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Kelly Slater Grows Up ... Again He matured from teen hotshot into the best pro surfer ever, then got sick of the grind. Now, changed by tragedy, the Legend is back, chasing a young archrival

April 12, 2004
April 12, 2004

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April 12, 2004

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Kelly Slater Grows Up ... Again He matured from teen hotshot into the best pro surfer ever, then got sick of the grind. Now, changed by tragedy, the Legend is back, chasing a young archrival

Snow. Blankets of it. Pelting the northeastern edge of Japan.
The squalls stir the December air, which rises and creates a
wind that pushes the system east. ¶ The storm is drawn to the
Kuroshio (Japanese for Black Current), a warm ribbon in the
north Pacific's forbidding cold. Soon, it is feeding on that
current's warm surface, siphoning the heat skyward and roiling
the waters below. The system continues east and then bends to
the south, cleaving the ocean in divots. Waves. His waves. ¶ On
a National Weather Service radar screen, this storm looks like
just another neon spaghetti strand spilling across the Pacific.
But that image belies its size (now tens of thousands of square
miles) and strength (winds sometimes topping 100 mph) as it
drives its waves through open ocean, toward a fleck of land,
more than 3,000 miles away. Hawaii.

This is an article from the April 12, 2004 issue

Five days after leaving Japan, having grown to some three million
square miles--covering about 5% of the Pacific--the storm veers
northeast toward the North American coastline. A day later the
storm's massive swell bears down on Oahu. That swell, a moving
mountain of water, blasts the 10,000-year-old fossil limestone
reef jutting from the island's North Shore; waves bend along the
reef and speed over the craggy coral floor, which pitches upward
at a 45-degree angle. As a wave converges on the shore, it is
compressed until, finally, a water wall spikes 18 feet into the
air, poised to crash down on the beach.

Kelly Slater, prone on his surfboard, treading water, is
patiently waiting for that wall. As the wave begins to break
behind him, he paddles twice, then springs to his feet as the lip
of the wave starts to fall over on itself, breaking to his left.
He slashes down across the wave and then back up to its frothing
peak, his board an extension of his feet. When he reaches the
wave's foamy, crumbling lip, he cuts back down, dragging his left
hand through the face of the wave to slow himself so that the
hollow, arcing barrel of water can overtake him. Once inside that
tube, Slater crouches, almost sitting on his heels as he whooshes
through the moving, rapidly collapsing vault at 25 mph. He beams
at his good fortune--this wave is even prettier than he'd hoped.

The barrel finally collapses with a wet, hollow FWUMP!, spitting
Slater forward, out of the wave and into the bright afternoon
sun. He turns from the dying wave, then lies down on his board
and begins paddling back out to the surf line, replaying his ride
as he goes. His reverie is interrupted by the angry roar of a
surfer whom Slater may or may not have cut off on that ride.
"Hey, what the f---was that?" Andy Irons screams. "This isn't
Cocoa Beach!"

To accuse another surfer of stealing one's wave is a serious
charge, especially among the regulars here at Oahu's mythic
Pipeline break. The charge carries special weight, given that
Irons is surfing's defending world champion and, perhaps more
important, a native Hawaiian, but the person he has just impugned
happens to be the greatest competitive surfer who ever lived.
Slater is silent for a moment, not sure how to react. Though the
two have never been close, Slater is stunned by this insolent
flogging, regardless of Irons's standing.

Perhaps he shouldn't be. Staring at Irons, the 31-year-old Slater
sees a lot of himself at 25: freakishly skilled, headstrong,
already burdened by grand expectations. Irons won the HIC
Pipeline Pro in 1996, as a 17-year-old high school senior. By
'99, however, the hard-partying Irons had lost his place on
surfing's World Championship Tour (WCT) and seemed dangerously
close to a career wipeout. But under the guidance of several
people, including the 2000 world champion, the notoriously
intimidating Sunny Garcia, Irons--as brush cut and blustery as a
Karate Kid villain--enjoyed a rebirth that culminated with the
'02 world title.

