I would easily be as young as the guys that are a generation behind me that are just in their late twenties, about to turn 30,” he says.