NRL GREAT BILLY SLATER HAS OVERCOME CAREER-THREATENING SETBACKS TO MAINTAIN HIS MATCH-WINNING KNACK AND BOYISH LOVE OF THE GAME. USE HIS SECRETS TO EXTEND YOUR PRIME
Find out how the rugby league champ sidesteps age and injury.
THE TYPICAL SPORTSMAN in the winter of his career tends to drift towards selfdelusion. Wishful thinking may be a kinder way to put it. The body, he insists, feels great. Age is just a number, he might say. Not Billy Slater.
“It’s certainly not just a number,” says the 34-year superstar for Melbourne Storm, Queensland and Australia. “I feel mine every day. Look, it takes a hell of a lot of work to continue to play in this incredibly demanding sport.”
It’s 8am on a Tuesday and Men’s Health has caught up with Slater after the morning rush at The Richmond Gym, a hardcore space just east of Melbourne’s CBD. The Storm, the NRL’S defending premiers, lost their second game on the trot on the Saturday night to fall out of the top eight, and there are some furrowed brows around the club, though Slater is chirpy enough. He’s happy to talk about how, as a veteran, he’s doing his darndest to inject zip and zeal into the Storm’s play.
“When you’re younger you don’t have to focus on recovery,” says Slater, a shade wistfully. “Your body would just automatically recover.”
Alas, Father Time, as they say, is undefeated. “Now I have to do everything possible to get over games, to get over training sessions, just to be right to go again the next time.”
The lingering aches take him back to his freshman year at the Storm when he was 19 and would hear the older players moan about their battered frames. While he didn’t quite follow what they were on about at the time, he does now. “The body creeps up on you,” he says. “It lets you know how old you are.”
Slater has an advantage over many seasoned athletes: he loves not only the feeling of supreme fitness but also the process – what others would call the grind – that gets you to that state. Nor has he ever lost touch with the idea that sport is meant to be fun and playing it for a living a privilege reserved for a few.
You can trace that attitude to his boyhood in Innisfail in Far North Queensland, where a day at school was hard going for Billy The Kid. Knowing that beyond the gates were creeks, rivers, beaches and rainforests to be explored made it difficult to focus on algebra and Macbeth.
His love of fitness grew organically: “I stumbled across it without even realising it.” He surfed, played footy, of course. At 16, he moved to Sydney to work as a roustabout for trainer Gai Waterhouse. Ever tried hanging onto a feisty thoroughbred? “That was training in itself,” he says.
BUILT FOR BATTLE
He arrived at the Storm if not jockey-sized then light-framed and in need of beefing up. “Our game is a power game,” Slater says. “The middle of the field is dominated by big bodies and you need to be able to withstand contact.” The club’s S & C staff got to work and Slater’s body responded promptly to the heavy compound lifts (see “Get NRL Muscle”, p. 117).
“I’ve hovered around 87.5kg for the last 15 years,” he says. “And that’s where I’m comfortable. Any heavier and I feel a little sluggish on the field. Any lighter I’m probably too light to withstand all the collisions.” Your takeout: find your fighting weight, and hold it.
Even in the off-season his weight barely fluctuates, he says, while some of his clubmates can move 8-9 kilograms either way. “From there it’s a long way back.”
He deflects the suggestion he must be ultra disciplined with his diet. “It’s more habit,” he says. “Because I eat well during the season, that just rolls over. Once you’re in a cycle of healthy eating, it’s actually pretty hard to get out of it. Whereas for guys who aren’t, it’s hard to get into it.”
MAKE YOUR MARK
Slater announced himself as a talent for the ages in his first State of Origin series back in 2004. His hair was longer then but he’s otherwise barely changed.
In Game II Queensland trailed on the hour when Darren Lockyer threaded a grubber through the Blues’ front line. In a flash Slater was in pursuit. On gathering the ball he swerved right while kicking left as defenders converged. Again he showed blistering speed to reclaim possession and score one of Origin’s iconic tries.
Some years later Slater was a back-toback winner of Australia’s Greatest Athlete competition, outperforming the likes of Ky Hurst, Brett Deledio, Jamie Whincup and Andrew Symonds in a test of all-round athleticism. Slater says his success didn’t so much surprise him as confirm what he knew already about his ferocious competitive spirit: “I’ve always wanted to win everything, and it was no different in that environment.”
Watching Slater today he still looks quick. Sharp. Has he lost any pace over the years? He wouldn’t have a clue, he says. He doesn’t measure those things. “You’re better off trying to become the best you can >
be now,” he says. “In my case, that means going out every training session and trying to be better and working on my deficiencies. That’s all I try to do.”
STARE DOWN SETBACKS
Slater sees his prime as 2008-14. In 2015 his luck ran out when a left-shoulder injury sabotaged his season. Reconstructive surgery was meant to fix the damage, but Slater was just one game into his comeback when it became clear he would need to go under the knife again. The result: he barely laced on a boot for two years. It was torture for him.
Healing happened at a crawl, he says. “With shoulder recons, you don’t see improvement weekly – it’s more monthly,” he says. “That can be frustrating when you’re doing all this rehab and strength work while feeling like you’re getting nowhere and starting to wonder whether it’s ever going to be right. My surgeon couldn’t reassure me that my shoulder would regain the strength required for me to play in the NRL again.”
Slater used his time-off wisely. While a lot of fitness work was off the table, he could still run. He could still fortify his lower body.
“The majority of my fitness base is through my legs,” he says. “I don’t have to endure the contacts in the front line that the majority of the boys do, so I’m really focused on the speed element of our game. I was able able to resume training once my arm got out of the sling.”
One thing Slater does more than ever these days is stretch. He’s always been flexible. But no matter who you are, the combo of age, injuries and colossal collisions with large entities will chip away at freedom of movement. “I find that if I’m flexible and feeling good, I tend to train better and I tend to play better,” he says.
He’s not sure how much longer he’ll keep going. “I’d rather focus on the time that I have left in the game. And when the body taps me on the shoulder and says, ‘That’s enough, Bill’ . . . I’ll just enjoy it until that moment comes.”
Steps to success: Slater works on keeping his body agile at Melbourne’s The Richmond Gym.