On Monday, August 25, fans of professional surfing witnessed an epochal moment in the career of the sport’s all-time great, Kelly Slater. In the final of the Billabong Pro Tahiti, the 11-time world champion lost to 20-year-old Brazilian phenom, Gabriel Medina, in perfect 10- 12-foot Teahupo’o, the most challenging and dangerous wave on the ASP World Championship Tour. The win puts Medina far ahead in the 2014 world title race, and firmly under the spotlight in a sport that has long sought, but never found, “the next Slater.”
Not since the late Andy Irons has a surfer showed such promise of rivaling Slater’s sterling career (Slater has 54 elite victories, 21 more than the second winningest surfer, 3-time world champion Tom Curren). Medina came on tour in 2011 as a scrawny 17-year-old who was unproven in big waves, but has quickly matured, notching four elite. If Medina wins the world title this year, he will tie Slater for the youngest surfing world champion in history.
It’s clear that Medina is already one of the greats. The kid draws from a rare combination of raw talent and competitive prowess that comes right out of the Slater playbook. But the title of supernatural still belongs to Slater. After all, Gabby, as he’s known among the tight-knit ASP World Tour family, was yet to be born when the 42-year-old Florida native won his first world title, in 1992. Each year, pundits decry as Slater’s last, but he has always silenced them by simply getting better, physically and mentally.
World Tour competitors often talk about the “Slater Effect” and “getting Slatered.” The former is what seems to be Kelly’s wizardly control of the ocean itself; too many times Slater has been in a tight heat, needing a big score to win, when just the right wave rises on the horizon before him, just in time. The later is a testament to Kelly’s stature as not only one of the greatest surfers of all-time, but one of the greatest athletes. (Slater’s 11 world titles tally tops that of any other athlete in major sport; Tiger Woods is next, with 10 PGA Player of the Year awards). Many a competitor has been mentally dismantled after being approached by the spectral world champ just prior to competing. They are seared by those intense, unblinking green eyes, and told, simply, “Good luck.”
Before his finals clash with Medina, Slater had been camped out on the boat of legendary Teahupo’o surfer Raimana Van Bastolaer, scanning the waves, munching muesli bars, looking cool as ever. “I just have to stay fueled up, relaxed, calm,” he told me. “Today, it’s dangerous out there. You’ve got to be on your game. Catching the right wave is natural, but being able to tune out everything else is a skill you have to learn.” The day before, three 2014 world title contenders had been knocked out of the event. I asked Slater if that added pressure. “Nothing,” he deadpanned. “That’s only good news if I go out there and do well.”
The day progressed to script, as Slater methodically advanced to the finals, focused as ever. Once there, however, it became clear that young Gabby Medina is impervious to both the Slater Effect and getting Slatered. This is something new for Kelly, and it proved disorientating. From the start of the heat, Medina out-positioned Slater, forcing him to make bad wave choices and push beyond his limits. Ultimately, Kelly fell on a quintessential Slater Effect buzzer-beater, which would have won him the event. The irony was lost on no one: Slater had been Slatered.
This turning point by no means signals the fall of Kelly Slater. On the contrary, Gabriel Medina is the gasoline he craves to keep the competitive fire stoked. When Andy Irons went on a world title tear beginning in 2002, Slater came out of semi-retirement on a mission to stop the young Hawaiian. Now, in the wake of his runner-up finish in Tahiti, Slater sits at second in the World Championship Tour rankings, behind Medina. With four events left this year, he smells blood. In an Instagram post on Wednesday, Slater said of Medina, “He has passed every test thrown his way. Even though I’m gonna do everything in my power to stop this guy this year, I’m a big fan of his surfing....” Classic digital Slatering.
Unfortunately for Kelly, if his power continues to falter as it did at Teahupo’o last week, he will not be stopping Gabby this year. This is great news for professional surfing fans, and for the sport in general, whose mainstream popularity rests almost exclusively on Slater’s shoulders. A Gabriel Medina world title in 2014 will all but guarantee that Kelly—who loves taunting us with rumors of retirement—will be back in 2015.