Andy's defending that title in a couple of days, Slater reminds
himself, and he has to beat me to do it. I'd be tense too.

"Calm down," Slater says to Irons, part olive branch, part
advice.

"You f---in' calm down!" Irons shoots back. "Go back to Cocoa
Beach!"

They bob on their boards for a moment, defiant, No. 1 versus No.
2. In two days a 30-minute duel between them will decide which
man is this year's world champion.

As Irons paddles off, Slater just watches him go, thinking, See
you in two days, Champ.

Go back to Cocoa Beach!

Hell, at least if he were back home, Kelly Slater would be
allowed to commune with his waves in peace. Even as a runty
five-year-old, the middle son of the Cocoa Beach, Fla., Slaters,
he would sit on the beach studying the waves for hours, so still
and focused that his mother often had to reassure nearby
sunbathers creeped out by her child's intensity. Granted, the
waves hypnotizing him weren't the monsters that pound Oahu's
North Shore every winter--more like two-foot mush, even on a good
day--but the kid knew then, Judy swears, "that one day he'd be
out there, doing things no one had ever seen before."

And he did. Slater didn't help to revolutionize his sport--he was
the revolution. With a 5'9", play-toy-flexible body perfectly
engineered for such chaos, "Kelly changed the way we perceive
high-performance surfing," says four-time world champion Mark
Richards of Australia. "Most world champs are experimenters;
their creativity raises the bar a few inches. Well, Kelly raised
it a few feet. He deconstructed virtually every maneuver in
surfing--the bottom turn, the cutback, the off-the-lip, the
aerial--and fundamentally altered it. When you consider how
difficult surfing is at the elite level, Kelly's the greatest
sportsman ever to walk the planet."

Despite lacking a big-surf pedigree, Slater ruled his so-called
New School generation with feral intensity. "Kelly's a great
white, an apex predator," says Richards. "There's never been
anyone as good as Kelly at beating opponents before they've even
entered the water. And he's not above crushing a guy just to do
it." Slater shredded the sport's archetype--that of a bumbling
stoner spilling from a VW van onto the parking lot at Ridgemont
High.

Because he was likable and well-spoken, handsome and bright,
Slater emerged as the industry's product-moving gold standard. As
Quiksilver's top frontman since 1990, he has helped turn it from
a $100 million company during the sport's mid-1980s boom into the
industry's behemoth, currently valued north of $1 billion. "It's
safe to say people in Middle America are buying Quik products
because that's what they're buying in Huntington Beach," says
Steve Hawk, the editor of Surfer magazine throughout the '90s.
"And the people in Huntington are buying them because of Kelly."

It didn't hurt that Slater was willing to be marketed, long a
hang-up for surfing's soul-dog elite, most of whom feared any
whiff of selling out. By September 1992 Slater had become the
most famous surfer alive--despite not yet having won a world
title--because of his two-year hitch on Baywatch, among the
world's most popular shows at that time. (A later three-year,
on-again/off-again relationship with costar Pamela Anderson
didn't hurt his Q rating.)

Then came his first world title, in December 1992, at age 20,
followed by his five consecutive titles from '94 to '98. He was
voted Surfer's top male surfer a staggering nine consecutive
years, from '93 to 2001. Slater's skill and dominance and
ferocity earned him comparisons with one sports icon above all
others: Michael Jordan.

But like the Chicago Bulls' great, Slater grew tired of the
single-minded commitment he demanded of himself for yet another
season, yet another title defense. He'd surfed almost every day
for two decades, and doing it as a job had stopped being fun. The
sport had made him wealthy and well-known, but he resented the
effect all that had on his relationships with even his closest
confidants. He drew increasingly inward. He would go on surfing
trips with pals and barely speak to them. He'd go weeks without
speaking to his family, for no reason other than he had become an
ornery misanthrope. By 1998 his lottery-winner
lifestyle--trotting round the globe, chasing endless summers and
endorsement dollars--had left him empty and depressed.

