Surfing legend Kelly Slater says maybe 'one more lap' on 2020 world tour
"He's the guy every kid wanted to be."
And still wants to be, according to friends, surfers and admirers around the globe.
At 47 years old, age is just another mystifying number for Kelly Slater, the "guy" with 2.6 million Instagram followers, an unprecedented 11 world titles, 55 wins and a stunning 74 percent victory rate during a 27-year span on the major surfing circuit.
One of the all-time greatest athletes in any sport, the little boy who played in the sand and later learned to surf at Third Street North on Cocoa Beach (now named Slater Way), put on another show at the Pipeline Masters in Hawaii these past two weeks. Although he missed an Olympic berth by just one heat win, he still claimed his third Vans Triple Crown of Surfing, his first since 1998, based on events at Haleiwa, Sunset Beach and at Pipe.
So, what's next for Slater, who hinted a year ago this would be his final ride?
"Might have to do one more lap," he told World Surf League commentator Rosy Hodge on the beach at Oahu. "It honestly took me until now trying to get comfortable (after injuries sidelined him much of the past two seasons). ... a lot of smiling in the water, it's been fun. ... I feel I've been really calm, and sometimes you need a year to get back in it."
Next year would be the 40th year he's been surfing and apparently still hasn't closed the book on his storied career, which is great news for the sport.
"It's crazy that he's still doing this," said his childhood friend, Rhett Fischer, of Cocoa Beach. "He's not going to stop until it's completely out of his system. He told me his goal was to be 98 years old and still getting barreled and that pretty much says it all."
Just two months before his 48th birthday, Slater was doing just that, tucking into a deep ride last week at Pipeline and shooting out, standing up, arms raised, to score his 31st career 10, the only perfect score in this year's Pipe Masters. He finished eighth in the world rankings.
"He's still relevant," said veteran pro surfer Matt Kechele, of Melbourne Beach, who once took a wide-eyed 11-year-old Slater to Hawaii for the first time to see the ferocity of the Pipeline's waves. "He's the guy who the young guys hope to be, and hope to surf against one day and possibly beat him.
"He's set the benchmark as one of the greatest athletes in the world, and those who surf, or even those who don't surf, can certainly appreciate what he's done."
Thursday, it was more magic from the legend.
First, Slater defeated Seth Moniz 7.33-6.20 in the Round of 16, then rallied to beat Jack Freestone 12.94-9.26 by scoring a pair of late six-point tube rides, the last coming with 40 seconds to go.
"It's your day," said Slater, trying to find words to explain his remarkable last-wave quarterfinal victory. "Maybe you did something good for someone that day ... maybe it's karma."
"I'm watching and thinking, 'How lucky is this guy?' " said Hawaii's John John Florence, whose Olympic dream nearly faded when he lost a tough quarterfinal to Gabriel Medina, 17.63-12.33. But Florence earned the second spot on Team USA, along with Hawaii's Kolohe Andino, after Slater was overwhelmed by eventual contest winner and 2019 world champion Italo Ferreira of Brazil in the semifinals,14.77-2.57.
Still a crowd pleaser
Slater rang in the decade with his 10th and 11th world championships in 2010 and 2011. He followed that up with a pair of second-place finishes and remained steady until battling injuries in 2017 and 2018, including a broken foot, but bounced back this year to stay among the Top 10 in the world rankings.
Fischer, who "grew up in diapers together" with Slater and were school buddies at Freedom 7 Elementary, Roosevelt Middle School and Cocoa Beach Jr./Sr. High, spent time with the surfing legend this summer at the World Surf League event in South Africa.
"I was watching him how he prepares, it's actually kind of annoying, he's so intense," said Fischer, vice president of Rusty's Seafood and Oyster Bar at Port Canaveral. "He doesn't talk, he's a fighter. ... It seems like he's just starting, like it's his first year.
"And he's so dialed in on what he eats, and what he indulges in. He has a massage therapist with him, part of his team, and he's always stretching. His back has been a problem. But when you're still surfing 19, 20, 21 years ... it's tough because he's almost 48. But when I was there, you could see the beach flowing with people asking him for autographs and he took care of all of them. It's just cool to see and how freaky he is."
Slater has now surfed in 258 world championship tour contests, and has incredibly won 823 of 1,119 heats after reaching the semifinals at Pipeline, an event he's won a career-best seven times.
