Kelly Slater hates to lose.
That’s hardly a revelatory statement, and it’s been said a million times before. But it does bear repeating.
One doesn’t win 11 World Championships without a competitive fire unmatched in the history of the sport.
But yesterday at the Billabong Pro Tahiti, in front of hundreds floating in the channel at Teahupoo and thousands more surf fans viewing the webcast online, a Wildcard entry into the contest flipped the script on the 2011 Billabong Pro Tahiti winner and reigning world champ.
Brazilian Ricardo Dos Santos (below), winner of the 2012 Air Tahiti Nui/Von Zipper Trials, did to Slater what he’s been doing to his fellow competitors for years–mainly torturing people with last-second victories. With less than 10 seconds left on the clock and Slater sitting on what looked to be a small, but comfortable lead considering the long lulls between sets, Dos Santos pulled a rabbit out of his hat.
With priority on his side after Slater uncharacteristically missed coming out of a throaty tube that would have locked up the heat, Dos Santos needed a 7.98 to take the lead. As the clock ticked down, a deep, lined-up set wave stood up, and Dos Santos weaved through a long barrel and scored a 9.87.
Just like that, on the turn of one wave in Heat 6 of Round 3 at the Billabong Pro Tahiti, the 2012 title chase twisted and the race is now officially on.
Later, while guest commentating in the webcast booth, when asked to break down one of Santos’ waves from their heat earlier in the day, Slater’s competitive nature was revealed. He confessed that he didn’t feel like he’d lost the heat, but rather had given it away.
His tone was gracious, yet almost detached. He described it as not a very difficult wave: “Maybe a little deeper than mine, but kind of a straight line.” It was a fair assessment. Santos’ tube was long and fairly deep, but hardly complicated for the best surfers in the world. To the neutral observer, Santos’ win was much more a “smash and grab” than a comprehensive victory.
Slater’s stunning defeat, while a big boost to No. 1 ranked Mick Fanning and the rest of the surfers still in the title hunt, might be a devil’s bargain, however.
Current world No. 2 Joel Parkinson did not mince words when he was asked if he rooted against Slater, if he got any joy out of seeing the champ go down early, and whether it provided an advantage heading into the next event at Lower Trestles in California. “I may have in the past, but not anymore,” Parko said flatly. “Kelly isn’t someone you want to give any extra motivation to, not that he needs it.”
Perhaps the most prescient view of Slater’s enduring burn for competitive domination came from webcast color commentator and ex-World Tour vet Nathan “Noodles” Webster. With all due respect to his 20 years at the top of the ASP heap, Webster jokingly commented that Slater’s notorious competitive drive might be slightly psychotic. In the booth with Noodles, Slater’s good friend Shane Dorian chuckled in agreement.
Photo, top, of Slater courtesy Van Swae, Surfer magazine; photo, bottom, of Dos Santos, courtesy ASP