Kelly Slater turns 45 Today. Given that he won his first major contest at 18 (the $100,000 Body Glove Surf Bout contest at Trestles in 1990) he’s spent almost three decades at the forefront of professional surfing. He’s proven he can still win major events (See Teahupoo 2016) and may yet emerge as a challenger for the world crown in 2017. Without launching into the platitudes or even referencing his reams of stats it would seem Slater has legitimate claim to the title of being the most successful individual sportsman in history. So what is it that makes him persevere? When quizzed about his motivations to continually renew his top 34 membership card, Slater is notoriously coy, which leaves us to speculate on exactly why Kelly keeps on keeping on.  Main Photo: Miller

He Believes He Can Win:

Perhaps all other motives are secondary to this one. Kelly wouldn’t be joining the lunch queue in the WCT competitor’s area if he didn’t think he could still whip the lot of them and claim another title. Last year Slater was bordering on tears as he poured out his soul to the press after a third round loss at Bells. (This followed a second round loss at the Quiksilver Pro). By the time he defeated John John and won the Billabong Pro, Teahupoo, Slater’s faith in himself was totally restored. Kelly is aware that in big, hollow waves few on tour can match him if he’s on. There may be 11 events on tour, but only nine results count and pro surfing is never a level playing field. If the waves are solid for Tahiti and Fiji, Kelly knows that he can win both events and bam! A world title is only a couple of back-ups away.

Knowing You Are At Your Best:

Being a better than average golfer and a moderately successful businessman is dandy, but knowing that you are still one of the best in the world at something is an ego zone that’s hard to walk away from. Even if Kelly isn’t contending for a title, being on tour means that he is likely to be at his personal best. Kelly loves being pushed, and having John John and Medina around 24/7 keeps you on your toes. Perhaps Kelly’s surfing would blossom off tour, but it could also lose its edge because he doesn’t have the world’s best challenging him on a daily basis. When you have been at the top of your game for so long it’s hard to let go and drop back a gear.

Good enough to pull a crowd on the golf course but it's not quite the same as being the best surfer in the world.

Dream Match Ups:

Kelly may have grown weary of certain aspects of competition (e.g. two foot Rio) but there are undoubtedly situations he still dreams about – like ten foot Teahupoo or Pipe with just him and John John out. (Remember the 2014 Teahupoo semi with John John and then the final in 2016). The WSL is still the only organisation that can put him in those situations with one other guy in the water, and nothing feels better for Kelly than beating John John in good waves.

Competition and Legacy

Whether it be pool, poetry competitions, golf, ju-jitsu or ping pong there are hundreds of stories of how competitive Kelly is. Yes, he’s grown as a human but he still thrives on trying to beat the other guy in a heat. It’s also worth noting that he finished second to Joel Parkinson and Mick Fannning – 2012, 2013 consecutively – by miniscule amounts in the title race. Those close losses leave scars on the highly competitive. Since 2013 he hasn’t really been in the hunt. Kelly doesn’t want his final legacy to be that of the battered pugilist who has gone one too many rounds, but he’s prepared to risk looking like that to avoid becoming it.    

Kelly had to overcome alpha males like Pottz and Kong to claim his early titles.

Come and Rip It Off Me:

To become King, Kelly has had to fight full-blown, Game-of-Thrones-style battles in different eras. Martin Potter, Sunny Garcia and Gary Elkerton were brutal when he first arrived on tour. Shane Beschen, Willsy/Campbell and Rob Machado pushed it to the wire in the middle years. Andy Irons broke Kelly then forced him to find his best in the early 2000’s. Mick Fanning and Joel Parkinson tested his resolve and compelled him towards 11. The point is, Kelly holds the world title in high regard. He thinks it should be hard won and if you really want it then you should have to take him down while he's still competitive.   

Kelly has fought hard to be the King, you should have to beat him if you want a piece of legitimate glory. Illustration Johannes Leak.

 

For a Higher State of Consciousness and for the Good of Middle-aged Surfers.

While the other surfers go to the high performance centre, Kelly isn’t scared to explore alternative paths. In the early 2000’s he spent time following the teachings of Sri Chimmoy, an Indian guru who attracted attention by achieving incredible physical feats as a 70-yearold. Kelly has always had a jedi vibe but to win another title he will have to find a crazy head-space that is far beyond the realms of normality. Throughout history men and women have sought higher-consciousness as a goal. Kelly is no doubt drawn to the same concept.

Kelly probably won’t discuss it because the age thing is just a number to him, but somewhere in his sub-conscious motivation is a desire to show the world that at 45 year-old can still be a world-class surfer and juggle a few other major interests on the side. No, we will never be Kelly, but he has redefined preconceptions about what is possible at a given age. We can all take a little inspiration from the fact that Kelly is even on the WCT.   

Kelly hanging with guru, Sri Chimmoy, in the early 2000's.

Redefining Your Life is Hard:

Ever thought about leaving your job? It’s confronting in all sorts of ways. Sure Kelly had time in the wilderness around the turn of the century, but back then he always knew that he could climb his way back on tour. When he leaves this time it means completely redefining his life and finding new purpose. A contest or heat win gives you an immediate sense of self-worth. Winning in life is a little different.

Surfboards Are His Thing:

The challenge for Kelly to win a title is as much a mental puzzle as it is a test of his middle-age physical prowess. A big part of the mental puzzle, and what continues to make surfing interesting for Kelly, is figuring out which board/boards will enable him to win at this stage of his life. Sometimes he fails gloriously (like last year at the Quiksilver Pro on the cursed black Banana board) and at other times it seems his equipment obsession pays dividends, but either way he loves the idea of searching for the excalibur of surfboards. Kelly is also now the major shareholder at Firewire and has his own offshoot brand with Kelly Slater designs. If you are promoting a new board company then there is no better place to be than on the CT –  provided you win of course.    

Want to promote your board company? The tour is the best place to do it.

Interesting Times at The WSL

Minus a CEO and probably not yet turning over a buck, the WSL is in a major transitional phase. Although it’s a much slicker operation and has never been more popular, the next big step is to monetise. Kelly is no doubt well aware of the value he adds to the tour. Sponsors are more likely to sign on if they know the King is still in. The tour without Kelly might be like INXS without Michael Hutchence – never the same again. It’s difficult to determine just how emotionally and financially invested Kelly is in the WSL, however we do know for sure that A: Terry Hardy, his manager, was a major part of the original deal to get ZoSea to buy out the tour and B: Kelly cut a pretty good deal with the WSL in regards to his wave pool. Whether he has a vested or simply personal interest, Kelly knows that he can make a difference to the WSL in a difficult period. Which leads to …     

 The Wave Pool

The WSL have big plans for the wave pool. They are the surfing football stadiums of the future and no doubt a big part of the WSL’s objective to inject cash flow. Just selling the licenses to build the pools alone is likely to be a major money earner. Although Kelly has sold his controlling share to WSL holdings it’s still his baby. Being on tour while the wave park is still evolving is better for everyone concerned. Kelly also probably wants to make sure he is there for the inaugural event. There's a good chance he's had more practice in the pool than anyone else.