He was in Tahiti, about a third of a mile from shore, bobbing above the reef that gives rise to one of the most glorious and demanding surf breaks on the planet, and Kelly Slater was not happy. He had not won a tour event in 2004 or in the first months of 2005. He was sure he had just taken that last heat at Bells Beach, Australia, but the judges didn't give it to him. Now the season's third event was almost over, and he was losing again--this time to Bruce Irons, the younger brother of Andy Irons, who had supplanted Slater as the alpha male of competitive surfing.
That's when Slater, long known for his competitive intensity, said to himself, Enough. If he couldn't be happy on tour, he shouldn't be here. "Everyone has epiphanies in their life," Slater says, recalling that moment last May. "I said, Just enjoy yourself and have fun. You're probably going to lose this heat. It doesn't feel as if the judges like you. So just have a nice time, and remember why you love surfing." His mood brightened. And that, he believes, led directly to what happened next.
Slater saw a wave coming. He was positioned a bit too deep, but he started paddling anyway. As he caught the wave, the wind blew out from the beach, hanging his board up on the lip. He found himself standing on the rail of his board, unbalanced and out of position. "He didn't look like he had a chance," says tour surfer C.J. Hobgood, who was watching from the water. But Slater grabbed the rail, somehow righted himself--"I was surfing by feel at that point," Slater says--and rode deep into the generous tube of an eight-foot wave. He sped through, intermittently visible to onlookers from behind the cascade of falling water. Then the cascade turned into an avalanche, and spectators assumed Slater was buried beneath the white water. Just then, he burst out the wave's other side, milking the last moments of a ride that had no business continuing. Chris O'Callaghan, the contest director, later told friend and Australian surf journalist Nick Carroll, "Kelly didn't need to paddle back out after that. He could have walked on all the tongues that were hanging out." The judges gave Slater a perfect 10, and Carroll said they told him it was the best competition ride they had ever seen.
Slater won the heat against Bruce Irons. In the final he reeled off two more perfect-10 rides--an ASP World Record--and Slater had won his first tour contest in 18 months. He also won the next event, in Fiji, and then again at Jeffrey's Bay in South Africa and again at Trestles in California. "The next few events I kept reliving that feeling and living from that place," he says of his more relaxed attitude. "It just makes it so much more enjoyable." The 2005 season technically closes at the Pipeline Masters in Hawaii this month (sometime between Dec. 8 and 20, depending on the weather), but mathematically it ended in November when Andy Irons, who was far ahead of everyone but Slater, lost a quarterfinal heat at the tour's penultimate event in Brazil, giving Slater the season title. Seven years after his last championship, the sport's longtime king was officially back where he used to be.
In his first pass though the world of competitive surfing, Slater didn't need any Saul-to-Paul conversion experiences to lift him to victory. His surfing skills were enough. He won his first world title in 1992 at age 20, and from '94 to '98 he won five season titles in a row. He also had precious little fun. You might think that surfing the world, making millions and dating Pamela Anderson would be as near to heaven on earth as it gets, but in his surprisingly pained 2003 autobiography, Pipe Dreams, Slater wrote, "I now know how Elvis felt. If his death were a hoax, if he just got sick of dealing with people and staged the whole thing so he could live in peace, I wouldn't blame him." Slater didn't stage any deaths for himself. Just his career. In 1998, at age 26, he retired from full-time competition.
Golf and TV guest spots and the occasional surf contest weren't enough to satisfy his competitive hunger, though. After three years off Slater returned to his sport. That first season back, 2002, was a nonstarter. Slater had recently reconciled with his father, Steve, an alcoholic who his mother had kicked out when Kelly was 11. Just as the two were getting to know each other again, his father died of throat cancer. Slater missed contests and wound up ninth in the season standings. Andy Irons, the best of the new generation of surfers, won his first title.
In 2003 Slater came back fully engaged and appeared to be back in championship form. He won four contests and came into that season's final two events, in Hawaii, with a sizable lead on Irons. But Slater performed poorly at Sunset, never one of his favorite locales, and Irons was within striking distance, setting the stage for a showdown at Pipeline between the upstart and the legend. As if scripted, Slater and Irons advanced to the final heat. They would go one-on-one for the season title.
Competitive surfing has had intense rivalries before. But surf historian Matt Warshaw, who wrote The Encyclopedia of Surfing, says Slater-Irons is special because the two men are the most talented wave-riders and the best at competing within the framework of a contest. "Also, Kelly and Andy don't seem to like each other very much," Warshaw says. "That seems to make things more fun." Slater explains, "It's hard to be going after the same objective and to be real close."
Slater arrived for the showdown in a sour mood, in part because he and his then girlfriend were having a hard time. "I surfed the opposite from joy," he says. "Totally the opposite place. From pain. I went there knowing I was going to lose." After the final gun sounded, Slater stayed out in the water, surfing alone while Irons celebrated on the beach. Slater did not want to come in and answer the inevitable questions. What mistakes did you make? What does this loss mean? Could you have beaten Andy in your prime? "I knew I was going to want to tell everyone to f--- off," Slater says. "I didn't want to come in and talk about it."
The hurt from Pipeline, Slater says, carried over into 2004. "I was scared to put my heart into surfing because of how I had lost the previous season," he says. He did not really recover until that afternoon in Tahiti, which is why this season, he says, "felt like the completion of something in my life and also the beginning of something."
Whether that something is the final chapter of his surfing career or the first chapter of the rest of his life remains to be seen. At 33 Slater, who was once the youngest champ in tour history, is now its oldest. "The tour is a grind," he says, describing the 10- to 12-event, nine-month season that takes participants all over the globe.
What else is there for Slater? He wants to produce a movie about a friend's grandfather who in 1931 risked his life flying from England to Australia to reunite with the woman he loved. While that film sounds like a crowd-pleaser, Slater knows the simplest way for him to entertain the masses is to get back in the water. "People enjoy seeing me, and people are liking what's happening between me and Andy," he says.
Hobgood, however, believes Slater is done. "I think he knows how hard it was to get this seventh title," Hobgood says. "I don't think he would go after an eighth. I can't imagine it at this stage of his life." Hobgood predicts that Slater will be content to enter select contests to pursue Tom Curren's record of 33 career wins. Slater, who has 31, admits he wants to pass Curren. And, ever the competitor, he can't help but add that Curren racked up his total when the tour had nearly double the events each season.
Carroll believes Slater will be back but not for anything as prosaic as another entry in the record book. "Surfing well and understanding the waves is a lifelong development of skills," he says. "You can make endless mistakes. Each one will be a small mistake, but it will kind of drive you crazy. So a surfer like Kelly can go on getting better. I think he's far from finished."