Kelly and Shaun: Ten Minutes With Two Pipe Masters
As is the state of media in 2022, much of what we read about sports stars is delivered as short, impulsive bursts lit upon pocket-size screens. Missing is the longform rave that allows room to elaborate, to chew slowly upon a thought, then expand and move it forward, place it in the context of a wider conversation.
Which is what makes this interview with Kelly Slater so fascinating. It's not that he's become a hermit in middle-age, more that he's embraced the thrift of social media. So despite this interview being two-and-a-half years old, it's a welcome read as it bucks the trend to abridge. Besides, many of the points and anecdotes are timeless in their recounting.
The interview took place at Jeffreys Bay, 2019. It was the last time the tour visited South Africa, and a contest that saw Kelly lose to Italo in the Round of 16. Kelly was 48 at the time, he'd won at J'Bay four times, though the most recent win was eleven years earlier in 2008.
Shaun Tomson: Do you think you’re still as driven?
Kelly Slater: No. Not really. Not the same way, no.
Not the same hungry obsession?
No. No more contest OCD.
So missing surf still drives you crazy?
I get so irritated when I miss good surf if I could have been there. That is always a hard pill to swallow.
So that obsession, from the freesurfing perspective, is obviously still there. Because if you can’t be stoked freesurfing, it seems you’ll never maintain that level of stoke in the contests and that enthusiasm to win, otherwise you are just going through the motions.
Yeah. Honestly, at times right now I feel like I’m just going through the motions. I mean, I’m struggling to decide what to do.
You mean competitively?
What about the freesurfing side?
Oh, no, not too much. I mean, when the waves are bad, I sort of need a really good board or something different to get me excited, you know. I’ll just go golfing or something. But, when the waves are going to be good or if I fly halfway around the world and I know there’s going to be good swell for three days, I’ll do it. So that stoke is just totally intact.
What about surfing Pipeline? In my estimation no wave is even close as the ultimate test of a surfer’s courage, talent, and commitment.
If you think of so many things in life, like a book, that builds the whole time to a climax, to the moral of the story, or the end scene. Our world tour is built that way, to climax at the end, and Pipeline is that spot. So if you don’t have confidence at a place like Pipeline, it’s going affect you too much beforehand, especially if you’re going for the world title.
You have got to know that increases your pressure earlier because you’re thinking, “What if comes down to Pipeline and I got to go do this thing there.” And right now, I couldn’t tell you of an Aussie guy that blows people's mind at Pipeline, and that’s an important thing. And I’ll probably get slam busted for saying that. I know that that quote is just going to get me killed, but I would put my money on that because you got guys who aren’t even on tour that are just sitting at Pipeline all winter waiting to show their stuff.
Riding the tube is an artform within surfing. You have this special gift to find your way out of seemingly impossible situations.
So many things in nature like resemble a tube; a tornado, or a hurricane, or a galaxy. It’s a natural sort of shape. And they say that the eye of the hurricane is the safest place to be. And the tube is really the eye of the hurricane in the water, and it is the safest place to be. But then you have the foam ball, or tube monster as we call it, always trying to get you, and if you can flirt with that and play with that, that’s really the ultimate barrel ride; to be able to ride on the foam ball, and have your tail drift out and still have the wave pushing you along.
It’s really the ultimate feeling of surfing, that and just getting lifted off your board by spit and landing back on it, or having your board track out because of it, because all that energy is lifting the tail out.
Probably, the most incredible feeling I’ve ever had is where you actually get behind the foam ball, where the lip is landing that creates a little void in the water, and you can actually get your board on that and it will just pull you right through the barrel, you don’t have to do anything; you don’t have to react, you don’t have to move. Once you do, you get on this track and you are on cruise control, on autopilot, and you don’t have to do a lot, the wave will pull you along at its own speed. It feels like there is a rope on the nose of my board pulling me along. All you do is stabilise yourself, centre yourself, and it’ll actually just pull you right along. If the barrel starts to slow down, it’ll let you slide over the foam ball and back out. And it’s a hard thing to do but once you’re on it’s so calm in a way. I mean, there’s so much happening. I was figuring out in milliseconds but if you do it the right way, there is really no other place you’d rather be in a tube. It’s the stable place. It’s almost like that little trench was built for a surfboard, and it wants you to get yourself there. It’s like the surfboard’s natural environment is that little trench in the barrel. And that’s the ultimate, that’s really the ultimate tube ride.