"That's his Super Bowl," Fischer said.
Two of Slater's biggest scores in recent years were his ability to create a machine-made wave at his Surf Ranch in Lemoore, Calif., which the World Surf League has used for two major events, and co-founding a planet-friendly clothing line, Outerknown, with products made around the world, after leaving his longtime surfwear sponsor, Quiksilver, in 2014.
During the course of his celebrity-studded career, paparazzi photos have linked him to "Baywatch" co-star Pamela Anderson and other supermodels Gisele Bundchen and Bar Rafaeli, among others.
He's provided lessons to the stars, including Cameron Diaz and even Playboy bunnies.
He was on People magazine’s list of the 50 most beautiful people in the world in 1991.
He's modeled on runways, performed on stage with musicians Jack Johnson and Eddie Vedder (also surfers), appeared on Super Bowl commercials, has led environmental crusades to protect the beaches, and has received Keys to the City from Cocoa Beach to Huntington Beach, Calif.
He's played in pro-am golf tournaments at St. Andrews, Scotland, and Pebble Beach, California, getting the invites in that event from his friend and host, Clint Eastwood.
Slater has a sand sculpture in front of the iconic Ron Jon surf shop and a bigger-than-life bronze statue near Slater Way in Cocoa Beach. Next year, he'll be part of an ABC-TV reality series filmed at his surf ranch.
"He's set a great example for the sport, living a clean lifestyle and staying off drugs and alcohol," Kechele said. "He's made surfing shine."
“Slater has worked hard to master a sport that so many have tried but so few have actually been able to conquer,” said Congressman Bill Posey in 2010 when the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Kelly Slater Resolution, recognizing his achievements.
In 1992, Slater was the youngest surfer (20) to win the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) World Championship and, in 2011, he became the oldest (39) to win that title. Slater is also the first surfer to be awarded two perfect scores under the ASP two-wave scoring system.
How complete of a surfer is he? In 2002, in waves that reached nearly 40 feet, he won the Quiksilver In Memory of Eddie Aikau contest at Waimea Bay, Hawaii.
"It's pretty cool to see a kid from Cocoa Beach, where he's from a place considered the 'Small Wave Capital of the World,' and achieve the kinds of things he did," Kechele said. "It gives people inspiration, no matter where you're from."
How did he do it?
Someone earlier this year asked how this all came about ... how did he learn to conquer the waves?
Slater's mom, Judy, who used to cook burgers and fries at the old Islander Hut off Third Street North as Kelly and his brothers, Sean and Skippy, enjoyed the beach, succinctly summed it up.
"You know, Kelly would sit on the beach for hours, studying the waves and the currents, and how the winds would interact," she said. "He learned all he could about how the waves worked. And that's it."
"The fact that he's surfing in an ever-changing environment, and competing against others and Mother Nature at the same time, and to see how consistent he's been, yeah, he's certainly the greatest athlete of all time," Kechele said.
And if Slater is not surfing, he's playing golf ... or at one time, like at Pebble Beach, he was surfing off the Pacific Coast after finishing his round while PGA stars were playing in the foreground.
"I consider myself a decent golfer," Fischer said, "but you play with him and it's kind of annoying. He's like a scratch golfer, but that's how he rolls. If he focuses on something, he can do it."
In 1999, Slater stepped aside from a full-time role on the world circuit for three years. Some feared he was done after six world titles, including five in a row to that point that broke Mark Richards' all-time record. But his mom knew he just needed to "step away for a little while and recharge his batteries."
During that "retirement," Slater not only won events at Pipeline and Tahiti, but he helped lead a vital push to change the judging criteria as surfing got more progressive with above-the-lip aerials, and he introduced new formats, such as simultaneous side-by-side heats used in this year's Pipeline Masters to optimize the swell conditions.
He's been in well-documented rivalries that sometimes turned testy with good friends Rob Machado and the late Andy Irons, and now young stars such as Gabriel Medina.
"If he was looking for new rivals, he certainly got them," Kechele said. "He's still in the top 10, and for him that's a little low place to be, but he recognizes at such a high level on the WSL he's still able to mix it up with these (young) guys, and get results. It's a gas, and really fun for him. It wouldn't surprise me for him to win again."
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