Billy Slater

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

Men's Health (Australia) - - Contents - BY DANIEL WIL­LIAMS PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY SAMUEL COSTIN

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.

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