What’s that one time when suddenly Kelly Slater was famous?
There’s a couple of moments I can think of, like definite moments that happened for me that made me understand that I was starting to realise my potential competitively. I came real close to beating Barton Lynch in ’89. He was World Champion. It was in Florida. I was 17-years old and I had him until the last minute in this heat. And I really thought I was gonna beat him and I didn’t. I was really pissed about it because he was out partying the whole night before. And I was watching him just smoke and get drunk and just do whatever and I just...I went home and I went to bed just saying I’m going beat this guy tomorrow. To me he didn’t really respect his position. And that was where I saw my chance to grab that heat.
To me it was like the biggest heat in my life to that point. And I was leading the whole heat and ended up losing right in the last minute. He got this nine and beat me. I was so shattered, but I didn’t feel like it was a loss. Everyone on the beach was sort of congratulating me for the loss because I performed well, and I felt like at that point some of the top pros in the world saw me do my thing and they all said I did a good job and kind of gave me props for surfing good or whatever, so that was exciting.
Do you remember the losses as intensely as the wins? Martina Navratilova once commented that you remember the super close losses than the wins. They haunt you.
I think a couple of losses that I’ve had have been more profound to me as person than the wins have been. I think that they’ve allowed me to grow a lot greater than ever winning something has. Winning...who’s unhappy when they win? We’re all stoked when we win. Everyone’s stoked when they win the heat, get the wave, and find the woman of your dreams, but when you’re down and out, and if you’re able to learn from that...I mean, you lose a heat, big deal, really. If you lose a contest or world title, really, at the end of the day, big deal. It’s not that important, man. And that was a lesson I learned when I lost in 2003 to Andy at Pipe.
In that moment, I was devastated, and it was just a crushing defeat because it was so close. It was almost like we both should’ve won that year. We both had two of the best years ever on tour. When two guys are having that much success at one time, it’s going to be painful for somebody. But when you win it’s easy to be stoked and sometimes it can be hard to be humble and have feelings for the guy who didn’t win and understand his position,.
I had so many wins like that through the 90's. I had so many wins where I just nabbed that world title from Sunny Garcia and Rob Machado in ’95 and then again from Willsie [Danny Wills] and Mick Campbell in ’98. And I didn’t have a perspective after those to understand what they might have felt. I don’t know if they felt it as deeply as I felt what happened in ’03, losing to Andy. But I just know that if I can go back right now and switch it, I would lose again because it made me a better person.
It’s hard, and even saying that is kind of emotional for me, but it’s because, how do you let something go that you want and love so much and be okay with it? I think anyone could relate with maybe...a relationship they had or something, but for sportsmen, their sport is that way for them - it’s a relationship. An intimate relationship with every part of your life and when losing that, I couldn’t imagine in that moment saying 'I’m going to appreciate this one day' but the thing it did for me, it made me feel a lot closer with a lot of people in my world, it made me feel a lot closer to Rob Machado, it made me feel closer to Sunny Garcia and Mick Campbell and all the guys I have competed against for so long.
It was almost like I had all this buildup where I’ve had so much success in my life, in my surfing, in my career, in so many ways. And that was like I fell off the cliff, in a way, because I think people had this expectation that I’m always gonna pull it out in the end, and I didn’t. Their bubble was burst in a way for me with my career and all that sort of stuff. I’m not a religious person by any means but it was a godsend, it was a gift, because of the feeling that came from it even though a lot of it was heavy, bad, a horrible feeling but it was a real gift looking back now. And it allowed me to come back stronger after I got through a little stuff.
The next year was a little bit of struggle to get myself back in order but these last years since have been really powerful in my life in a lot of ways. Not just for surfing but I just feel more powerful as a person inside, as a friend to people and a lot of that came from that loss.
Is pro surfing good for surfing?
The great thing about pro surfing, I guess, for surfing is that just so many guys can make a living from going and doing what they love. And who doesn’t want to do that in their life? It’s the best thing you could ever do in your whole life. Everybody has to work and make money and make a living. The best thing you could ever do in your life is to do what you love and make money from it. In a way it is fulfilling. Not just to make money but because you feel like you’re accomplishing something, or you’re giving something back, or that exchange of what you provide you get paid for and everyone’s happy.
