KELLY THE GREAT
INTELLIGENT, DRIVEN AND ONE OF THE GREATEST EVER ATHLETES, ELEVEN-TIME WORLD SURFING CHAMPION KELLY SLATER OPENS UP ABOUT DONALD TRUMP, DRUGS AND JUST WHAT THE NEXT WAVE WILL BRING.
Kelly Slater is dividing opinion. As he’s done before. As he’ll do again. At the core of it is the wave pool he unveiled to the world last December. Described as the most perfect wave to ever be shaped by man, it stole the spotlight from Adriano de Souza’s 2015 world title win – the accompanying videos of a crouched, pitted Slater riding a mechanical swell the only surfing headline to reach a wider audience. Today, several months on, the WSL (World Surf League) has purchased a major stake in the Kelly Slater Wave Company. It’s ignited a ruckus, built on the notion of what might be lost should competitive surfing move inland, far removed from the unpredictability of the rolling oceans. The 44-year-old shrugs off any such derision. As he sees it, man-made waves will never replace those that occur naturally – they’re a “supplement” to the main action; a way of enabling more people to experience what Slater’s known since he first stood on a twin-finned body board in the Floridian whitewash, 40 or so years ago. Ultimately, the fact that a surfer paddling towards the final wave of his competitive career is the same guy shaping the future of the sport neatly encapsulates what Slater’s about – a thinker, a man driven to succeed, perennially restless and the best to ever place two feet on a surfboard. He’s also the sport’s contemporary constant – a man who’s been there as the action went from amateur to aerial and beyond, with the involvement of big business and the billions now invested. “There were no millionaires in surfing when I started the tour. I mean, now you’ve got guys starting their first year on tour who are millionaires,” Slater tells GQ. “It’s a very professional arena now – the coaches and teams... Back in the day, it was nothing to go out and party all night, before you surfed. That was the norm when I got on tour.” It was a scene that claimed the sensibilities of Australian hard man and Pipe Masters champion Tom Carroll – who recently wrote about his struggles with drugs, specifically ice – and, sadly, the life of Slater’s close friend, the fearless Hawaiian charger and former three-time tour winner, Andy Irons. Slater says it’s better now, but stops short of claiming that pro surfing is truly clean. “Well, are there still drugs in peoples’ lives, on earth? I’m not going to come out and say everyone on tour is on drugs, but I’m not going to come out and say everyone on earth is clean, either... I’m not going to say there’s nothing [on tour], but it’s a lot less prevalent than when I started out – back then half the tour did whatever.” Slater’s always been sober, barring the occasional beer (“I just choose to not get out of control”). He’s also pro-legalisation. “I’m all for the legalisation of drugs – all drugs, in fact. Educate [people], tax [drugs] and make society not have these stigmas on someone who is a drug addict. You know, a lot of the time, a drug addiction is a side effect of an emotional problem for people.” He’d know – his father was an alcoholic. “I think he turned to it because he had a tough time dealing with love.” It’s not to say he had a difficult upbringing – there were “toxic” moments, and his father eventually left home, but Slater maintains that he enjoyed his Cocoa Beach childhood. “It was this strange melting pot of people – you had NASA astronauts and engineers, they were the rock stars, and then the surfers and some burnouts... It was an interesting place growing up, filled with excitement about the unknowns of possibility.” Cut to now and, after 11 world title wins and an incredible quarter century on tour, excitement, Slater admits, is waning. It’s been two years since his last event victory, with
“YOU CATCH A WAVE THAT COULD BE THE BEST OF YOUR LIFE, OR THE LAST.”
persistent rumours regarding retirement shadowing him. At the time of writing, he’s 19th on the leaderboard. “There’s no plan for retirement... But yeah, sometimes I get bored with the monotony of [the tour], and recent results have given me a new challenge to get around. But people tend to forget that ’93 was the worst year I’ve ever had competitively – I was the world champ and was sitting at almost 30th, [staring at] not requalifying the next year... So that was a struggle and I was stressed out.” There’s no such stress today – the wave pool and his newly launched fashion label, Outerknown, are just two side projects to break up the tour. Of the latter, which is backed by French conglomerate Kering – think Gucci, Balenciaga, YSL – Slater says he was eager to pursue fashion “the way I thought it should be done. “After 30 years of being sponsored by clothing companies and getting most of my income from fashion, I still didn’t know much about it. So, I’ve spent the past eight years looking into it and understanding it.” The Outerknown label, he offers, is built on a combination of ethics and sustainability. “People know how to make clothes, now it’s time to better some of those methods... You don’t think about who made [the clothes], and the supply chain and the labour conditions and their wages and life situations. Look, some people will never ask those questions, but I think that through what we’re doing, having this healthy debate, there’s an opportunity to talk about it in a way that could change some things.” Change. It’s an idea that brings up pending White House upheavals and, surely, the fear attached to a possible Trump triumph. “Yeah, but who’s scarier – him or Hillary? Let’s be honest, they’re both so polarising... And you know what? That doesn’t scare me, because no matter who our President’s been, it’s never changed my life.” So just what, or who, scares Kelly Slater? “Mediocrity – not living my life to the fullest. I have to find the balance of how much to go for something and when to tether it, but I never want to look back and say, ‘I should have caught that wave that I pulled out of.’ And I know that sounds stupid but, to a surfer, that’s what it’s about – to catch a wave that’s potentially the best of your life, or life-threatening. I don’t want to miss opportunities in life – that’s the lesson here.” outerknown.com; worldsurfleague.com
SLATER THROUGH THE YEARS
BARRELS, OFF THE LIP MANOEUVRES AND WILD CELEBRATIONS ARE THE 44-YEAR-OLD REGULAR FOOTER’S FORTE.