Last October 17 was a mixed day for surfing on the west coast of Portugal. On the south side of Peniche, a small oval-shaped rocky peninsula poking out into the Atlantic, winds were gusting onshore at about 25 knots, leading organizers of the Moche Rip Curl Pro Portugal, the penultimate event in the 11-contest Association of Surfing Professionals World Championship Tour, to call for the fifth lay day in a row as they waited for conditions to improve. Things were better on the north side, so many of the pro surfers who had come to town for the event went to a beach there to chase down the occasional barreling swells. Among them, Kelly Slater, at age 42 the oldest competitor on the tour by six years, was probably the least enthusiastic.
“I had it in my head space that I was going to go golfing,” Slater told me a few weeks later. “It looked really hard to find a good wave.”
A friend encouraged Slater to at least get in the water, telling him that they would just catch a couple and then come in if it wasn’t any fun. So they pulled on their wetsuits and paddled out into the head-high sets. After a few minutes, Slater scored a little tube.
A couple of minutes later, he dropped into his second wave, turning to face it as he raced under the folding crest. In front of him, the wave began to crumble. It was going to be a short ride. Back on the beach, Kolohe Andino, a 20-year-old California pro known for aerial acrobatics, had told Slater that the strong offshore winds made it possible to catch huge air if you launched off the top of a wave. Slater figured this was a chance to try something new.
He was surfing at a high speed, and as he approached the tumbling whitewater, Slater crouched low and spread out his arms, coiling his upper body and aiming for the lip. He shot skyward and began spinning, his board now higher than his head. He went around once, then kept going, completing another half-rotation and landing backward in a sea of froth with his board pointing toward the shore. Then he spun another 180 degrees in the water and stood up.
Shortly after, the first clip was posted to Instagram. Four hours later, a professionally shot video that included commentary by Slater and other pros who were on hand in Portugal was on YouTube. The surf world erupted. Comments sections on surf websites lit up with a debate over whether the trick was a 540 or 720. A few younger pros had come close to landing something similar over the past year, but none had pulled it off. Nobody would have predicted that Slater would be the one to do it—especially not on his first try.
Slater was barraged with dozens of texts from pros expressing admiration or indignation. Industry pundits contemplated whether it was the greatest aerial in the history of the sport. A technical breakdown of the maneuver by skating legend Tony Hawk circulated. Mainstream media outlets like The Washington Post, USA Today, and Slate reported on the “mind-blowing” stunt.
With a single stunning move on an unremarkable wave, Kelly Slater had shown the world that the bald geezer of competitive surfing was still its undisputed king. For the next month, nothing else that happened in the sport really mattered.
Slater caught his first wave when he was five years old, near his hometown of Cocoa Beach, Florida. He won his first world title in 1992, at age 20, making him the youngest champion in surfing history. He captured five titles in a row between 1994 and 1998, got bored and went into semi-retirement for a few years, singing lead for an acoustic rock band called the Surfers, then came back to win five more titles, the most recent in 2011, when he beat his own record for being the oldest champion in the sport’s history. In 2012 and 2013, he finished in second place, both times narrowly losing out in the points race in the final event of the season, the Pipeline Masters, on the North Shore of Oahu. In December, he arrived at Pipeline in third place, clinging to an outside chance at a world title.
Other superstars have had successes in their late thirties and early forties, but none have retained their potency like Slater. On any given day, he’s still the best surfer in the world. What he did on that windy day in Portugal would have been like Michael Jordan winning the NBA slam-dunk contest while playing for the Washington Wizards—if Jordan was also still contending for a championship and an MVP award.
“There is no precedent for what he does, in surfing or in any other sport—period,” says Matt Warshaw, author of The Encyclopedia of Surfing. “I don’t have time to listen to people talk about any other athlete in any other decade or century. What Slater has done for as long as he’s done it, he’s on a level by himself and he can’t even see who’s in second place.”
When he was younger, Slater dominated surfing contests with his technical precision, innovation, and ruthless competitive drive. He rode waves faster than everyone else and artfully mixed new-school aerial tricks with the fluid style that had long defined the upper echelon of the sport. But as he’s confessed many times, he was a miserable winner. Surfing was Slater’s escape from an unhappy childhood—his mother kicked his alcoholic father out of the house when Slater was 11—and he channeled his anger into a brash win-at-all-costs approach. It worked, but the other guys on the World Tour resented him, and Slater could barely stand himself. After watching him take advantage of a technical rule to win the finals of the 1996 U.S. Open in Huntington, California, the crowd of some 50,000 welcomed Slater back to the beach with a chorus of boos. “I had such a feeling of emptiness and loneliness back then,” he says. “I wanted to win so badly that it got in the way of other things.”
Since the end of his first retirement, in 2002, Slater has worked at cultivating a more balanced approach to life and surfing. The first time I interviewed him, in 2005, he was deep into a process of self-reflection and emotional recovery, spurred in part by the death of his father three years earlier. He spoke openly about trying to identify patterns in his personal life and teared up a couple of times when talking about the kindness of people close to him. When I spoke to Slater several years later, he had settled into a more relaxed existence but seemed ready to be done with the battle mentality required to be a champion. Now he appears to have found a middle ground.
“It’s really like a Zen practice,” he says. “For most elite athletes, a personal challenge feeds their desire to be good at something. So to get to a point where you’re happy and you’re still able to push yourself competitively, you have to find different reasons.”