He knew his days as a regular on the WCT circuit had to end. Save
for a few contests he couldn't bear to miss--especially his
beloved Pipeline Masters--he decided that he would never again
tour professionally full time. "I was burned out," Slater says.
"I'd reached all the goals I'd set for myself, and I didn't have
a rival. If you don't have someone driving you, there's no reason
to care."

So when the 26-year-old legend hit the wall following that sixth
title in December 1998, he made like Jordan again.

With nothing left to win, Kelly Slater bailed.

Go back to Cocoa Beach!

That's exactly what Kelly did when Judy called him in France in
October 2000, where he was doing a promotion for Quiksilver, to
tell him his father was dying of throat cancer.

Steve Slater had been just the kind of man 19-year-old Judy
Moriarity had hoped to meet when she hit Cocoa Beach fresh from
Bethesda, Md., in 1966, back when Cocoa and the neighboring towns
of Florida's hopping Space Coast were alive with fast cars and
flyboys, astronauts and their groupies, packing the honky-tonks,
raising hell. Steve and Judy married in 1967, and he was a doting
father to their three young boys (oldest son Sean, Kelly and
youngest son Stephen), teaching them to fish and shoot guns and
camp and surf. He was, Judy says, the best husband he could be.
But he was also the first alcoholic she'd known. "I knew it
wasn't his fault, that he was sick," she says. "I thought what
every woman thinks at some point: I'll change him."

Instead, his drinking worsened and his behavior became more
erratic, until she and the boys had had enough and she asked him
to leave for good in 1983, when Kelly was 11. "I didn't hate him,
exactly," Kelly says. "There were just things I didn't understand
and had trouble forgiving."

On the plane home from France, Slater didn't know what to expect.
To that point, retirement had agreed with him. He'd indulged his
acting interests with cameo appearances on various TV shows. He'd
begun a serious relationship with an actress, Lisa Ann Cabasa.
He'd played lots of golf, getting his handicap down to single
digits. He'd also finally realized that it wasn't surfing's fault
that he'd become so insufferable and angry and joyless. He wanted
to surf again, and when he asked, the tour made room for him to
occasionally compete. This allowed him to keep alive his
nine-year streak of at least one tour win per season, with his
record fifth Pipe Masters crown in 1999 and his 2000 win at
Teahupoo (pronounced CHO-poo) in Tahiti. Retirement--or, more
accurately, semiretirement--had been good. Till now.

"When Kelly got home, he asked me what I thought he should do,"
Judy recalls. "I said, 'I can't decide that for you, Kel. But he
is your father.'" Kelly helped to arrange and paid for his
father's treatment. But after surgery to remove some 80 affected
lymph nodes, Steve lost a great deal of muscle and upper-body
strength and, eventually, use of his left arm. "You could see him
making peace with things," Kelly says. "I knew I'd have to do
that as well. I'd been so angry at him and then so angry at the
cancer. I finally stopped being angry and...." He stops, wipes at
a tear. "We were good again."

For several months Steve's condition stabilized, and in December
2001 he accompanied Kelly and Sean on their annual pilgrimage to
Pipeline, where he saw his son compete professionally for the
first time. Kelly and his group usually stay in a small house on
the property of the family of Jack Johnson, Kelly's longtime
friend and now a platinum-CD surf-folk musician. Because it faces
the Pipe, Johnson's backyard swells with onlookers during the
contest; Kelly found it odd, then, that his father would leave
the yard during his heats. "When I asked him why," says Kelly,
"he told me he was so proud of me that he didn't want everyone to
see him crying."

Closer to his father than he'd been in decades and thankful for
the closure, Kelly'd had enough of fighting the good fight
against terminal cancer. He needed to win at something, so he
turned to the one form of competition he knew he could control:
surfing. The tour was all too happy to offer him a seasonlong
wild card, but, he says, "after the first event"--on Australia's
Gold Coast in March 2002--"I knew I'd made a mistake. My heart
wasn't in it." From Australia, Kelly called his mom in Florida.
She told him, "If you want to see your dad alive again, come
home." So he went.

