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Make a Comeback

Return of the Surf God: Kelly Slater, pictured here in Malibu, California, won his seventh world title on November 8, 2005. Photo: Sam Jones

Kelly Slater knows how.

It's a cool SoCal summer night, and I'm squished beside world-champion surfer Kelly Slater in the backseat of a BMW SUV, rolling north on L.A.'s perpetually clogged 405. On my other side is Slater's publicist, Shelby Meade. Up front, Slater's manager, Terry Hardy, is driving, and Hardy's girlfriend, Lenore Marusak, rides shotgun. Slater has gotten us all riffing on "the Hoff"—the popular Web moniker for David Hasselhoff, whom Slater got to know while portraying surf bum Jimmy Slade during his one-season gig on Baywatch, in 1992.

"Those waves were going Hoff!" says Slater.

"Turn up that hip-Hoff!" I suggest.

"Dude—get Hoff this subject!" offers Hardy.

Admittedly, the jokes are working better than they should, but we're all feeling a bit giddy after having spent the evening at a Colplay concert and an after-party attended by the band and lead singer Chris Martin's wife, Gwyneth Paltrow. In the far back of the Beemer is an acoustic guitar that the singer gave to Slater at the party—a return gift for the surfboard Slater gave to Martin. As we drive on, Slater gets a voice mail from actor Adam Sandler, who wants to play golf. So this is how life works when you're a surf god: The stars call you.

At 33, seven years after collecting his record sixth Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) world title and retiring from full-time competition, the chiseled five-foot-nine, 160-pound waterman is once again ruling the waves. In November, he will capture a Lance-like seventh crown at Florian├│polis, Brazil. When he grabbed his first ASP title, in 1992, he was the youngest champ in history; when the 2005 season ends in December, he will become the oldest—completing one of the most inspiring comebacks his sport has ever seen.

Staging a world-beating return is never easy, but Slater's has been particularly challenging—and it didn't hinge on a new training regimen, secret diet, or radical board shape. Rather, he credits hard-won personal growth that's helped heal some important relationships.

In his 2003 memoir, Pipe Dreams, Slater recounts how his dad, Steve, who owned a bait-and-tackle shop in the washed-up town of Cocoa Beach, Florida, would frequently pass out drunk to a tirade of obscenities from Slater's mom, Judy. In 1983, Judy kicked Steve out, and they officially divorced in 1986, leaving her to raise Slater, then 11, and his two brothers—Sean, 14, and Stephen, five. The young surfer's troubled home life was exacerbated by Sean, who turned everything from fishing to car rides into a contest—and made sure that Slater always finished second.

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"I'm as relaxed as I've ever been."   Photo: Sam Jones

The domestic strife forged Slater into a tenacious, fire-eyed grommet. Surf competitions helped him dodge family dysfunction and provided an outlet for his rage. In 1980, at age eight, he won the first surf contest he entered, standing on a body board. At 18, after a slew of authoritative victories, he turned pro and signed an exclusive sponsorship deal with emerging surf-wares goliath Quiksilver, embracing the peripatetic life of the ASP international tour. Two years later, he won his first world title.

Slater lorded over his sport with a brash new style made up of flashy aerials and skate-park-style tricks. He could show up almost anywhere and see possibilities on waves that others couldn't. "I don't think of a wave as a curved surface," Slater explains. "It's an infinite number of flat surfaces that link up at different angles. When you're on your board and it's pushing against one of those flat surfaces, it makes a plane. You want all your energy to be pushing 90 degrees to that plane."

Thanks to the Baywatch stint and his on-and-off relationship with superbabe Pamela Anderson, Slater was also becoming a media darling at the time. As his success grew, his inner turmoil and outward isolation increased as well. "I had great years on the tour," he says. "But I was a competitive machine, and my friends hated me. I'd win 25 grand in a contest and wouldn't buy anyone dinner."

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World-champion surfer Kelly Slater, in the home of reknowned surfer-architect Harry Gesner.   Photo: Sam Jones

By 1998, having achieved every surfing goal he'd ever had, Slater found himself "totally bored with life." Though he was bringing in around $1 million annually from endorsements and prize money, he showed up at the ASP awards banquet the night after he'd won his sixth world title and announced his retirement from full-time competition.