But having a cooler head doesn’t explain how Slater has managed to hold onto his physical skills into his forties. Warshaw points out that, as surfers age, the critical thing they lose is the ability to stand up quickly and cleanly the moment they catch a wave. “You start popping to your feet a little bit more slowly, and your position on the board isn’t perfect the way it used to be, maybe your weight is shifted just a tiny bit off-center,” he explains. “Now you have to make corrections. Everything you were able to do as a great surfer isn’t out of the question, but you have to get things together right away to make it happen, because you have less time. And once you start thinking about that, you get the yips.
“But it’s never happened to Slater,” Warshaw adds with astonishment. “It doesn’t seem possible.”
There are, of course, other older athletes who’ve been able to defy or at least postpone the inevitable declines that come with age. According to Hirofumi Tanaka, director of the Cardiovascular Aging Research Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin, most of them follow what he calls the Formula One approach. “Formula One drivers have 20 people working on their car during pit stops,” says Tanaka, who points to swimmer Dara Torres as a prime example of someone using this resource-intensive system. “It’s the same for aging elite athletes. They have dieticians, doctors, massage therapists, personal trainers, strength-conditioning specialists—it’s a whole army of helpers trying to maintain and enhance their performance.”
Slater is not one to be this regimented. His wandering answers to questions about fitness reveal his interest in all kinds of practices—jujitsu, CrossFit, freediving—but ultimately the guy just surfs a lot. He does follow his own downsized, DIY version of the Formula One approach, reading obsessively about health and nutrition and tapping trusted practitioners when in need. “I get beat up and go looking for help,” he says.
“I don't care what my age is,” says Slater, who now competes with guys in their teens. “These are my peers, and I'm surfing against them. If they have a problem that I'm older, then go ahead and beat me.”
Slater does almost no dry-land training—no weight rooms or beach calisthenics. He’s a big believer in the power of regular, deep-tissue bodywork, “where they walk on you and use their feet,” and has recently started traveling with a hard plastic roller with a vibrator inside that he uses to work out the kinks in his muscles. Recovery after a contest can mean a couple of weeks of no surfing at all. When he retreats to his Florida home (he also has properties in Hawaii and Australia), he’s likely to spend days by himself, doing nothing other than taking hot baths and listening to music.
The one thing that stands out in his otherwise low-key program is his yogi-style diet. Most days his breakfast is a homemade pudding made of chia seeds, raw nuts, goji berries, and yogurt. At home he makes his own almond milk in a blender, straining it through cheesecloth. He frequently drinks a concentrated dose of omega-3 fatty acids from marine algae. Over the past couple of years, he’s cut out almost all caffeine. When he’s traveling for surf contests, his “very big suitcase” is packed “half with clothes and half with food.” He even pays close attention to the texture of his stools: “If you’re going to the bathroom regularly, and it’s a healthy stool, your body is probably doing good.”
To surfers who have known Slater for a long time, the most amazing thing about him isn’t his enduring physical power but his motivation to continue competing on an 11-stop, round-the-world circuit with a pack of kids. “I have no idea how he does it,” says Shane Dorian, who’s also 42 but left the World Tour after 11 years, citing burnout, to focus on big-wave surfing. “I think we’re all trying to figure that out.”
It may simply be that he still enjoys it. “I’m healthy, and I’m competing with guys who are literally half my age or less,” he adds. “I don’t personally tie anything to that. I don’t care what my age is. These are my peers, and I’m surfing against them. If they have a problem that I’m older, then go ahead and beat me.”
So what happens when an athlete’s skills don’t erode with age?
The short answer is that he can do things nobody else can do. Slater has spent 37 years surfing waves, accruing experiences in incredibly difficult situations—in midair, inside giant tubes. Like crafty veterans in other sports, he sees opportunities for moves that the young guns don’t and has an ever growing bag of tricks to pull from. But unlike, say, a seasoned baseball pitcher who has added a few pitches to his arsenal but lost some pop on his fastball, Slater still has his best stuff.
Which means that we’re likely going to witness more surprise aerial tricks and, when the 2015 championship hunt gets going next spring, more performances like the one he put on back in August, during the semifinals of a World Tour event at Teahupoo, the dangerous reef break in Tahiti. Slater was surfing against John John Florence, the then 21-year-old Hawaiian wunderkind who’s been hyped for years as the next Slater. Teahupoo was doing its thing, cranking out thick barrels of emerald water that offered up short, thrilling rides before thundering onto the reef. Florence caught the first wave of the heat, went deep into the tube, stood tall for a moment, then came flying out the far end in a spray of whitewater. The crowd hooted, and the judges gave Florence a near perfect score of 9.9.
Slater paddled into the very next wave, taking a huge drop before grabbing the rail of his board and turning onto the face. The tube started to swallow him, at which point the proper move was to gun it for the exit and hope you don’t get thumped. That’s what every other surfer at the contest would have done. But Slater saw another possibility. He tucked low on his board and rode an arc toward the top of the wave, where he found a faster line. He rocketed out of the hole and threw his hands into the air, as if to say, Can you believe that? The judges couldn’t: they gave him a 10. He went on to beat Florence in what many consider the greatest heat in the history of competitive surfing.
For Slater, the rush from that kind of experience is the same as it's always been. "It just feels natural," he says. "I get the affirmation that I'm doing what I was meant to do in life. When I landed that maneuver in Portugal, I felt like I was eight years old again and my dad was on the beach watching me do my first off the lip. It felt like I did something really special. And I was so stoked."
Michael Roberts (@ultimateeditor) is an executive editor at Outside.