I know this sounds like an absurd notion. There's simply no way a surfer
can enter the conversation when we're talking about the most dominant athletes ever, right?
Can we even dare to measure Slater's athletic feats against Wayne Gretzky
and Jerry Rice
? Those two really did dominate physically grueling sports for two decades. That's why they're considered the greatest. And maybe being blasted into the reef at
isn't as scary as being
, or catching an
over the middle, but watch, then consider which fate you'd choose given the choice.
Whether surfing is a sport or not is an argument even surfers can't agree on. In fact, anything with judges is suspect since it's crossing into art. But there's no denying that whether you're paddling into
at Waimea Bay, or flying high at five-foot Bells Beach, the act demands endurance, timing, speed and flexibility, not to mention commitment, all which favor the young and athletically spry...or so we were told.
After winning five straight titles in the 90s (six total) Slater retired in 1999, which, when translated, means he went surfing more. He chased swells around the planet for three years, visiting friends at every stop, waiting for a new crop of talent
to mature and actually threaten his legacy before coming back to competition in 2003. In his first year back, he fell short in the final heat of the season. But by 2005 he had his title back, repeating again in 2006, and nabbing another in 2008. Now he's leading in 2010.
Like Favre, Slater threatens retirement at every turn. Unlike Favre, he tends to go the distance when he comes back. Today 38-year-old Slater is not only defying gravity with his results
, but halting time with his surfing, which is still getting better. When asked how old he thinks he'd be if he didn't know how old he was, he says 24. Take one look at his sculpted physique and you'd agree that's his real age
It doesn't hurt that he's having fun. "I'd let a hundred thousand people punch me in the face to surf these waves alone," he said after collecting his check for $105,000. "I can't believe you guys are paying me for this."
His decades of dominance required serious sacrifice though. He attributes some of his longevity to never being married, which was supposedly rough. His years running around
with the likes of Pamela, Gisele and Cameron earned him more mainstream press than any of his records, compounding the torture. Poor guy.
His travel schedule is grueling, too, but 12-hour flights or not, there's little sympathy for anyone headed to Tahiti, Fiji or Australia for a match. Slater's pro athlete friends are quick to remind him it beats Pittsburgh, Detroit or Cleveland.
If Kelly wins his 10th ASP world title this year he'll be tempted to walk away for good...again. Yet after being to the moon and back several times now he's surprised by where motivation continues to come from.
"Once you've done all you've set out to do it becomes about things much larger than yourself," he says. He dedicated his landmark win Saturday to Daisy Merrick, granddaughter of his longtime shaper, friend, and mentor Al Merrick
, who's bravely battling a rare form of cancer.
In an era when our sports heroes continually disappoint, Slater, the human, is somebody parents needn't fear their kids emulating. The former Straight-A student has maintained his über-cool (Jack Johnson
's singing career was spawned out of Slater-produced surf http://www.amazon.com/September-Sessions-Various-Artists/dp/B00007GD14. Eddie Vedder invites Slater on stage for jam sessions at his concerts.) while neutralizing the old pejorative of being a http://www.hilarious.net/sean-penns-best-jeff-spicoli-moments/ over the course of his reign.
On any coast, in any country, Kelly Slater has tens of thousands of loyal fans who adore him. Yet he can rest assured that his peaceful refuge is always five minutes away, roughly four miles inland. Because on Main Street U.S.A. Slater will always be able to walk down the sidewalk unnoticed, despite being one of the most dominant athletes ever.
Photos of Kelly Slater via ASP/Rowland, Kirstin & Hurley