"Those were the happiest two months of Steve's life," Judy says.
"For all the boys, too. They saw their father sober. They saw him
happy. They could see who he really was." Steve deteriorated
quickly, though. After being assured that the treatments had run
their course, Kelly, who was scheduled to go to Africa on another
surf trip, visited his father for the last time. "He knew this
was it," Kelly says, pausing for a moment, tears welling in his
eyes. "It was getting dark. I stood over him, and we told each
other, 'I love you.' Before I left, I decided I wanted to
remember him the way I wanted to remember him, so I turned around
and looked at him one last time, and I asked him to smile."

"On the trip you could see that a weight had lifted," Jack
Johnson says. One day after Kelly returned from Africa, Judy
called to tell him that his father was gone. "I could stop
anticipating the end," Kelly says. "I could finally cry."

About two weeks later he went to Tahiti for the next WCT event
but fared poorly. "I was weak and drained," he says. "I broke two
boards, showed up late for a heat. I'm always late for things,
but a contest heat? Never before." He slogged through the rest of
2002, finishing without a WCT victory for the second straight
year.

Meanwhile, Slater's place atop the sport had been usurped by
Irons, who'd channeled his aggression and become a complete
surfer, capable of consistently winning in any surf conditions.
Irons's 2002 season was among the finest in history: He had four
victories and a runner-up, clinched the prestigious Vans Triple
Crown in Hawaii with a rousing Pipe Masters victory over
Slater--elating the intensely loyal native populace--and won his
first world title. For the first time in a decade, Slater was not
voted Surfer's top male. That honor, of course, went to Irons.

Slater, who had already decided to return for the 2003 season,
was stunned when he heard the whispers--the sympathetic
ones--wondering if he could still challenge Irons, wondering if
perhaps it was time for him to just let it go. Slater was livid.
The fiercest competitor the sport had known was being told to
cede his throne without a fight?

But he was also terrified because he knew they might be right.

Go back to Cocoa Beach!

If it was broken, he might as well. And dammit, it was broken.

As Slater limped out of the Teahupoo surf last May, he had to
laugh. After disastrous results in the year's first two events in
Australia, Slater assumed things couldn't get any worse.
Desperately in need of a top 10 finish, Slater instead ended his
fourth round by dropping into an eight-foot barrel and snapping
the third and fourth metatarsals in his left foot when the board
took a hard bounce. No one would question him if he pulled out of
the tournament, he told himself as he hobbled up the beach,
feeling self-pity and doubt and--he suddenly realized--fear. The
epiphany walloped him like a rogue wave: He was afraid.

Fear was nothing new to Slater. It was an inescapable element of
sliding down the face of shape-shifting walls of water taller
than three-story buildings.

The first time he'd been driven past Oahu's Schofield Army
barracks and the Dole pineapple plantation and seen the seminal
North Shore in all its deadly glory, the then 12-year-old Slater
had been aghast. The waves he saw (and heard)--the ones that
looked so benign in all those posters on the walls of his older
brother's bedroom back in Cocoa Beach--seemed to be hellish
demons, pulverizing everything in front of them. Terrified, the
young Floridian could barely muster the courage to paddle out.
But surf those things? Never.

"I figured he'd be pretty good one day--just not in big waves,"
recalls Brock Little, 37, a North Shore native and former pro
who's known Slater for 18 years. "At Pipe he was scared s---less
at first. But year by year Kelly'd take a few more chances, and
you could see the freak in him growing."

In Tahiti, as Kelly watched his fractured foot balloon, he was
confronted by a new terror: He would never be the best again.
"Everybody was saying, 'There's no way he'll be as dominant as he
was,'" Slater recalls. "I started letting that stuff into my
head, and it gave me a safety net. Whenever I didn't do well, I'd
think, Hey, my dad just died. You start feeling sorry for
yourself. You let yourself off the hook."

On the beach the doctor gave him an out--sort of. Yes, Slater's
foot was damaged. But he could still surf, he was told, if the
doctor shot his foot full of painkillers. Since the foot was
already broken, there'd be little worry about further damage.

