"You have to have that warrior in you, especially in Hawaii!"
I was chatting to Shaun Tomson a few years ago in JBay, and we were recounting Hawaiian tales and the 'Busting Down the Door' era.
"To succeed in Hawaii you have to go over the ledge at Pipe, and you have to put your head down and go on the big ones at Sunset," said Shaun about how to win on the North Shore. "And you have to want to win with all your heart. Why do you think Kelly was on the inside of Rob after that high-five at Pipe? It wasn't a friendly gesture, it was tactics and cunning, because he wanted to win."
Win he did. Pipe Master, 1995 World Title, glory, adulation and applause. Going into the event, however, it was Sunny in the lead, with Rob second. Kelly was in the third spot and needed the win. Garcia only required to get to the third round, but agonizingly, crashed out in the second round.
He came up against Occy, who tried as hard as he could to lose the heat, giving Garcia every wave he wanted, but still Sunny couldn't buy a wave out there. He didn't come out of a single barrel and lost his board at the end of the heat. Occy tried to give Sunny his board, but luck was definitely against the Hawaiian, and he was eliminated, leaving it wide open for Rob and Kelly.
They both advanced on opposite sides all the way to the semi-finals.
Rob had to win that semi-final to win his first world title, while Kelly would have to win the event to win the title. With two under the belt, he was gunning for his third title, and his competitive nous was glowing.
Pipe was thick and heavy, but it was clean and glassy, and there were plenty of barrels.
It was back in the day when the surf mags were flourishing, and when they attended every event in Hawaii and the world around. Tracks were there, alongside the rest of them. There were still twenty or more international surf magazines that paid attention to professional surfing. They took it seriously, with full editorial teams on the beach on the North Shore back then.
It was a great heat, with waves being scored from the get-go. When it got down to the last few minutes, Kelly was just ahead, but Rob had his gung-ho game on and was going to charge the biggest, meanest pit that came his way to win the heat and the title.
Then it went down.
Rob snuck out of a good barrel. Seeing Kelly paddling out, Rob decided to cut back, and give his friend and rival a high-five in the water. The crowd loved it, the storyline of soul surfer vs competitive meanie wrote itself, and Rob was out of priority and out of position for the next set.
Was it sinister tactics from Kelly, or was Rob so carefree that he could afford to be that relaxed in a world title heat?
Many people believe the former, although Kelly Slater has denied it ever since. The three leading proponents over the years that Kelly was employing gamesmanship are Mark Occhilupo, Sunny Garcia and Martin Potter. Still, they were the three surfers who could never really deal with Kelly and his incredible talent and skill. So, there might have been some reverse sinister tactics going down, with the three of them projecting sour grapes on the whole thing.
Kelly went on to win 11 world titles and was still hustling for his 12th up until lockdown. In contrast, Rob went on to become a well-sponsored free surfer, travelling on the Hurley dime, also until fairly recently.
When Taylor Steele presented the premiere of HBO's Momentum Generation at the La Paloma Theatre in 2018, Kelly brought the high five into perspective.
"People made it controversial, about the high five," he said. "I think it's disrespectful, and I think it's kind of a slap in the face to the spirit of surfing, to be honest. We were stoked. Two friends surfing with perfect waves at Pipeline with no one out. Ya, there's a world title on the line, but perfect waves, and I think we were just in the moment."
Never one to back down from controversy, Kelly went one further than that at the premiere, on stage. Mic in hand.
"I'll say this," said Kelly to the packed theatre. "If anyone initiated the high five it was Rob. Hear me out here. He does a cutback and goes like this (stretches out his hand). I just sat on my board and went like that (high five motion). I was paddling! I wasn't sitting on my board going, bring it, bring it!"
"It kinda looked that way," drawled Rob, unconvincingly, in the background.
I think that Kelly is talking shit, but it might have been subconscious, I'll give him that. It might have just been the warrior in him (as mentioned by Tomson) that had taken over.