SURFER MAG INTERVIEW: Inside Kelly Slater's Head

When Kelly Slater rejoined the ASP World Championship Tour in 2002 legions of surf fans rejoiced at the notion of a triumphant comeback run. Interest in the tour waned during his three-year absence, but there was suddenly much to celebrate: A new tour schedule chock full of epic waves and more money, a new crop of young talent including Andy Irons, Joel Parkinson and Mick Fanning, but more than anything else, the Return of Slater, which had everyone referring to the new WCT as the Dream Tour. Yet for Kelly Slater, the storied comeback dream was quickly dealt a lethal blow in 2002 when his father fell terminally ill, effectively removing him from the race. By 2003 the new crew had found traction, as evidenced by the new World Champion Andy Irons, who battled Slater all through the storied 2003 season, and eventually dealt Slater a crushing blow in the final heat of the year to clinch his second World Title. While Irons was off winning his third in a row in 2004, Slater seemed indifferent, going winless all year. But as the WCT kicked off this year, something clicked for Kelly. After stunning back-to-back victories in Tahiti and Fiji, Slater has finally found his momentum. Older, wiser, and perhaps more dangerous than ever, we caught up with the six-time champion to see how his life has changed, and what he really thinks about going for Number Seven. — Chris Mauro

SURFER MAG: Why are you suddenly finding yourself in the winner's circle again after so long without a victory?

KELLY SLATER: It's strange. I made eight quarterfinals last year and only made it through three of them. A lot of years that could be a World Title run. But somehow there was something in my brain last year. I mean, five 5th Place finishes. That was really tough to take.

SURFER MAG: Was it some kind of psychological block?

KELLY SLATER: Yeah, it kind of was I guess. To be perfectly honest, losing the title in the last event in the last heat in 2003 was f—ing heartbreaking.

SURFER MAG: You were still rattled?

KELLY SLATER: Oh yeah. I got way too focused on it afterwards. I only sort of put it into perspective when I got to Tahiti this year. I thought about it and I was like, "Yeah, you know, that really hurt." I really didn't want to look at it until then because basically it was still killing me.

SURFER MAG: That's a bit surprising.

KELLY SLATER: Yeah, but I'm still around all the same people, and things haven't really slowed down, so it was close in proximity and time. But at the end of the day it's just one aspect of my life and I have to be OK with it in order to do what I'm doing. Going to Tahiti after Bells this year I was still really upset because I felt I'd gotten a raw deal at Bells. Maybe at the end of the day it wasn't one, but the way I was feeling I thought it was. And to have all the other guys on tour—the same guys who want you to lose, coming up to you saying you got burned, that just makes it tougher to take.

SURFER MAG: What did that do to your hopes for this year?

KELLY SLATER: I went to Tahiti in the mind frame that I wasn't going to do the African leg. I was going to skip Reunion and skip J-Bay so I could focus on getting things squared up for my [celebrity invitational] event. I didn't want to waste my time doing contests that weren't exciting me. But then I found that piece of the puzzle. I figured out why I really wasn't having fun.

SURFER MAG: And that was…

KELLY SLATER: I was still a bit depressed about losing the title.

SURFER MAG: And identifying it was half the cure?

KELLY SLATER: Yeah, because all the sudden it all just kind of loosened up. I was out in the water at Teahupoo, the only guy out there before my heat, and the wind was onshore, it was big and messy, and I realized I was feeling really tense. And I just went, "No, I'm either going to totally relax and have fun, so I can access my surfing, or I need to quit and get off this tour. And if I'm going to get off this tour, I might as well have fun right now." It all just made perfect sense. All the sudden I was just having fun.

SURFER MAG: Simple as that?

KELLY SLATER: Well, no. Then I got myself into a bad situation in my heat against Bruce [Irons]. I knew he wasn't out of reach, being that it was this short hollow wave, but he was beating me bad. So now I'm stuck in a corner with nowhere to go again. When that happens you don't have space to be free and have fun.

SURFER MAG: That was one of the greatest comebacks ever in a heat. How'd you pull yourself out of that one, anyway?

