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WHAT'S BEHIND NO. 9? Welcome to Kelly Slater's Third Act

| posted on July 22, 2010

So what does Kelly’s ninth world title tell us that we didn’t already know? Let’s quickly run down the checklist.

1. That he’s the world’s best surfer, ever?

Nah. We knew that long ago.

2. That he’s one of the world’’ best athletes, ever?

Well, if you weren’t convinced by the huge mountain of evidence he’s already compiled it’s doubtful that his ninth major trip to the top of his field will push you over the edge.

3. That he owns every record in the book?

That’s hardly news either, even though he’s extended a few of them. His record setting 9th world championship also raised the bar on being the oldest champ ever. To put the age thing in perspective just ask yourself this: Will a 36-year-old Andy Irons have it in him to win a title in 2014? Will a 36-year-old Mick Fanning have it in him to win another one in 2017? Will Jordy perhaps stand a chance in 2024?

Let’s not forget Slater also has 39 career victories and is likely to keep counting, too. Yet to my mind, by far the most revealing record, the one that’s a true testament to his character is this: Slater has now reclaimed a title he’s surrendered for an incredible third time (he also won titles back in 1994 and 2005). Only two surfers in history have been able to manage that feat just once (Tom Curren in 1990 and Damien Hardman in 1991).

What we actually may have learned from Kelly Slater’s amazing year is that his career can easily be broken into three acts: The first included his rise and subsequent domination that lasted through his first six world titles. The inevitability tag he was labeled with from an early age came to fruition in Act I, and all was seemingly right with the world. But then things took a decidedly different turn, and Act II began when he walked away at the top of his game searching for something deeper.

Now Kelly’s soul searching is long over. The knowledge has become wisdom, which has liberated him of his most selfish desires. The most transparent evidence of this was Kelly’s willingness to experiment with his equipment at the season’s outset.

The inward journey wasn’t nearly as smooth. Second acts never are. The perils of Kelly’s personal life were compounded by the fishbowl existence he resided in, exposing his human vulnerabilities to the world. That he was rarely in one place long enough to put things right, even during his so-called retirement, didn’t help. Yet around the time he was working through his inner-self a new outward motivation appeared—a new challenge he couldn’t resist. The challenge was Andy Irons. And facing him down on a newly improved “dream tour” sweetened the idea of a comeback. Yet his climb back was far from smooth. In fact, he was dealt one blow after another: his face in tabloids, his father’s passing, and his first real failure at something he really wanted when Irons defeated him in 2003. Some wondered if Slater’s time had passed. But in 2005 Slater would make it back to the top, recapturing something that suddenly seemed rightfully his all along. Slater’s second act culminated in his back-to-back titles, numbers seven and eight.

Slater’s handover of the title in 2007 was no shock given what he’d just accomplished. There was nothing left to prove. But then Fanning took the crown from Kelly in commanding fashion while electric would-be rookies like Dane Reynolds and Jordy Smith were sending out wildcard warning shots, especially at the 2007 Boost Mobile Pro, where they knocked out half of the Top 10. Amid all the hype for Fanning, Dane, Jordy, et al last year, pro surfing fans actually seemed comfortable embracing the post-Slater era as they readied themselves for 2008.

There was just one problem…Slater wasn’t ready for it. Sensing another grand challenge from fresh meat he was hoping to feast on, if not with, and buoyed by a new love whose youthful enthusiasm is undoubtedly contagious (his girlfriend keeps him grounded, focused, and most importantly, amused), Slater decided to embark on his Third Act. He had acquired all the skill knowledge, hubris, and humility he needed for the long haul during his long second act. That is, after all, what second acts are for.

Now Kelly’s soul searching is long over. The knowledge has become wisdom, which has liberated him of his most selfish desires. The most transparent evidence of this was Kelly’s willingness to experiment with his equipment at the season’s offset. Abandoning conventional wisdom with his designs was a bold move that led directly to his phenomenal Australian success, and subsequent domination the rest of the way.

In retrospect, while Slater entered the season in a better emotional place than he’s probably ever been, most of his would-be competition was unprepared for battle. Firecrackers like Dane and Jordy would have to adjust to a new playing field, while Fanning had to adapt to the mounting pressure of being a defending champion in a surf-crazed country. Taj and Parko, while phenomenal surfers, never really posed a serious threat from start to finish. And Andy Irons entered this season long overdue for his own inward-journey. He’s not alone, either.

But for now, and probably for some time to come, Kelly Slater will be.