Slater continued to compete in a few ASP events while exploring other activities. He scored several acting spots on HBO; toured with his rock band, the Surfers; opened a Kelly Slater–themed surf shop; and launched a video game, Kelly Slater's Pro Surfer.

He also began addressing the problems he'd ditched in Cocoa Beach. For the first time since high school, he spent a few months out of the year in his hometown, seeing Sean almost daily, visiting his mother twice a week, and getting to know his daughter, Taylor, born in 1996 to his girlfriend at the time.

Then, in the fall of 2000, while Slater was surfing at an event in France, his father, a lifelong smoker, was diagnosed with throat cancer. The illness led to a reconciliation between Slater and his dad. Steve flew to Hawaii to watch him compete at Pipeline in December 2001, while Slater helped arrange and pay for aggressive treatment for his father's disease. In 2002, going stir-crazy watching the battle for the world title from the beach, Slater rejoined the ASP tour, only to be called home soon after the first event when his dad's health began to rapidly decline. Steve Slater died that April.

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"I made a choice to take a different path."   Photo: Sam Jones

Losing his father paved the way for what Slater describes as an expanded "awareness." Then, while taking an early-season break in 2003 between events in Australia, his adopted second home (he's owned an apartment in Sydney since 1992), a close friend challenged him to lead his family's emotional recovery—not be victimized by it. The words were penetrating, and Slater, with his friend's encouragement, enrolled in a series of local therapeutic workshops that helped him identify troublesome behavior patterns and emotional sand traps.

"At first I thought, This sucks—now I know I can help, and that's work," Slater says. "But I realized I could change my family's life, and that makes you want to get up in the morning."

He began to examine his life in and out of the water and look for connections. That May, Slater broke his foot riding waves on an afternoon off during a contest in Teahupoo, Tahiti. "I thought about all the things that were going on around the injury: I drank two beers right before, and flirted with this girl who had a boyfriend. Then I go for a surf and bang!" he says. "The injury symbolized a lot—I had to make a choice to take a different path."

Slater decided to compete the next day, his foot numbed by lidocaine, and won the event. He realized that if he approached his personal problems the same way he tackled tricky waves—by breaking them down into subtly interconnected parts—surfing was transformed from an escape to a means for balancing his entire life.

"The waves have been Kelly's teachers," adds Danny Kwock, 44, a former pro who's mentored Slater for 15 years and is now president of Quiksilver's entertainment division. "It was a subliminal education, but it led to epiphanies about who he wanted to be."

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Ripping it in the Mentawais, off the west coast of Sumatra.   Photo: Scott Needham

In mid-September, I join several thousand spectators in San Clemente, California, at the eighth contest of the ASP's 11-event 2005 season, and the only stop on the U.S. mainland. Slater is still two months away from reclaiming the title that Hawaiian Andy Irons has held for the past three years. "I'm as relaxed as I've ever been," Slater told me earlier. "The last few years I was trying to find my bearings. I had to figure out how I was going to reapproach competition, because I didn't want to do it like I did before."

I watch from an elevated platform, standing several feet from supermodel Gisele B├╝ndchen, who is almost as excited to meet Slater as the guys on the beach are to see her in snug jean cutoffs and a tank top. In the finals, Slater is up against Australian Phil MacDonald, who dispatched Irons in the quarterfinals. With just three minutes left, MacDonald appears to have Slater beaten. Slater needs an 8.7 to take over the lead. He paddles into a wimpy roller far inside the takeoff zone. Everyone thinks it, and some say it: How can he win on that?

But Slater strings together a series of elegant, corkscrewing maneuvers, spinning against the push of the water and skating along the foaming lip. The judges' score: 9.1. Dozens of rowdy Aussie pros and fans, who have been drinking beer all day, crush their Foster's oil cans in disappointment. Slater, meanwhile, coasts to the beach smiling, at last as happy to be ashore as on a wave.