KELLY SLATER: Well, I sat back for a minute thinking, "F—, I'm going to lose to Bruce at Teahupoo." I was actually thinking about the things people will write. [Laughs.] You know what I mean?

SURFER MAG: Well yeah…but then again…no.

KELLY SLATER: Well, you know, I'm just being honest here. You know the hype with the whole young crew thing and all. And I know at the end of the day I surf as well as I've ever surfed, right now, but it seems like there's a lot of value put on contest results. As if that clarifies how well you surf. Anyway, I'm out there thinking about all these negative things and I thought, "You know what, Kelly, why don't you think back to what you told yourself, and what you've learned in the past couple of days and just see how it goes?" So I'm sitting out there, and I just figured, "If Bruce is going to kick my ass in this heat I'm just going to have some fun." Then bang. Thirty seconds later I get a 10-point ride. And two minutes later I pull ahead with an 8.5, and I end up winning the heat.

SURFER MAG: It was that easy.

KELLY SLATER: Yeah. After that, it was like, if I'm going to trust anything in my life right now it's that. I just started having fun in every heat. I knew I couldn't be soul-surfing heats. At the end of the day I'm in a competition so I might as well be a competitor. But I let go of all the crap and things just started flowing. I was seeing things happen in slow motion ahead of time…it was that cool.

SURFER MAG: You said you felt that way back in J-Bay in 2003, which was also your first win in a while and put you into contention in the race that year.

KELLY SLATER: Exactly, it just comes down to keeping your mind clear.

SURFER MAG: But the notion that you would stress about what people would think if you lost. I mean, that' a bit ridiculous; do you really feel you have something to prove?

KELLY SLATER: Y'know, I'm definitely in my transition period of getting out of pro surfing full-time. Whether that happens next week, next year, or five years, it's going to happen. But from the time I was very young I never wanted to go out from anywhere but on the top. Whether that means Number One or Number 10, it means at the top of what I can do. And I haven't been doing my best. I haven't been accessing the way I'm able to work the best and I've been yearning to get back to that place I was at J-Bay, but you can't get there by trying. I've got to get there by letting go.

SURFER MAG: But there you were ready to walk away from the tour, skip J-Bay and Reunion, and now suddenly you're leading the ratings and in the driver's seat for your seventh World Title. Yet in order to stay here, from what you're saying, you have to remember to stop caring. The whole thing is pretty amusing.

KELLY SLATER: Yeah, you're right. It's funny because even after Teahupoo I still almost passed on Fiji. After that win I was like, "Y'know, maybe that was it, maybe that's what I was supposed to do. Maybe this is how it should end for me." Then I saw the swell going straight for Fiji and I figured, "Well, Jeez, maybe I will go." It was really that simple of a decision. I didn't even sleep the night before the big day. I was so pumped and nervous and anxious. I think I slept two hours just because I had so much energy flowing through my body.

SURFER MAG: That must have been an incredibly satisfying victory for you considering the time you've spent there?

KELLY SLATER: That last day was one of the best days of my life. There's no way to explain how those days happen. I'd been waiting for like six years to win that event. I'm really close with everyone on that island. I love the people from the village, and I've known many of them for 15 years, and I could really feel their support on that final day. When I won the thing and all the ladies in the kitchen were hugging me and kissing me, I almost started crying.

SURFER MAG: Let's just confirm something. The Title is the way you want to go out?

KELLY SLATER: Absolutely…that would be the ultimate way…but if that's your only exit then you've got trouble. That's the perfect doggie door. But if I put it all on that, it probably won't happen.

SURFER MAG: Even your friends say that for you to do it you have to want it from beginning to end…and you've already alluded to that being an issue. Are you simply riding on the wind?

KELLY SLATER: I guess so. It's funny, I didn't even want to go to Bells this year either. The Gold Coast was pumping at the time and we're always sitting around in onshore slop down there waiting for surf. I know I'm grumbling. Bells is a fantastic event for posterity, but we're almost getting too spoiled with waves now. It's like, do you want to surf onshore mushy crap or perfect Gold Coast barrels? Truth is, I've always had trouble there, too. The only reason I won there when I did was I was pissed off at my girl at the time and I didn't want to be sitting around that contest without being in it [laughs].