When Kelly Slater was closing in on his 10th ASP World Championship in 2010, the nice round number that he was chasing demanded his career accomplishments be compared against all other athletes.
Sadly, the eventual celebration was tempered because his 10th title came just days after the sport’s biggest tragedy: the untimely death of Hawaiian great Andy Irons, Slater’s biggest rival, and the only man who managed to truly challenge Kelly during his 20 year reign.
Irons won three straight titles in 2002-2004, but none bigger than his 2003 showdown that saw him get the better of Slater in the final heat of the season.
Wednesday marked the one year anniversary of Irons’ passing. After ASP competitors and fans marked the occasion with an early morning tribute at the Rip Curl Pro in Ocean Beach, San Francisco, Slater got busy clinching another world title… his 11th.
“Winning today, on the anniversary of Andy’s death, it’s really the best way I can honor his memory,” Slater said after being carried up the beach. “It reminds me of all those times we battled together.”
For the record, his was the first time the ASP crown has ever been clinched on the U.S. Mainland. And naturally Slater’s latest feat has all his fans busting out their scales again.
As they discovered last year at this time the list of athletes with careers that have lasted 20 years is a short one, albeit filled with legendary names. But try making a list of athletes that have completely dominated their sport for two full decades and it gets very tiny indeed, and there’s little arguing that Kelly Slater, the surfer, is right there at the top.
The 39-year-old from Florida remains ageless in a sport where the athletes are built like gymnasts, and 25-year-olds are considered dinosaurs — at least they were when Slater’s career began.
His feat is all the more impressive considering he won his first world title in 1992, when Bill Clinton was still a candidate for office, Magic, Larry, and Jordan were playing together on the Olympic Dream Team, and Jay Leno was enjoying his first season as the Tonight Show Host.
Slater was the youngest world champion then, and he’s the oldest today by a spread of nine years. His 11th world championship gives him seven more than Australian Mark Richards, the man with the second most, who racked up four straight from 1979-1982. His achievement surprisingly got a bit of mainstream attention last year, as even the most cynical sports pundits pondered the argument of Slater being quite possible the best athletes ever.
For his part, even though he’s bolstered the argument with yet another championship Slater wants nothing to do with the conversation. He let’s his rabid fans do the debating for him while he cherishes the anonymity that comes driving just a few miles inland.
His trip to San Francisco was his first for an ASP competition, and he did his best to make it a family affair with his brother Stephen and longtime girlfriend, swimwear designer Kalani Miller.
When he realized that he might clinch his 11th world title on the anniversary of Andy’s death, Slater took some time to finally open up on the matter. Today the surfing world knows more about the personal struggles Irons faced leading up to his tragic departure than they did a year ago. They’ve made peace with Irons’ issues. But on Wednesday we got a glimpse of how long it really took for Slater to cope. In the days leading into the Rip Curl Pro, he put down some thoughts about his roller-coaster relationship with Andy for The Inertia. While there’s great stuff in there about the hottest of hot days in their storied rivalry, his summary is what hits home most.
The story of Andy Irons may likely never feel good to us whether you were his friend and you miss him or you have a strong judgment about his shortcomings and it made you angry. No matter what, it doesn’t make sense for someone so gifted and in touch on so many levels to die alone in an airport hotel room nowhere close to anything that mattered to him. But remembering someone can sometimes be about the toughest thing you ever had with them and feeling like your life is better for having experienced that with them. And if that can make you laugh or smile, you’re honoring their life and their legacy, I believe.
I have questioned whether anything in our relationship and battles had any impact on the course of his life or whether I could have made a difference somehow. Maybe that’s just my own form of denial, but one thing is clear, I still can’t believe that Andy is gone. Hell, I still can’t believe that Todd Chesser is gone and Donnie Solomon and Malik Joyeux and a whole bunch of other good friends are gone. An anniversary is best used for remembering the good things and letting it all sink in more so that the sadness fades away and the good memories remain. And if we learn anything from that, let it be that the positive impact of Andy and all our other friends who are gone bring us closer to the ones and the things that we love right here, right now.
As surfing fans celebrate one of the greatest athletes of all time, on this day they’re also remembering the fallen hero who made him better.
Photos of Kelly Slater by Grant Ellis of Surfer Magazine. Fan shirt shot comes courtesy of Kalani Miller.