Slating Kelly

I wince while watching a video replay of Kelly Slater jumping switch-foot between 6-foot barrels at Padang Padang. He’s so awesome and yet I’m so over it. This twenty-year long adulation has become a little schizophrenic of late, a little up and down; I think I have Slater Fatigue Syndrome (SFS). Not to be confused with tall poppy syndrome, SFS is directed more at Slater’s sparring partners – or lack of.

Kelly Slater, suiting the red shirt in Arica, Chile 2007 (Andy Irons won that one)

Where has the competitive spirit on tour gone? In a recent post-heat interview a young new talent admitted he’d been “so honoured” to surf with the world champion. Modesty and respect aside, it makes me wonder if he and the other title contenders have lost sight of the competitive point: wanting to win and the faith to do it. Are they afraid to knock the King off his pedestal?

Confidence and competition are so entwined in surfing, or any sport for that matter, that the slightest erosion of either compromises potential and success. Take Tiger Woods as an example of what a blow to the ego can do to a sportsman. Woods’ list of accolades includes 14 professional major championships, 16 World Golf Championships, and 71 PGA Tour event wins, equating to more major career and PGA Tour victories than any other active golfer. But what’s Woods been up to lately? After December 2009′s hyperbolic media attention over the extramarital hanky-panky, he’s finalised a divorce, been dropped by a heap of sponsors, lost the world number one ranking, and hasn’t won another PGA Tour event. “Confidence is contagious, so is a lack of confidence,” said Vince Lombardi, the NFL’s most successful and competitive coach.

I’m not asking that Slater be cast as a moral reprobate; I’m just looking for a bit of perspective. He was also once a plucky start-up, copping criticism from the old stalwarts as he sidestepped Tom Curren-like flow in favour of air. He didn’t rocket to the top straight away, either. In Kelly’s first year on tour he finished 43rd, and it wasn’t until half way through the following year that he exploded into action to take the title. The tipping point could have been sparked by anything and I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess. But I like to think that he just decided it was time to win, because he knew he could. And he still can, he knows it, the surfers on tour know it, the media feed it, we love it. It’s like a self-perpetuating cycle and it will only end when the surfers start believing in themselves, when they stop snapping under pressure and start giving it back to him.

You can admire Kelly’s alien ability all you like, but don’t underestimate the unwavering faith he has in himself and the cunning competitiveness that clinches each win. After two decades these are very well practised assets. Combined with his skill, it’s the winning trifecta.

“Kelly plays the heaviest mind games,” says Maurice Cole. Having shaped the board Kelly won his first world title on and enjoying a working relationship with him since, Maurice would know. “He might say, ‘You’re riding that board? I reckon your other one was better this morning. He’s always planting that seed of doubt and that’s part of his psychological edge.”

Taj Burrow gives us a smile, with the Chilean version of pipe in the background

Before this year’s Quiksilver Pro final Kelly asked Taj, “40 minutes, right?” He was referring to a Hurley Pro a few years ago where Kelly trumped him in the dying minutes of a final that had five minutes added to it. It was a tactical psyche-out and it seems to work every time. After 14 years on tour Taj can only come second so many times before succumbing to a severe case of Slater Fatigue Syndrome, surely. ”Second is the first fuckin’ loser,” Andy Irons told Stab a few years ago. “If I can’t get first I’d rather get last.” Surfing has enjoyed some spectacular rivalries: Midget Farrelly and Nat Young, Rabbit and Mark Richards, but none as ruthless as the fight between Irons and Slater.

Irons had true grit. He understood that while surfing is fun, winning is business and business is cutthroat. “My whole driving force right now is to take his little pretty picture and just crush it,” he said in Blue Horizon, a movie that portrayed him as an arrogant prick. His whole driving force, that’s what it took to lift three world titles from Slater. While it’s all the Hawaiian master would muster, he never lost the mongrel and he never backed off.

Today, there seems to be a disquieting lack of hunger on tour. “There’s no room for nice guys,” Maurice reminds us. “You’ve really got to be his enemy. Everybody is too scared because they want to be liked and the last person you want to be hated by is Kelly Slater,” he laughs. “That’s part of the psychology and he plays the card very heavily.”

There’s one guy on tour Maurice thinks doesn’t have the ability to beat Slater, but at least he’s not afraid to hate him. Adriano de Souza represents a new crew of ambitious Brazilians who have come from hardship and have had to fight for every dollar, scrap for every win. Unlike many of their Australian or American counterparts, these guys have already faced their fears on the streets and slums of Brazil. They’re up for it.

Irons wrote the blueprint to beating Slater, and Mick squeezed a couple out through sheer will. Otherwise the Darth Vader intensity has debilitated the confidence, competition and ability of three generations of surfers. In 2011 though, a couple of new kids on the block have shown themselves to be precocious much in the same way that Kelly was twenty years ago. It is now their turn to challenge the status quo, to come up with the antidote to SFS. They just need to decide that they can.

This story received some contentious commentary here. What do you think?

About Keri Algar

Keri has an insatiable appetite for travel, discovery and surf. You may find her among the happy isles, smiles and empty barrels of Melanesia, or swinging her hips at a Spanish fiesta, underwater in Mexico, on top of the Argentine alps, or at home in New Zealand with her nose in a book. She is delighted by difference - both people and places, and is inspired by those who follow their own path through life with passion and courage.

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