Issue 574 of Tracks features a revealing interview with Kelly Slater by Anthony Pancia in which Slater discusses everything from his coping mechanisms for losing to his social media preoccupations. Anthony also managed to get in touch with William Finnegan for his views on Slater. Finnegan helped raise the collective IQ of surfers by winning the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Biography with his compelling surfing memoir, Barbarian Days. Below is an out-take from the Slater interview featuring Finnegan’s comments on surfing’s most celebrated figure and also the writer's views on Pro Surfing's futile attempt to crack the mainstream.  

A young William Finnegan in wanderlust mode and the cover of his award-winning book, Barbarian Days.

1) What did you make of Kelly? Did he look and sound like you’d imagined an 11x world surf champ would?

I’ve seen Slater here and there over the years—North Shore, Fiji—even surfed with him a bit, but never really talked to him till last year when I was doing that Surf Ranch piece. Inside surfing, he is so ridiculously famous that he seems quite familiar even when you meet him for the first time so no surprises there. I found him to be slightly shorter than I’d imagined, but he certainly carried a certain presence. Most great surfers, in my limited experience, are pretty short. Guys like Owen Wright and Jordy Smith are the exception.

Slater has an unusual number of demands on his attention, which can make him seem kind of scattered, not to mention chronically late for meetings, but, as I guess you noticed, once you have his attention, his concentration can be formidable. He’s interested in a surprisingly wide range of things, so conversations with him can go in any direction—science, film, politics, sports, climate ­– not your usual athlete interview. For that Surf Ranch story, we naturally got deep into wave mechanics, engineering, even artificial intelligence, and I must say he’s got a lively mind. We also fell down the rabbit holes that plague all conversation between surfers—talking surf: this wave, that wave, some great surf spot—and Slater seemed about as permanently stoked on chasing good waves as anybody I’ve met. Not jaded or burnt-out in the least. Actually, he’s been known to skip contests when the surf is clearly going to be better in some other part of the world, and it’s easy to see how that could happen. He’s got a serious, apparently incurable case of surf fever. He’s notoriously competitive, which he mostly keeps under control in conversation—he likes a laugh, and can even be self-deprecating—but if you happen to disagree about something, however minor, and you want to argue the point, I got the feeling that he would dig in and argue all night. The guy does not like to lose at anything.

Kelly scarring the face of a wind-blown J-Bay wall. Photo: Bosko

You mentioned, generally, not a lot of New Yorkers (and no doubt many others) outside of surfing know who he is. Were you surprised by that and how much of that is due to pro surfing’s inability to crack the mainstream?

Yes, I was surprised, when I conducted my little straw poll last year, before writing about Slater’s Surf Ranch, that nobody I asked about him had ever heard of him. I wasn’t asking surfers, of course, or coastal Californians, but just random people around New York – people in elevators, offices, restaurants, some of them friends or colleagues, most of them strangers. Actually, it wasn't completely random – I was asking people who seemed like they might read The New Yorker, and in some cases I knew they did. But Slater's name recognition was basically zero, and I suspect it wouldn’t be much higher among our readers in other parts of the world. So that was useful to know – it meant I had to introduce him from scratch in my piece. As I mentioned yesterday, I think he's probably better-known in Oz, where surfing is much more of a mainstream sport, and the top Aussie surfers seem to be proper sports celebrities. And I think the same thing might be increasingly true in Brazil, where the number of surfing fans has been growing rapidly with the competitive success of their pros. But really, in this country, and in most of surf world, the concept of a "surfing fan" barely exists. The only people interested in pro surfing here are surfers, and not even a majority of surfers are particularly interested. So the idea of surfing cracking the mainstream, finding a mass audience, while it's much-discussed under the current pro tour management (a non-surfing US billionaire named Dirk Ziff, as you probably know, basically purchased pro surfing at his wife’s behest a few years ago, and he has been pouring money into it, and has hired non-surfing sports executives with backgrounds in tennis and football to run the show, form corporate partnerships with Facebook, Air BnB, etc, trying to “build the brand” and generate interest among non-surfers), always feels a bit unrealistic. Surfing is just not a spectator sport except on rare and unpredictable occasions. It’s certainly not a good TV sport – there’s far too much downtime between waves, even when the surf is great. So the whole idea of a fan base doesn't carry over from other sports. How many boxing fans filling the arena or watching the pay-per-view go home and box? None. For surf comps, it's the opposite, perhaps not so much in Oz, but more generally yes, from everything I’ve seen. The audience for pro surfing is surfers, and there are only so many of us.

Thirty years of Kelly Slater at surfing's cutting edge has gone by in a blur. Photo: Bosko

3) He seemingly refuses to quit professional surfing-and it’s hard not to draw comparisons to the aged heavyweight-at this point, what do you think it is doing for whatever legacy he may leave once he eventually does?

He’s 47, as I know you know – by far the oldest person ever to compete at this level. Yes, a lot of people say he should retire, that he's tarnishing his legacy by competing but not winning titles, that he should open up his spot on the tour to some deserving youngster, etc. I’m not one of those people. I think he’s actually still one of the most popular, exciting surfers in the world, still surfs amazingly well, and the tour is going to lose some of its lustre after he retires. The boxing analogy does not hold water. Older boxers (Manny Pacquiao, are you listening?) desperately need to retire. Fighting is dangerous and only gets more so and the damage is cumulative – Muhammad Ali is just the most prominent example of how boxing too long can put you in an early grave. Surfing is a completely different proposition. Kelly is risking nothing and, in fact, he still surfs better, on a given day, than most of the other guys on tour and, in serious waves, at big Pipe or Teahupoo, say, he's definitely still one of the 2 or 3 best in the world, and his most formidable competitor, John John Florence, is actually out for the year with injury. Slater is also inspiring as hell for many of us old farts – if he can do THAT at 47, we’ve got no excuse for surfing so conservatively as we age, or, God forbid, for quitting entirely.