Tracks talks to Kelly about drawing closer to the inevitable.
For how many years after his initial retirement (1999-2001) has Kelly somehow spun an open retirement question into the surfing universe? The last decade? Ever since?
He starts off every year with a little quip about the future, the uncertainty of it all, the randomness of life, the changing of perspectives or the effect that age has on the competitive mind. More often than not he doesn’t even mention the R word, yet he surreptitiously gets the media going, contemplating tour life without The King, and writing articles such as this one you’re reading right now.
So when will he retire? Well, the first question is what exactly is his definition of retirement?
“I don’t know the definition exactly,” said Slater to Tracks Magazine recently. “I think it means when I’m completely unworried on any level about involvement in competitions.”
Some people believe that he needs to walk away while still at the relative pinnacle of his game, and open up the tour for the young guns that are frothing to step up. This fraternity cite facts that Slater’s reign will be unsurpassable during our lifetimes, that his records will never be toppled, that no surfer will ever be able to come close to his talent, skills and competitive acumen, so what is the point in carrying on with such ruthless dominance? Why would he still have the need to win under such records? These people crave a change, they yearn for something new to burst forth, for a Medina or a Julian or a Jordy, John John or Kolohe to officially take over the reign of King, and become the new and valiant champion of the world.
“Well, I truly don’t feel that I have to go prove anything anymore,” agreed Slater, then continued, with obvious reference to Bells, “but competition is still a letdown if I don’t surf well, or get beaten by bad conditions.”
Other people stand by The King and his wily ways. Regardless of age, if a professional sportsperson still has the ability to win in his or her chosen sport, why would he or she consider retirement? What is the sense in that? Kelly has even more to offer at this stage. While he isn’t winning events at the moment - last year he had a second, three thirds, four fifth-placing finishes, and came fourth at the end of the year – he is still winning heats, as well as breaking new ground with the most futuristic moves on the planet. Like his 540 at windy Portugal last year that saw him getting 861,000 YouTube views. (Watch Here).
For someone who is still throwing down these sorts of moves and who still has so much to offer, it would be a crime to the sport to have him retire. Why should he? There are contest victories that are still within his grasp, there is prize money that is there for the taking, and more applause and praise readily available. Who would walk away from that?
One has a certain period in life when you walk into your prime, whether it is as a spouse, a businessperson, a sportsperson, a writer, a scientist or anything else that you have made with your life. Some people peak early, and slow down in later life, others find their pinnacle much later in life, and produce their best work when they have more yesterdays than tomorrows, and that’s the way of the universe. It can be felt that Kelly’s work as a professional surfer, world champion and ambassador for the sport of surfing is not done, that there are still bigger things in store for him, as unbelievable as that might sound. Is this why he is still competing, or is it something else, something more cerebral?
“I really don’t mind getting beaten in a shootout with someone that really pushes you to dig deep and surf your best,” agreed Slater. “In fact, that’s really what I’m probably still doing it for, those events where you find something magical in the whole thing.”
When Kelly retired last time the world championship titles belonged to Occy, Sunny and CJ – and an opinion is that none of those three titles, particularly CJ’s due to the 9/11 short competitive year, have much relevance compared to a world title against Kelly. Andy Iron’s title victories were wild rides with Kelly chasing hard and relentlessly, Mick had Kelly snapping pugnaciously right behind him in 2013 and Joel had Kelly champing at the bit behind him in 2012. A world title with Kelly in the mix has value incomparable to when he’s absent. A world title, and indeed the world title chase, without Slater in the mix, is going to be somewhat devoid of the magic he talks about. In the words of Snoop, it’s like Harold Melvin without the blue notes.