Double his age, an entire generation of competitors had passed between us when I first met Kelly Slater on the North Shore in December of 1989. I was leaving the pro tour. Kelly was just 17. But as an analytical competitor, I considered it my job to evaluate anyone new coming up though the ranks. I thought it wise to be forewarned of upcoming opposition, especially talented opposition, and I distinctly remember the first time I saw Mark Richards, Rabbit, Occy, Tom Curren, and Tom Carroll. All of them made a strong impression and all had a special spark—potential waiting to be realized, a future that was going to be written in bold letters. But Kelly appeared on the scene with an aura of absolute confidence. His style was fluid, fast, and fully formed, unlike that of any young surfer I had ever seen. He had it all, and right then I could see he was going to take surfing down an entirely new road, and scarily, he saw it too.
Now, some 20 years later, Kelly’s competitive statistics numb the brain. He qualified for the tour in 1991, won the World Title his rookie year in 1992, and since then has been a terminator, systematically destroying every competitive record out there, erasing from the record books every great name from every generation of the sport, including Mark Richards (four consecutive World Titles), Tom Curren (33 event wins), and Mark Occhilupo (oldest World champ). He has built a grand edifice of success that will cast a long shadow over everyone that comes in his wake; Nine World Titles, five of them consecutive, the oldest at 36 and the youngest at 20, 40 ASP event wins, six Pipeline Masters.
His most significant contributions have come from outside of his competitive achievements: the purely inspirational surfing that is often overlooked, including his paradigm shifting performances at Pipeline and his revolutionary approach to backside tube-riding (the drop-knee grab-rail style enabled him to take off later than anyone ever before, stall mid-face, and hold and change a line through the tube). But his biggest shake-up of the sport, the fundamental shift from the all-power movement of the ’70s and ’80s, came with Kelly’s power and release approach, which entirely opened up surfing above the wave. He was the first to incorporate the aerial as a functional maneuver into his repertoire.
Out of the water, Kelly Slater is a complex person. Guarded yet charismatic, analytical, humble on the exterior, yet possessing the desire to be at the center of attention—in a contest final or just sitting on a bench with a guitar entertaining a raucous crowd. But Slater’s humanity is what draws us to him and his personal best moments may come as a surprise, none related to winning contests. He says his best tube-ride came as a 15-second chandeliering freight train at Mundaka. His best surfing experience was not winning the World Title but a nighttime session with his old buddy Shane Dorian at Restaurants—pulling into phosphorescent barrels together on soft boards, lights strapped to their waists, watched by a group of shrieking Fijians. He once told me that when he lost to Andy at Pipe in 2003, he was personally devastated, the defeat even more crushing because it was so close. But he also believes that if he could go back and change the course of events now, he wouldn’t, because that singular loss made him a better and stronger person.
Kelly is at once the most popular surfer in the world and, after all these years, still its biggest enigma. It must be a little lonely for the greatest surfer of all time, out there in his self-created stratosphere. But we need him. We need him to keep coming up with crazy designs, we need him to keep risking his life at Teahupoo and Pipe, and we need him to keep breaking records, crushing competitors generations his junior. We need him to keep inspiring us.
No sportsman in the world anywhere has for so many years been so far ahead of his peers—not Tiger, Lance, Ali, Michael Jordan, Gretsky, or Federer. None of these all-time greats have come close to his record of total dominance.
Quite simply, there is surfing before Kelly Slater, and then there is surfing now.—Shaun Tomson