Every sport reaches the crossroads where the previous generation feels its grip loosening, and the surge of new talent becomes almost overwhelming. There is suddenly a question as to who is the greatest and pro surfing is no different. So, as the 2004 ASP contest season ignites down under at Snapper Rocks, the competitive surfing world finds itself at an awkward moment. Andy Irons is a two-time world champ, Taj Burrow is setting the air ablaze with moves never imagined, and even the limits of big waves have been shattered by young surfers from Jaws to Mavericks. All this has shaken the reign of Kelly Slater. For the past 10 years, he has been the undisputed “Great One” without question from anyone. Today’s surfers seem to be looking to the next generation. But is Slater’s time really up?
It’s amazing how one athlete can redefine the boundaries of a sport. Tiger, Jordan, and Tony Hawk have set standards others can only dream of reaching. In this dramatic fashion, Slater closed the book on the old school, and wrote a new chapter only he could conceive. Just before annihilating the status quo, Slater snaked and slid to victory at Trestles with such speed and precision the world was aghast. Then on the pro tour, he rose through the ranks and disposed of the veterans with ease. Some responded with anger and fear while others realized the inevitable was upon them.
This kid was lightening fast, fluid, and wonderfully creative. He channeled the flow and style of Tom Curren, updating it with tail slides and aerial wizardry without notice. At that moment, Christian Fletcher had just ushered in the aerial revolution, but he was a one-trick pony. Fletcher’s airs were exciting but not too practical. Slater, on the other hand, seamlessly linked the wave and sky into perfect, functional maneuvers. The future had arrived. Surfing fiction gave way to fact.
Then there was Pipeline, a wave that was considered a beast to be feared and treated with care. I watched Slater ride this wave like it was two foot Sebastian Inlet. It made no sense. He played around in pits at Backdoor and stood tall in the tube, even jumping up on the lip for floaters. His surfing was magic. No one had ever ridden heavy surf with such mastery and casual abandon.
Kelly quickly garnered six world titles, thus securing his place in surfing history, and free surfed in ways most couldn’t even fathom. Basically, Slater was on top and the rest of the world was scratching for second about a mile below him.
Just as Kelly used the ideas of Curren and Potter as his inspiration to succeed, the new generation is using him. The young guys are soul arching through treacherous barrels, spinning maniacally over sections, and carving his once innovative lines. We can only guess how Slater himself feels about all this. Maybe this matters very little to someone who has acted on Baywatch, cut a studio CD, dated a Hollywood sex kitten, and won every major surfing event on the planet. But to a true athlete, there is nothing like the pressure of coming to the end of your moment to strike you with fear, even to those of us whose moments are far less momentous. It will be interesting to see how this year will play out.
One thing to think about is that after he had supposedly peaked, Slater finished second in the world in 2003, and that’s with an injury. In some events (J-Bay for instance), Slater was the absolute dominator, and in others, he struggled. That culminated into one of the closest finishes in history.
This year in Tahiti, Slater was performing at a level rarely seen. Mind-blowing barrels, impossible recoveries, and re-entries on the heaviest lip on the planet.
Who knows? Kelly Slater’s biggest impact on our sport may have yet to be made.