"It was a test, and I had to choose, right there, to either fight
through all the crap or give up," Slater says. "I couldn't keep
letting myself quit. I was thinking, What if I'm not good enough
to win? Well, I'd always been good enough before. I couldn't give
in to the fear, because if I did, it was all over."

So Slater had the doctor shoot him up, then wrapped the now
deadened foot in tape, ripped through his quarterfinal heat on
one leg, watched Cory Lopez upset Irons in another quarter and in
the semifinal's last minute beat Lopez in a frantic race for the
last scoring wave. He then dominated Australia's Taj Burrow to
win a WCT event for the first time in three years.

"When Cory saw me charge that wave, he just gave up," Slater
says. "Little moments like that won me my titles. Those little
moments are like dots, waiting to be connected. Now I'd won
again, connected two dots. Now everyone's thinking, How are we
going to stop him?"

Thus began an epic yearlong bout between Slater and Irons, waged
over six continents, nine months and 12 events. Each would hold
huge leads in the points race, only to see the other charge back
into contention. Consecutive late-season wins by Slater seemingly
reduced the year's final two events in Hawaii to mere victory
laps and mathematically eliminated every surfer from title
contention. Every one, that is, but Irons.

A victory at the tour's penultimate event, the Rip Curl Cup at
Oahu's Sunset Beach, would've given Slater an insurmountable lead
in the points race, but shockingly, he was eliminated in the
third round while Irons finished second. Suddenly, Slater's
overall lead had been reduced to a pittance, and the championship
would be determined at the year-ending Pipeline Masters.

Go back to Cocoa Beach!

A few years ago no one would have dared to heckle Kelly Slater in
such a way. But as Slater watched Irons paddle away from him two
days before the Pipeline Masters, he said nothing. He, better
than anyone, knew what pressure Irons was feeling now. Besides,
the two of them had always had an uneasy relationship, in large
part because of the meddling of Irons's father, Phil.

According to several people close to the family, Phil has long
been a stern, at times bombastic influence on his sons, Andy and
Bruce, who is one year Andy's junior. Phil drove his sons hard.
When both Andy and Bruce became well-known surfers as preteens,
their rivalry in the waves--whether at their home break of Pine
Trees, in remote Hanalei, Kauai, or in contest surf the world
over--grew ever fiercer, occasionally resulting in fistfights.
According to several tour insiders, Phil was happy to stoke his
sons' combative relationship, believing it would make at least
one of them a stronger champion. "Everybody who's spent any time
around them knows that Phil can be a bad influence," says one
insider. "Phil isn't above playing one against the other." Phil
hotly refutes that characterization. "I'm not a soccer mom," he
says. "That is so bulls---! All I do is guide them. They make the
choices. I give them options."

The one thing that unified the Irons family was its disdain for
Kelly Slater. Following Andy's "Go back to Cocoa Beach!"
confrontation with Slater, Phil's hatred for the former champion
was palpable. "We're just waiting for Kelly to go away," Phil
said. "The great Kelly Slater--yeah, right! He's old and bald,
for God's sake! He needs to go home." Just as Slater and his New
School compatriots forced their way onto the sport's center
stage, so now were the Irons-led Pre-Schoolers waiting,
impatiently, in the wings. "I've been here long enough," Andy
says. "Kelly's had his time. He's had a lot of times. Now it's
time for him to move on."

By daybreak on Dec. 19, Jack Johnson's backyard was humming.
Slater sat quietly on the deck, gazing at the Pipeline surf with
relish. As Sean inspected his brother's various boards and Judy
paced nervously, Kelly moved through a series of
credulity-straining stretches, until he seemed a deep-breathing
optical illusion. Meanwhile, out in the waves, Irons was torching
his third-round heat.

Slater was up next. He fought through a far more difficult heat,
staving off a last-second charge by Kalani Chapman of Hawaii to
finish second and advance.

