HALEIWA, HI – Just six days before his 50th birthday, there was Kelly Slater being hoisted through a sea of euphoric spectators, celebrating with a bottle of Champagne in one hand and tears of joy and memories flowing in his eyes.
It was just one snapshot of Slater’s electrifying week of surfing in epic conditions on the World’s Most Famous Wave, Hawaii’s Banzai Pipeline, where the legend from Cocoa Beach amended his encyclopedia of records Saturday with his eighth Pipe Masters victory and his 56th career title, his first since 2016 in Tahiti, according to News 6 partner Florida Today.
“I committed my life to this, to all of this, all the winning, all the heartbreak ...,” Slater said, trying to control his emotions after getting a kiss from longtime girlfriend Kalani Miller.
“This is the best win of my life.”
Two near-perfect Backdoor barrel rides in 10- to 12-foot waves — similar to those during his late-evening surf sessions just a short walk from his $7.8 million mansion on the North Shore of Oahu — sealed an 18.77-12.53 victory over Hawaii’s Seth Moniz, 22.
“I’m just in disbelief right now ... I don’t know how to explain the moment, it was just so spiritual for me,” said Slater, no doubt thinking back 30 years to 1992, when he won his first Pipe Masters to become the youngest world champion at age 20 (he’s also the oldest at 39 ... for the moment).
Winning the World Surf League’s season opener was just another milestone in a long list of accomplishments that include an impeccably designed wave pool (Surf Ranch in California); a recent ABC-TV reality series (“The Ultimate Surfer”); a sustainable clothing line (OuterKnown); a breakthrough floating fins design (Endorfins); a near-scratch golf handicap; personal crusades to save whales and protect reefs and beaches; a daughter (Taylor), who is about to be married; and a godson (Jackson Dorian), whom he says “might be the best 15-year-old surfer on the planet.”
“It’s a pretty stellar legacy; he’s certainly put our town on the map,” said Cocoa Beach Mayor Ben Malik, 57, who credits surfing and living a clean, healthy, active lifestyle like Slater for saving his own life when he suffered a heart attack while enjoying the sport he loves.
“He’s created brand awareness ... Florida surfers were always considered lackluster, and then you get this kid from Cocoa Beach, and now he’s competing against guys 30 years younger. That’s pretty damn impressive. Chalk one up for the old guys.”
Earlier in the Pipe Masters contest, Slater scored perhaps the most dramatic comeback in his storied history, taking off on the winning backside tube ride with 4 seconds left. That day, he defeated two surfers whose combined age couldn’t even match Slater’s. In fact, he’s been surfing so long that he once competed against Moniz’s father.
“It’s just crazy looking back 30 years, I don’t know what to chalk it up to,” Slater said. “Maybe spending my whole life in the ocean, you know?”
Spark for Cocoa Beach tourism
Gas was just 34 cents a gallon, NASA’s Space Shuttle Program was officially launched, and the Miami Dolphins were putting together the NFL’s only unbeaten team in 1972, the year Robert Kelly Slater paddled his way into this world on Feb. 11 at Cape Canaveral Hospital.
But Hang Ten shirts and baggies were still “groovy” and the shortboard evolution was just evolving as Flower Power was wilting, splitting a peak of two other Brevard County surfing stars’ stunning achievements — Gary Propper’s East Coast longboard championship In 1966 and Jeff Crawford’s Banzai Pipeline victory on national TV in 1974.
“Sometimes a little luck and timing helps,” Slater said, regarding his legacy, which has spanned six decades.
His remarkable career, which now includes a 21.3 win percentage over 263 events; an astonishing 73.24 percent of heat victories (832 wins in 1,136 heats); and 31 perfect 10s — all records, likely never to be matched — has generated, indirectly, tens of millions of tourist dollars coming into the Space Coast.
“The legacy he has created as a world-class surfer has translated into many visitors coming here to see what it might have been like to learn to surf on the Space Coast,” said Peter Cranis, executive director at the Space Coast Office of Tourism. “He is a true ambassador of his sport and our area.”
John Hughes, executive director of the Florida Surf Museum, said Slater’s connection to the Cocoa Beach area was perfect, since the surf “generally breaks better here” than in other parts of Florida.
“Look at Freida Zamba, she’s a four-time world champion, but she didn’t have much impact on Flagler Beach becoming a surf destination. Kelly was born in the right place, and the right physical location that people tend to gravitate to,” Hughes said.
Slater, on the other hand, has been a tourist destination himself for hundreds of Space Coast residents over the years. This past week, Satellite Beach medical professional Graham Clifford and a few of his friends and families made the “pilgrimage of sorts” to Oahu, hoping to watch the legend surf in what could be his final full season.
“We were in for a treat,” Clifford said, reliving Slater’s dramatic last-second, near-perfect (9.23) ride, “proving again that age is only a number. ... Just hearing the sheer power of the wave breaking was enough to get the adrenaline pumping.”
First surfboard pictured ‘Jaws’
Slater began surfing at age 5, and by 8 was competing against kids twice his age. By 10, he began to win contests, piling up so many trophies they’d be out in the backyard.
By 18, upon graduation at Cocoa Beach Jr./Sr. High, he made his professional debut, the same year he won his first pro event. Two years later, he was the world champion.
Not bad for a kid who once was afraid of drowning after being held underwater in a pool.
Slater recalled the time he anxiously awaited six months for surf shop owners Phil Salick and his twin brother, Rich, to present him with his first, “Jaws”-designed surfboard when he turned 8 for his first junior competition.
“I would do anything to find (that board) and have it back again,” Slater once said.