There’s no better feeling than that so I think that pro surfing is great for a lot of people. I think really, honestly, the only reason it’s not good is for selfish reasons. And it is probably great for a million selfish reasons but the one thing is what pro surfing might do is maybe it commercialises things which maybe puts more people in the water and the people who don’t think it’s good are people who are surfing because they want more waves, so selfishly they’re mad because pro surfing is the devil ‘cause it’s bringing more people into the water or something.
I mean, everything in life is good or bad if you look at it that way. You definitely have to be aware if what you’re doing is causing something negative so respect that and do your best to change it or understand it; understand another person’s perspective because things are a lot bigger than surfing in the world. But the same things that happened in surfing happen in business and happen in governments. Everyone’s fighting these weird things.
You just have to be able to understand another person and apply what you learned from those questions in your life, I think.
Today during the World Surf League events millions of people all over the world are tuning in; it is a worldwide community joined together by pro surfing.
It’s a really special thing. It’s the direction the world is going, that through communications everyone’s so much more connected now. Not just connected to electronics but connected to each other around the world. We’re having this surf event and surfing is not the biggest sport in the world but you have tens or hundreds of thousands or even millions of people around the world all interested and all connected into one place. Everyone’s right there mentally, in some way watching it. And those connections of all those people eventually might be the thing that brings peace to the world, everyone being connected to something, some common thing and to have that many people, it’s important.
I think we somehow have a message in that, that sends goodwill to everybody and we all can do our little piece.
You have stayed away from drugs.
I’ve never done drugs. The only way I’ve been really affected by drugs is I’ve had a couple of friends overdose and die and a couple overdosed and almost died. Actually, more than a couple of friends, quite a few friends. And, you know, drugs have always been a part of surfing, I guess, not necessarily part of surfing, but a part of the culture of surfing. But then drugs are a part of the NBA, a part of the NFL, a part of being a lawyer, a part of being a housewife.
There’s always been this stigma applied to surfing and drugs. I think because in the 60’s quite a lot of guys dropped out and didn’t want to go to war and they surfed, probably did drugs too, you know, smoked weed or doing their own thing, take acid or whatever. And surfing was a spiritual thing for those people and there was a subculture that wasn’t all of surfing, but that was the part of surfing that really stuck out to people; people thought surfers were hippies and drug addicts, and some of them were. And some people that go to work every day are hippies or drug addicts too.
It’s no different. It’s an even percentage like any other walk of life that’s somehow been attributed to our sport at some point that I think is totally unreal. I don’t know a surfer that does drugs to better his performance. I’m sure there are a couple or a few maybe but I don’t know of them and I do know of hundreds of athletes in major sports that do it - steroids and whatever else, blood doping for cycling, and it’s like totally common, but in surfing it’s really not
I would almost argue that surfing is one of the cleaner sports in a lot of ways. But, you know, there’s plenty of guys I know that are total druggies too that, you know, surf or compete or just recreationally surf, just part of their life. I think enough has been said there. It’s an even slice like any other walk of life.
Does the pressure to perform ever get you?
I think athletes who are able to win big tournaments, and I can only speak for myself, but I would imagine that they all have this thing where they can do it better. You always think you can it better, or bigger, faster, more precisely or whatever. And a lot of that comes on the really small, minute details but I don’t really feel anything is expected of me so much as it was when I was younger. I don’t think about it as much either. But when I’m out surfing with the best guys, I feel like at that point, definitely, my head is on the chopping block.
It’s like you’ve got to step up and perform and you’re either on those guys’ level or you are way down below. And at those times, I think all of us get our confidence rocked a little bit with a bad heat or even a silly turn on a wave. So, there’s always this constant yearning to better your performance and go somewhere you haven’t gone.
But I would say, more so now, I feel more pressure being on call to do a picture or sign something. I feel more pressure from that stuff than my surfing performance.
Your best tube ride?
I got one at Mundaka in Spain that was pretty crazy. I think I was in the barrel for about fifteen seconds and halfway through I had to grab my rail and I let go because I thought I was going to eat it. And I went at least as far again, and it felt like I was underneath the waterfall because the lip never changed where it was in relation to how deep I was, but it keep on chandeliering. Like when you’re standing in a waterfall and little chandeliers of water are splashing around randomly. The wave didn’t change shape but these little bits of water were falling through because the wind was kind of onshore but it was sucking off the sandbar so hard that the main shape of the wave was perfect, but there was always whitewater falling in just lightly, and I was just passing through it, and it just kept feeling like any second I was going to fall.