Five doors down from the Johnson love-in, an all-day party raged
on at a house rented by Volcom, a skateboard, snowboard and surf
apparel company that sponsors Bruce Irons. Scores of Irons
supporters--fans of both brothers--packed a beachfront balcony,
toasting each of the Irons's rides with boozy enthusiasm and
lustily booing every mention of Slater by the contest's on-site
announcers. In their de facto uniform (black board shorts, black
T-shirt, black baseball cap emblazoned with the white initials
ai, tattoo-laden forearms, black wraparound shades), they looked
like a gaggle of biker-movie extras idling outside Wardrobe. When
Slater exited the surf following his quarters heat, they shouted
in unison, as if rehearsed, "F---you, Kelly!"

In the first semi Andy Irons showed signs of wear, fighting
cramps and exhaustion. Still, he finished second and got into the
four-man final.

Slater, surfing against the dangerous Bruce Irons and two others
in the second semi, was nothing short of revelatory. When his
heat ended, the public-address announcer stated what everyone on
the beach already knew--"Kelly Slater and Andy Irons ... it
doesn't get any better than this!"

Later that day, in decaying, windblown surf, the battle ended not
with a bang but with soupy chop. Andy Irons grabbed an early
lead, and in worsening conditions that gave Slater no stage on
which to work his patented late-heat magic, Irons's solid rides
were enough.

When the final horn blew, Irons, straddling his board, thrust his
weary arms into the air. Next to him, just a few feet away,
Slater hung his head. The two champions eyed each other and then
embraced; Irons then paddled in to be greeted and feted by the
large crowd waiting for him at the shoreline. Following
tradition, he was hoisted on the shoulders of his Kauian
contingent and hustled up the beach to the victory stand.

Slater, who was still in the water, collapsed forward onto his
board, overcome by exhaustion and emotion. After a couple of
minutes he sat up, looked at the small contingent of family and
fans waiting for him on the beach, then turned his board and
paddled back out to the surf line. For the next 30 minutes, as
hundreds watched, he surfed alone, until the searing pain had
passed and the win meant nothing--and everything--again.

When he finally came in, there was a frozen smile on his face as
he signed dozens of autographs on his way up the beach. In
Johnson's backyard he hugged his mother, who pulled him close and
whispered into his ear, "You accomplished a great thing this
week: You brought all of us together for the first time in almost
20 years."

Head down, Slater then stepped into an open outdoor shower, the
water camouflaging the tears that came freely. Sean, holding what
was to be a celebratory magnum of beer, followed him into the
shower, took his little brother in his arms, and together they
wept.

Ten minutes later, Kelly collected himself, toweled off and
walked the 100 yards down a gravel road to the victory stand for
the awards ceremony. Slater was clearly uncomfortable as he stood
next to Irons and the two other finalists. When the emcee asked
Slater to present the title trophy to Irons, he appeared to be
stunned.

Showing a maturity that he perhaps didn't know he had, Slater
recovered his composure almost instantly. "I just want to say
thanks to everybody, thanks to Andy," Slater said. "I never
enjoyed myself so much competing; we were just back and forth.
One of us had to win, and it couldn't have happened a better
way...." Scattered applause, but Slater wasn't finished.

"I'd like to dedicate this year to my dad," he continued. "I
didn't win, but I did this for him." Then his voice caught, and
he turned and handed the trophy to Irons, and they hugged again.

An hour later the two leaned close to each other in a tourney
trailer on the beach before wading into the masses outside, the
people who were waiting for one more interview, one more
autograph, one more quick picture. "It's on," Irons said to
Slater, and slapped his back in a sign of affection and respect.
"See you next year."

Slater just smiled.

One night after the most crushing defeat of his career, Slater is
still smiling as his family and assorted close friends gather
around two pool tables in a pub at the North Shore's Turtle Bay
Resort. Maybe it's because he signed a five-year, $11 million
extension with Quiksilver--by far the richest pact in surfing
history--a week ago. Maybe it's because he has already decided to
return for the full 2004 season, which began the first week of
March on Australia's Gold Coast. Or maybe it's because an
admiring fan just sent over a second round of tequila shots.

