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Sportsman

My Sportsman: Kelly Slater

Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 5. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer.

Forgive the pro surfing officials who on Nov. 2 prematurely crowned Kelly Slater the winner of the 2011 ASP World Title.

After all, it's not as though there was any doubt that Slater would, as usual, emerge as champion. So while it turned out he had not mathematically clinched the title on that Wednesday afternoon, a couple of days later in the surf at Somewhere in San Francisco, Slater won a heat -- with another gorgeous and nuanced ride in a lifetime of gorgeous and nuanced rides -- and that sealed things. Slater had won the title handily with an event to spare.

This is what Kelly Slater did over the first 10 stops of the 11-stop ASP tour: He won the season-opening contest in Australia in March. He won at Teahupoo in August. He won at Trestles in September. At two events Slater finished as the runner-up. Three other times he took home a fifth-place purse.

"To me, it's amazing," surfer Owen Wright told reporters after watching Slater surf the swell at Somewhere.

Wright is 21 years old and third in the ASP rankings. The surfers whom Slater beat in his title-clinching heat are aged 17 and 19. The stud who won the San Francisco contest, Gabriel Medina, is 18. Slater turns 40 in a couple of months. When Slater was carving his way to his first ASP title, in 1992, Gabriel Medina had not yet been conceived.

Slater has won 11 world surfing titles now. No one else has won more than four. He is the youngest surfer in history to win the title, and he is the oldest.

"Without [Kelly] we wouldn't be in the position we are in today," said two-time champion Mick Fanning before this season. "The things he's done for the sport, it's made people stand up and realize what's going on. There will never be another Kelly."

Slater has long since established himself as not only the greatest professional surfer of all time but as simply, The Surfer. He's the one guy your grandmother in landlocked Topeka has heard of, the guy who singularly transcends his discipline. Babe Ruth. Wayne Gretzky. Tony Hawk. Yo-Yo Ma. Kelly Slater.

He is generous when he speaks of the young surfers, like Medina, who are poised to grab a measure of control on the tour. They make "gnarly turns," Slater says, and he praises their "radical airs." But that doesn't mean that he is ceding a thing.

"I don't see why, at 50, I can't be in better shape than I am now," said Slater in the aftermath of winning the title. "I think I'm going to be."

He doesn't need the tour of course. Doesn't need the grind. Doesn't need to surf when the event organizers tell him to surf, or take his board into polluted and crowded waters. He could just surf when and where he wanted to. Maybe paddle out for a few evening hours at Pipeline here and there. Maybe just go out and try to win the Eddie again. Shoot a few low-stress surf movies. Sponsorship money wouldn't dry up for Kelly Slater if he weren't on the pro tour. His legend is beyond secure. Yet he's there at every event, surgically taking apart small waves, attacking big ones with a seamless concentration of power. Same as it ever was.

"It's almost like torture if the waves are good and I can't surf," Slater said on an NPR segment this year.

So here he is, still cresting, in 2011. The surfer who made it cool to finish high school. The dude from "Baywatch" all grown up. The guy you can see on YouTube ripping up the surf on a table top.

The Kelly Slater Foundation -- a charity with the environment top of mind -- includes Eddie Vedder and Sean Penn among its supporters. Slater is himself a rock star. But all he seems to want is the water and the waves.

You know how the ASP found out it had jumped the gun in crowning Slater? Slater told them. He'd seen a blog post questioning the ASP's math, did some figuring himself and got a little investigation underway. He didn't want to win the title early. The most dominant athlete of his time, any sport, wanted to do what he's always done: earn it. A competitor. A Sportsman.

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