So I let go of the rail and I just stood there going, “I’m going to fall. I’m going to fall. I’m going to fall. I’m going to fall. I’m not going to fall.” It felt like I said that to myself like thirty times before I fell. And when I came up, I just popped straight up and looked back and it was just an incredible ride. These things stick in your brain forever.
Describe your best surfing experience?
The best surfing experience I ever had, if I got to pick one, I was surfing in Fiji, at a break called Restaurants on a full tide, a full moon session at 10 ’o clock at night with my friend Shane Dorian on nine-foot Doyle softboards. It was so bright you could see your reflection on the reef; you could see your shadow on the reef. We surfed from ten till midnight and after a couple of waves, we started riding doubles together. And I had a waterproof light strapped on to my waist and we’re literally both pulling into the barrels on the same wave together holding each other’s rails, nose riding. And I swear, I mean it sounds like I was doing acid or something, but I guarantee you I wasn’t. But we looked up, there was a huge ring around the moon that filled almost half the sky.
There were just the two of us in the water and we surfed all night and it was just epic. I mean, we’re singing songs from the ‘80’s and it was a special moment in my life for sure. It was right after my father passed away, about a month after my dad had passed away. And it was just a crazy experience. I mean, just to nightsurf is such a novelty and to just have two friends, I mean, I met Shane in ’84 and we’ve surfed everywhere. We met at Makaha, we surfed everywhere around the world. We got to travel together and stuff. And then we end up having a session where...you know, we tried to get other people go out with us. No-one wanted to go out. Now we’re going into these barrels and the Fijians who are on the beach are sort of watching in the dark, they could see whitewater, and they could see the light disappear behind the curtain of the waves and we were getting multiple barrels of waves on long boards.
I wanted to ride my shortboard because the waves are so good, but Shane is like, “No, we gotta ride this Doyle. They’re safe, they work. Just sit on the nose and pull in.”
If I were to pick one surf, that was probably the surf of my life.
Describe the feeling of fear inside the tube.
I don’t get scared inside the tube unless it’s either shallow coral bottom, or a giant barrel at some place that I don’t know very well. Even at Backdoor and Pipeline a lot of times, I might take off on a big wave, sort of maxing size, and it doesn’t really scare me because I’ve been in that situation so many times. And when you eat it, depending on where on the reef you are, when you fall you want to stay at the bottom of the trench so you don’t get sucked over in the lip.
I find when I paddle out, especially at Pipe, it’s the most intense scene in the world of surfing because you have so many good guys and you have a hundred photographers There’s all kinds of pecking orders happening, not only with pro surfers - locals against guys that don’t live here, against pros, against amateurs, against groms and girls and bodyboarders. And then you’ve got a pecking order between photographers, where they can sit deeper or get priority amongst themselves, and guys bodysurfing. It’s a funny scene because all this energy is focusing in one little place at one time, and it’s just an intense thing. And then you've got to put yourself in some of the most dangerous waves that we surf on a big day and everything is right there in your face.
Obviously at places like Sunset, Haleiwa, Waimea, those are all testing, those are proving grounds but they’re all further from the beach. Waimea only breaks once in the blue moon. So Pipeline is the spot where everyone is watching. Everyone is focused on it. Everyone sees everything that happens. You’re caught inside by a 15-foot wave at Sunset and no-one on the beach knows. You get caught inside on a 15-foot wave at Pipe and everyone sees it. They’re all part of the action. That’s the excitement of the place. It’s like no other place in the world.
What do you think style is in surfing?
I think to be concerned about style is kind of egocentric, to be honest with you. I think that style is what naturally comes out of your body. If it’s anything forced, if you’re trying to make it look a certain way, whether you’re going out at night and the clothes you wear or if you are riding a wave and the way you hold your hands and your arms. If you’re doing anything besides what comes naturally, it’s not real. It’s not you. I think style is just an offshoot of the way you do something. It’s not the way you do something.
Rob Machado surfed stylishly because that’s something that’s coming out of him. But it’s not something he’s making come out of him. It’s just something that comes out of him and everyone has their own totally and completely unique way of writing something, of writing your name, drawing letters, doing art, playing music, talking to people, walking. Everyone is totally unique from everyone else that ever lived before, and your style when you surf or when you do anything, your style is your own, it’s nothing anyone else ever had before. And it should just be an offshoot of the way you are.
If you’re surfing, you see the wave, you stand up, you get from here to there, and the way you get from here to there without thinking about it, that’s your style and that’s what you should stick with.
// Interview by SHAUN TOMSON