Slater passes on the shots. He is leaning on the bar, sipping
water and excitedly laying out a few of his favorite government
conspiracy theories for a guest. He drops the Rush Limbaugh rant
for a moment and looks over at his group, which includes Judy;
Sean; Lisa Ann; his father's best friend, Tom Townsend, his wife
and their two adult sons; and seven other Johnson-yard VIPs. "I
didn't even remember this until today," he says, "but yesterday
was my dad's birthday. How weird is that?" Then he says nothing
for a long while. He seems content, at peace.

And then someone mentions that there's a dartboard on a nearby
wall. Slater's eyes narrow, his mouth curls into a tight smile.

Moments later the game is on. Slater, who is playing very
casually, falls far behind, and his opponent, smelling victory,
says something about giving Slater "a vicious whipping."

Big mistake. Slater's face flushes an angry red, and with a
potent combination of pinpoint tosses and unnerving "Hey,
batter!" chatter, he rapidly closes the gap.

Next bull's-eye wins. After his opponent flails through his
turn--one dart doesn't even hit the board--Slater eyes his prey,
shakes his head with pity, then hurls a black-tipped dart into
the board's red heart.

He nods as if tipping his hat and is walking off when his
vanquished opponent says something about how lucky Slater's
game-ending run was. Slater stops dead, swivels and stares
straight through this impudent opponent, pausing for effect. "I
hate it," he says, "when people lose and talk s---."

so know this, Andy Irons, as you revel in your two consecutive
world titles, secure in your belief that in 2003 you beat back
the one last challenge of an aging former champion whose time has
past: When Kelly Slater left for Australia at the end of February
to prepare for the start of the 2004 season, three weeks after
turning a relatively ancient 32, he was chasing redemption for
the first time in his life. And it felt good.

But chasing you felt better.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ADAM PRETTY/GETTY IMAGES LIQUID JORDAN For a decade Slater dominated surfing as no one had; his competitiveness and artistry drew comparisons with the NBA's greatest player.COLOR PHOTO: TOM SERVAISCOLOR PHOTO: CAMERON NELSON ON THE LIP Slater's dramatic comeback put him in the finals at Oahu's Pipeline, surfing against his mouthy nemesis.COLOR PHOTO: DICK MESROLL/EASTERN SURF MAGAZINE (SURFING) EASTER Slater learned to surf on the East Coast, which has bunny waves compared with the man-eaters at the Pipeline.COLOR PHOTO: DAVE MORGAN WATER SPORTS Even before he'd won a world title, Slater had a role on Baywatch; later, he had a relationship with Anderson.COLOR PHOTO: TOSTEE.COM NEXT WAVE Irons (below) has supplanted Slater as the sport's king, winning the world championship each of the last two years.COLOR PHOTO: STEVE ZELDIN OLDER AND WISER Slater, 32, has gained not only a new perspective on his sport and life, but also a steady partner in Casaba.COLOR PHOTO: CAROL CUNNINGHAM (IN WATER) MASTERS CLASS Slater (left) and Irons embraced after their Pipeline showdown and were gracious on the victory stand.COLOR PHOTO: TOSTEE.COM MASTERS CLASS Slater (left) and Irons embraced after their Pipeline showdown and were gracious on the victory stand.

Slater didn't help to revolutionize his sport--he was the
revolution. "Most world champs RAISE THE BAR a few inches," says
Richards. "Kelly raised it a few feet."

Even as a five-year-old, Slater would study the waves for hours,
so still that his mother had to reassure sunbathers CREEPED OUT
by his intensity.

Slater and Irons have had an uneasy relationship. "KELLY'S HAD
HIS TIME," says Irons. "He's had a lot of times. Now it's time
for him to move on."

"I'd been so angry at him," Slater says of his father, "and then
SO ANGRY at the cancer. I finally stopped being angry." He
wipes a tear. "We were good again."

After the 2003 final, Slater surfed alone, as hundreds watched,
until the SEARING PAIN had passed and the win meant nothing--and
everything--again.