The Golden Child of Surfing
Money, fame, pressure and expectation: The forces of his professional future are coming together with an intensity no other 17-year-old surfer has ever experienced.
He sleeps like an angel: curled up on his side, dark eyebrows slightly raised, hugging his pillow to his chin. His adult-looking face, with its startling jade eyes, retired for the day; transformed into child-like repose, numb and divine. A face at peace with a world that is treating him so kindly.
Or, so it would seem…
Leaning against a bare wall in his room, I listened to the sounds of the night: Kelly’s measured breathing, the hissing of the nearby Atlantic—and, strangely, the low snorting of two manatees lumbering by in the lagoon system that laces itself through the backyards of sea-level Cocoa Beach.
I glanced at the alarm clock. It was 3:00 AM on a January school night. Kelly and I had been up slumber-party talking, and the conversation had just drifted off. He was gone in a matter of seconds. I was alone with my thoughts.
Now and then the night wind would lift the tattered sheet that was nailed up over his open window, and spirit its way around his room. In one corner were a few split packing boxes, overflowing with trophies. In another was a single chest of drawers. Across the room was a closet with its doors off the hinges, and hanging inside was what looked like a salesman’s ultimate sample rack of every surf apparel manufacturer in the business: wetsuits, T-shirts, sweats, the works—most with their tags still dangling. And to my left, on the otherwise naked walls, was the single poster Kelly had tacked up, depicting a cartoon character with its head up its own ass. The slogan read: YOUR PROBLEM IS OBVIOUS.
On the tile floor, Kelly was lying on a mattress with a blanket pulled up to his chin.
The look and feel of this household I’d become a part of a few days earlier had been a surprise to me. Considering Kelly Slater’s Golden Child public image, already seasoned by years of advertising, I’d expected something a bit more…well, silver spoon. I found myself oddly pleased it wasn’t. There were no pretenses here—this was Salt-of-the-Earth stuff.
From the moment I walked in the house—a white stucco tract unit—I’d been treated like family. Furthermore, the Slater clan was one of the most easygoing and loving I’d ever come across: mother Judy a one-time firefighter, bartender, waitress and currently unemployed; stepfather Walker a marine engine mechanic; older brother Sean and younger brother Steven. The family had been nomadic for three years now, since Judy’s divorce from the children’s natural father; moving from house to house, keeping a lot of things in boxes. They’d been renting this house for the last six months, but it too, was up for sale, and rumor had it the realtor had found a buyer. They’d be moving again soon. No one was quite sure when.
I looked at the clock: 3:05 AM. Again, the sheet over the window moved. Beyond was what Kelly had referred to as “the whole world out there.” Funny how he’d put it that way. As if it were a separate entity, laying in wait; a presence expecting such big things from him
My impressions of the last five days were coming like still-life photos now; a mosaic of random moments that shed some light on the inner workings of this 17-year-old prodigy sleeping before me.
“I pledge allegiance to the flag for the United States of America, and to the country for which it stands….” I was in trouble, struggling to remember the words, a little off cadence. After all, it had been about 20 years since I’d recited the Pledge. And to make matters worse, my voice—which is about 10 times as deep as anyone’s in the room—was throwing the whole class off. A little girl, in what looked like her mother’s glasses, was already rolling her best, “oh, brother!” eyes at me.
We finished up, and I squeezed into a chair. I was spending the day with Kelly Slater at Cocoa Beach High School, in his social studies class; sort of a Day-in-the-Life exercise with the world’s most famous amateur surfer.
Teacher took the podium. “Now, class, yesterday we left off talking about what life would be like in the Soviet Union. Does anyone have any ideas on what…oh, say, Kelly’s life would be like in the USSR?” The question seemed a little odd, but I felt a surge of high school flashback, and my hand almost shot up. Someone beat me to it.
A wiseguy: “I think he’d freeze to death without a wetsuit….” That really busted the room up. Took a while for us to settle down.
Teacher continued: “I think we can do better than that. How about a show of hands?” She scanned the room like a master, waiting just long enough for a few kids to start wiggling their fingers before making her choice. “Okay…John?”