“You can only imagine how much that board is worth,” Phil said, last hearing about a possible sighting in Singapore.
Danny Melhado, 49, grew up surfing in junior events with Slater, when “no one was going to match him,” before eventually qualifying for the world tour himself in 1997.
“I’m stoked for him. Still setting records,” said Melhado, who operates a surf camp in Okinawa, Japan, and who recently was inducted into the East Coast Hall of Fame. “He is truly a competitor on so many levels and just a surfing freak who loves good waves.”
CJ Hobgood, the 2001 world champion who retired after 17 seasons at age 35, once joked that Slater was so in-tune with the ocean that a whale could probably create a last-second wave if he needed it.
“You’d still be kicking my (butt) if I was out there,” Hobgood told Slater during his recent Hall of Fame speech.
Australian-born Peter “P.T.” Townend, the sport’s first recognized champion in 1976, said he remembers hearing rumors “about the kid from Florida,” and eventually was the color commentator during Slater’s first career victory at Trestles, Calif., at age 18.
“The longevity of his career is unparalleled in any sport ... and he is still competing at the highest level at age 50,” said Townend, who is compiling a 50 photo essay entitled “Memories in Pink,” in which one segment is devoted to Slater pouring red wine into P.T.’s 1976 silver cup, a trophy only made possible by Slater’s insistence to tour officials.
“He, like Tom Brady (who announced his NFL retirement last week at age 44) holds all the sports records which, in my opinion, will never be broken — and he’s not done yet.”
Comedy’s loss was surfing’s gain
Slater admits he didn’t think he was going to surf for a living, instead telling Canadian journalist Ariel Helwani last month that he and his dad would sit home watching Steve Martin movies. Despite thinking he had a future in comedy, some of Slater’s sarcastic jokes didn’t quite connect with his public, he said, and quickly abandoned that thought.
His seriousness and focus, he said, evolved after his parents split up. And, well, maybe, from the 17 straight-game beatdown his friend, Drew Filliben, gave him on the ping-pong table he had received for his 18th birthday.
“I think he let me win the 18th game,” Slater told Helwani, realizing it was 3 a.m. and they needed to get some sleep.
Slater doesn’t hold back when it comes to opinions on political views, especially the drive to have adults receive Covid-19 boosters. He’s never indicated he’s been vaccinated, which could become a problem when the tour heads to Australia for two events in April, the midseason cutoff before the 36-man field is reduced to 24 under a new format. Slater, who “semi-retired” from 1998-2001, has not had to qualify through the minors since age 19.
On Cocoa Beach, he’s been honored with a giant bronze statue (thanks to an artistic schoolmate); has a beach access named after him (Kelly Slater Way); has a Key to he City; a pavilion named in his honor; a sand sculpture in front of Ron Jon’s (the world’s largest surf shop); signs at each end of the city; and his baggies are retired at his high school, which has produced about a dozen East Coast Hall of Fame surfers.
His jersey has even flown on the International Space Station.
“He not only brought recognition to the Space Coast, but he changed the nature of surfing itself, with his style, technique, the type of surfing — really creative, next-level stuff — the Michael Jordan of surfing,” Hughes said. “He made a lot of others look a lot worse in comparison. It took the rest of the surfing world probably 20 years to catch up.
“It seems he’s reached that Zen level ... his style is so well-developed that it looks effortless, while everyone else is straining and grunting.”
Staying healthy despite injuries
Slater’s career earnings are approaching $5 million but he told Helwani that he found himself nearly broke after becoming the first surfer to earn $1 million so he took care of his own finances. Forbes now estimates his net worth at $25 million.
“Imagine if he had focused on becoming a (pro) golfer,” Malik said.
Slater has surfed with busted ribs and broken toes. Reportedly, he’s survived at least three concussions, one on an artificial wave in Germany. But a broken right foot, and the follow-up surgery, has been his real nemesis in recent years. Over the past four seasons, he’s missed 18 of 29 contests due to injuries.
Last year, he competed in just three of the tour’s seven events during the Covid-shortened schedule, but still managed to finish 18th in the points standings and automatically re-qualify for his 30th season.
Staying healthy, otherwise, is a reason he still has a chiseled body, overcoming what Mother Nature and Father Time throw at him. Homemade almond milk, chia seeds (he’s a brand ambassador for The Chia Co.), Kombucha tea, fruit smoothies, hot water with lemon, almonds and even a honey turmeric drink he had for breakfast the day of his amazing comeback at Pipe are just some of his standard health items.
“He was always telling us to stay healthy,” said childhood friend Rhett Fischer, a Port Canaveral restaurant co-owner, who along with Filliben and Slater remain “The Three Amigos.” “He wants us to travel the world on a surf trip when we’re 80 — because he figures we’d all be retired by then.”
Helwani asked Slater how he would like to be remembered after all these years — perhaps as simply the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time)?
“Look, after dedicating your life to one thing like this, it’s really nice to be in that conversation and it’s a huge honor,” Slater said. “I set out to be the best I can possibly be. I wanted to be the best in the world, I wanted to be the best ever. If, in 50 years, I’m still part of that conversation, that would be a huge honor for me, but I don’t know if that’s important as a person.”
“I have done some sort of, like, spiritual, soul-searching the last couple of years. I just want to be a good person and get back to simple things in life ... I’ve lived such an exciting, fun, incredible, amazing, never-ending (lifestyle), it’s made me a better person, a more understanding person, and I just want to kind of blend in at some point.”
At the awards ceremony, Slater said: “This may be it.”
He said he will go back and evaluate things before the Sunset Beach contest — which opens on his birthday.
Just maybe, he’ll finally get a chance to sharpen those ping-pong skills.