Kelly Slater, the 11-time world champion and undisputed GOAT in the world of competitive surfing, just turned 47 years old. The WSL also just announced that he’ll be dusting off the competitive cobwebs next month in Vissla Sydney Surf Pro before embarking on what he’s hinted to be his final full season of World Tour competition. This is all happening following a very quiet year for Slater, where a lingering foot injury kept him from surfing all but two events (he made semifinals in both). Slater, a consummate competitor and showman, will certainly be aiming to go out with a bang. But is it actually possible for the 47 year old to punctuate his competitive career with a final title? Let’s discuss.
Todd Prodanovich, SURFER Editor: So the GOAT just turned 47 years old, he’s about to embark on his 850th World Tour Season, and yet somehow he seems to be surfing Pipe as well as ever during the past few swells in Hawaii [Ed’s note: see below]. Looks like he might finally be past his lingering foot injury and as ready as he’ll ever be to put in a final strong season and call it a career. I feel somewhat silly even asking this question, but do you think that Slater could win a 12th world title? Is that even a remote possibility at this point?
Justin Housman, SURFER Features Editor: Did it feel like a remote possibility that he’d win a title at 39 and would compete for another the first few years of his 40s? I feel like pretty much anything is a remote possibility for Slater, as far as pro surfing is concerned. If he can harness his weird Slater energy and focus on this coming season, sure, why not, he’d stand a better chance than Jordy or Julian. The premise of a 4…7…is that right?…year old winning the world title is so radically absurd I’m all for it. I don’t know if it would be a testament to Slater’s incredibleness, a middle finger to youth-obsessed surf culture, or a massive rebuke of how competitive surfing is organized, but I’m paying attention and pulling for him.
TP: Maybe on paper it seemed unlikely for Slater to win the world title at 39 years old, but actually watching him do it back in 2011? Nothing could have seemed more certain. It’s interesting, though, because I actually think Slater at full health is a better surfer now than he was then—a little sharper on rail, a little deeper and more comfortable in the tube. But I also think that he’s still surfing to the 2011 criteria, and no matter how well he does that, these younger guys are playing a different game. If you watched the Keramas event last year, it was just insane the kinds of air combos going down. Hell, even at J-Bay, a wave that’s always played to Slater’s strengths, is now a venue for sky-high alley-oops as much as it is for barrels and carves, aka Slater’s bread and butter. Frankly, its amazing how long he got people to play his game, with judges handing out 9s for surfers who wait for a set wave and belt it with three good cracks at the lip. But the jig is up. Now we all know (judges included) that Gabby, Filipe, JJF, Italo and more can manufacture something magical on an in-betweener. Do you think that Slater could possibly top the tech stuff with just solid rail surfing, tubes and tactical know-how?
JH: I think Slater can. I think his legacy alone is prob worth an extra point on each wave. One of the benefits of insane, world-class longevity in a judged sport is that you get to set the tone of what counts as good surfing. If Slater uncorks three laser-sharp top turns and a perfect roundhouse, you kinda have to assume that’s the best those turns can be done, because, well, it’s Slater. He set the tone. At least, I think that’s how the judges will see it. It’s kinda like an ump in baseball. Clayton Kershaw gets pitches off the plate a little bit called strikes because he’s Kershaw and he’s won Cy Youngs and been the best for a decade. A young flamethrower though, he has to be perfect to get the strike call.
WATCH SLATER AT FIRING PIPELINE LAST MONTH:
TP: Ha, I feel like you’re taking advantage of the fact that you know I know absolutely nothing about actual sports, but I think I get the gist. I agree that Slater has criteria-bending powers shared by nobody else on Tour, but I also think that only works to a certain point: the judges are going to give Slater the benefit of the doubt, but that presupposes that there will be at least some modicum of doubt. On rampy waves like Keramas, Rio, France and Portugal, I think there will be little doubt—Slater is gonna get blown out of the water by probably more than half of the Tour if the conditions allow for airs. Snapper, Bells, Margarets and J-Bay probably offer a little more gray area for Slater to pick up points, but I think he’ll still come up short against the best performance surfers today. The only waves where I see Slater still having a very strong chance of winning in 2019 are Tahiti and Pipe, both of which Slater could probably win every year until he’s 60—and that might only barely be an exaggeration.
JH: We need to go back and watch Occy’s title run. I don’t remember what exactly would have constituted the highest of hi-fi performance back then. Tail slides? Carving 360s? Occy won based on pure power and pure Occ-ness. So I think there’s definitely precedent for an old school approach winning in a new school environment. Plus, Slater can do airs! Adriano won a title and prob didn’t do a single air all that year. But all of this misses the important part — how rad would it be for Slater to win at 47!? That’s totally nuts. It would prolong careers. Why retire at 35? Also, if Slater can win at 47, does he still finish top-ten at 50? Holy shit. Also, if the world champ is nearing 50, what does that say about competitive surf standards? So many interesting questions and I want him to win so all of them are raised.
TP: Your Occy and Adriano points are well taken, but even with Adriano’s title being as recent as 2015, it feels like so much has changed in those few short years—for starters, Adriano himself finished 19th last season. I think Adriano’s slip and Slater’s lessened title chances are symptoms of the same thing: the younger guys can surf with just as much power, they can get just as barreled AND they can do incredibly-tech airs on command. As a betting man, I wouldn’t even put my money on Slater cracking the top 5, let alone winning another title in 2019. But as a fan? Oh boy, I’d absolutely love to eat my words by season’s end, for all of the reasons you brought up. Slater is the GOAT, but the odds are well and truly against him now. Even with everything he’s achieved, he’s an underdog in 2019, and everyone loves a good underdog story. If he somehow managed to put a title-winning season together, it might be a greater feat than all his other titles combined. It would be incredible.