Slater's win at the year's first WCT was a sight. He never went haywire, never visibly dominated a heat. Instead, he played with his opponents like a cat with mice, often teasing them into making a move they'd later regret, or causing them to freeze up while waiting for nonexistent Perfect Waves. His tactical moves seemed to keep him interested in the event, while a number of other stars went the other way – lost interest as the swell vanished, and lost heats as a result. How does Kelly, at 34 and with more titles than most surfing nations, stay so involved? Surfing's Nick Carroll trapped him for this interview:
SURFING MAGAZINE: One of the things that's interesting when watching people compete is seeing how they find ways to win. There's always a different way to win each heat.
KELLY SLATER: Yeah.
Did you find yourself looking for ways to win the heats each time or did they just string together for you?
It just sorta happened naturally. The thing I'd flashed on paddling out this morning was just be ready to play offence or defence at any time. When you're playing offence you can be a little defensive and when you're playing defence you can be offensive, and there's a lot of different layers to that. That does ultimately reflect in the scores in some way, and then when you get a score how do you react to that, can you keep your head in a place where you're going to still approach the heat in the same way, or does it distract you a little and you've gotta recover? You've got to be aware of your approach to surfing a wave because that all ultimately feeds into the lines you're gonna draw on a wave, and the scores you're gonna get.
I noticed the highest score you got in the final came at the only point when you actually had priority. Most of the time you were playing second priority.
Yeah. And that wave was actually … I had priority, and it didn't look like a great wave, but it had enough power where Taj could have ridden it pretty well and got some scores out of it. I was a little bit aware of that, it was almost like a defensive-offensive move, but in saying that, I knew Taj could have done something with it so I had to put myself in that position and do something with it you know.
In your semi-final, Bobby Martinez had priority and let go the best wave of the heat. I want to ask you what went through your head when he did that.
"Did he REALLY just do that?" (laughs) You know, I could see the way he was looking at it, he was tentative. He thought there might be another one out there. And it didn't look very steep, it swung out to sea away from us and it peaked up on the deep spot and then sorta backed off short. But with second priority it's easy to see that. With first priority you're kinda going "Hmmm, I dunno."
In that situation, you go to the inside, is that an attempt to encourage the guy to screw up, or let him know you're on the case?
There's all different ways of looking at it, you know. Sometimes I feel good sitting wide and thinking maybe he's too deep. There I'd noticed there was a couple of waves that broke deep that you might even be able to get a manoeuvre off before they got to where we were. And I thought I can get up on a wave, and if he paddles for it he'll lose priority and I'll have it. It didn't seem like too many were swinging wide. And if they did you could see 'em pretty easily.Sometimes if you have second priority you can kinda be in control 'cause you're forcing the guy to make a decision to catch a wave or not instead of waiting for him to. You can kinda force the issue a little bit.
You're very aware of that broad picture of what's going on in heats, do you feel your opponents generally have a similar awareness?
This contest panned out in no way what anyone would've expected, there was a giant swell for two days and a lot of crazy conditions, the Superbank blew up. You adapted to everything that happened, you went surfing big waves and got some bombs…
Oh yeah! I towed Kirra (with friend Trevor Hendy) the first day it got big. It was messy and windy but the waves were clean and there were some incredible barrels. I ate shit on the ski. I tried to go over a wave and I didn't get enough angle to go off it. I thought it's kinda steep so I'll fly off it, took it more on a floater angle, I was doing a floater on top of the barrel and had to dive off the ski, it was a full rookie move. Luckily it wasn't that big a wave, about a two footer but then it jacked right up into a bigger one. Anyways, got some incredible waves, then went out to Straddie the next day as the tide started dropping out. That was an awkward feeling. It was really big, like Hawaii big, it was like in Hawaii they'd have been calling it every bit of 12-15 feet on the sets, and it was massive too, a lot of energy in the waves, really moving. And a real tight interval too, you know, 10-12-second interval. Trevor almost had a two wave hold-down, not from a wipe-out but from getting cleaned up, he almost didn't get up before the second one, he got one breath and…he got some of the worst beatings I've seen in a long time. I got about a 10 second barrel on a 10-foot wave. I was trying to take it easy because right when we got out there these other two guys were towing, and they said this helicopter had flown over and was pointing at the water and they looked over and there was a GIANT shark, right next to them. So I was all freaked out, I didn't want to tow and Trevor says "Don't worry about it, I see sharks out here all the time."And then there were squalls coming through, you'd see the ocean getting choppy, then you couldn't see the buildings just across the way (at Surfers Paradise). It could have just been a nightmare, all the conditions, bouncing around, choppy, huge sets, some were breaking wide and off the bank and stuff. But there were some gems out there.
So then as if by magic, the swell machine turned off and you're competing in two to three foot Duranbah. Did it take you a couple of days to re-establish your footing?
It just took me getting my head around it a little bit. Obviously when you come here, you're so excited to surf the Superbank by yourself. Two nights ago the swell just barely bumped up, and before I went out I didn't want to surf but I had this new board I wanted to try, so I just had to get myself in the right frame of mind to get myself out there. But then once I did, Duranbah's fun, it's got those little power pockets, those energy pockets off the jetty wedge. There were waves that reminded me a lot of sessions at Sebastian when I was a kid. I was paddling out for the final and it was just low enough tide that the waves were getting a little steepness on 'em, and I got kind of excited. It's hard to surf Pipe all year then come here and get excited about a one foot wave, but I actually was.
And you need that, don't you? You need to be a little bit excited by the surf to perform.
Oh yeah. Absolutely.
Do you feel this win opens the door to a potential world title run?
That's what everyone's asking me. I'd be lying if I said it didn't come into my mind. But I'm not that preoccupied with it. I'm totally enjoying what I'm doing but I'm kinda cruising along with it. This event I felt really relaxed. I think I would have come into this year differently if I had not won the title last year, I might have been in a different frame of mind, but I feel relaxed, you know, it's really all a bonus, it's fun, I'm getting in the water and trying to deal with it there, with what's in the water.