Kelly Slater has never had a pizza delivered to his geometry class. He lives at home with his mom. He speaks English as if it were his native tongue. He is not, in short, your typical surfer.
Kelly, a high school senior from Cocoa Beach, Fla., is good-looking enough to be one of the New Kids on the Block. He is the new kid on the board. He turned pro last July after winning four U.S. amateur titles and six straight East Coast championships. Later that month, Quiksilver, a California-based surfing outfitter, signed Kelly to a 3½-year endorsement deal worth nearly $1 million. He's the biggest thing to hit the surf since Mr. Ed hung two in Malibu.
Kelly is cresting on the wave of the future. "He is the Michael Jordan of surfing," says Quiksilver's marketing director, Danny Kwock. Some of Kelly's moves are so revolutionary, few surfers have attempted them in practice—let alone in competition—as Kelly has. His repertoire ranges from kamikaze cutbacks to hara-kiri 360s, aerial coups de theatre in which he rockets out of the water and spins completely around. "Sometimes I don't even think," he says. "The moves just happen."
He speaks softly, almost wearily, as if, like a stranded fish, he has been out of the water too long. Kelly was, after all, raised on the beach. His mother, Judy, used to bring him there with his brother, Sean, now 22 and also a pro surfer. She wanted to tire the boys out so that they would take naps. "As they got bigger, they got really bored," she recalls. "Their dad bought them boards, and that was that."
As a kid, Kelly was in a zone alone. Not only did he tower over the midget surfing circuit, but he was also such an intimidating Little League pitcher that many parents complained. One coach even held up the start of a game to protest Kelly's heater.
"He's too fast!" the parents told Judy.
"This is ridiculous," Judy told Kelly. "Just surf."
Kelly surfed to ride out an unhappy home life. His father, Steve, drank heavily. It made Kelly resolve never to touch alcohol or drugs. "I can remember riding in a truck with my dad after he had been drinking, and seeing him just stop in the middle of the road and back up because he thought a car was coming at us," he says. "There was no car. We could have been killed."
Kelly's parents separated in 1982, and Judy and her sons found themselves moving from one rental house to another in Cocoa Beach. To make ends meet, she took jobs as a fire fighter, an emergency medical technician, a bartender and a computer operator. Last June, she arranged to purchase a beat-up bungalow near the ocean. But after making the first down payment, she ran into trouble and was in danger of losing the house. Fortunately, Kelly had just turned pro, a move that unfroze a trust fund containing the prize and sponsorship money he had received as an amateur. He used some of that money to buy the house. "Mom's worked so hard for us all her life," he says, "I just wanted to make things easier for her."
It can't get much easier for him. Or so it appears when he catches a wave and then, with effortless grace, wings his way up violent avalanches of water 30 feet high. "Kelly has the highest technical talent I've ever seen for a surfer his age," says three-time world champion Tom Curren. "Right now he is doing maneuvers that I can't do. His limits seem endless."
Endless limits is the kind of concept that only a surfer could understand.