Never mind the surfing for the moment—just take in his physical presence. At 21, Kelly Slater looked as if he’d been cloned from a bead of Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock sweat. Today, at 46, he can out-handsome Jason Statham. At 70, he will be three-quarters Paul Newman and (sun damage taking its bitter toll) one-quarter Iggy Pop.
We looked at Slater a lot in 2017, as he says it will be his final year on surfing’s world championship tour. And as we looked, we pondered many Slater-related stats and metrics, ranging from the wondrous to the surreal, beginning with his 11 world titles spread across a 29-year run as a professional. Then there are his 55 World Tour wins, seven Pipeline Masters victories, and 19 Surfer Poll Awards. The list goes on. Break Slater’s career into two pieces, right around the year 2000, and he’d be both the first and second winningest surfer on the tour. Or try this. When Slater made his pro debut in 1990, current world champ John John Florence was negative two years old. Florence today gets the kind of rave reviews Slater did in his unbeatable prime. Still, Slater holds an eight to five advantage in head-to-head matches against his young rival. In August 2016, when the two met in a final, in coral-grinding barrels at Teahupoo, Tahiti, Slater did everything but take Florence over his knee for a fatherly spanking on the way to an easy win.
Meanwhile, with the Kelly Slater Wave Company and its machine-made, pool-spawned, endlessly replicable perfect surf, Slater has performed the wave rider’s equivalent of solving cold fusion while simultaneously driving the sport into its first existential crisis. The rarity of good waves, and the eternal chess game a surfer must play to be in the right place at the right time to catch them, has always defined surfing, shaped it, given it character. The pursuit is 98 percent longing, 2 percent fulfillment. To surf is to suffer. Thus, on December 18, 2015, when Slater dropped a surprise video debut of his freakishly perfect wave, located in the manure-scented flats of Lemoore, California, the surf world froze on its axis. Wave scarcity is over. Or it will be at some now visible point in the future.
Find that 2015 clip online. Watch it again. There’s Slater at daybreak, looking like a million bucks in a winter jacket and wool cap, breathing steam, standing at the foot of his pool, waiting to get a look at his machine operating at full strength. The wave comes, but we don’t see it. The camera stays tight on Slater as his eyes go wide, his mouth breaks into a huge, shocked grin, and he lifts his arms, saying “Oh, my God!” It’s a joyous moment. And maybe a little chilling. Slater jumps up and down and starts laughing the laugh of a man who has changed his sport forever.