Kelly Slater bolstered his case as one of the world’s greatest athletes Saturday by capturing his 10th world surfing title on his way to winning the Rip Curl Pro in Puerto Rico. It’s Slater’s 45th elite tour victory. His remarkable feat is capturing the rest of the sporting world’s attention these days because Slater, 38, turned pro all the way back in 1990.
But as Slater accepted his 10th world title he dedicated his amazing feat to Andy Irons, the former three-time world champion who was unquestionably his biggest rival.
“If it wasn’t for Andy there’s no way I’d be in this position,” said a tearful Slater after winning the quarterfinal heat that clinched him his 10th.
Irons, 32, died on Tuesday, November 2, while traveling back to his home to Hawaii.
After arriving in Puerto Rico last weekend Irons fell ill, and pulled out of the event just before competition started. After leaving Puerto Rico for Miami, he sent messages to friends that doctors thought he had contracted dengue fever. He was hoping to recover at home in Hawaii with his pregnant wife, Lyndie, who is expecting in the next month.
Once home and healthy, he planned on celebrating the arrival of his son and preparing for the Hawaiian Triple Crown. He was reportedly throwing up on the flight from Miami to Dallas, and checked into a Dallas hotel Monday night to get some rest for the remainder of the journey, but he never responded to wake-up calls on Tuesday. Investigators say it will take weeks to determine the actual cause of death.
The loss of Irons rocked the surfing world, and put the Rip Curl Pro on ice while his friends back on tour struggled to digest the news, and reflect on Irons’ incredible life.
Since then, Slater and his fellow competitors have used their best available therapy to deal with the hurt: surfing.
When competition resumed on Friday the celebration of Irons’ life and Slater’s pending achievement made the Rip Curl Pro a remarkably emotional event.
Irons and Slater fueled the growth of their sport as their rivalry caught fire. The two waged war on each other for four straight years. But had it not been for Irons ascension Slater’s remarkable second decade of dominance wouldn’t have happened.
Back in 1998, Slater walked away from the world tour after capturing his sixth world title — five of them coming in a row. The perception then was he’d run out of viable challengers.
Slater wasn’t ready to rest, however. Instead, he told the media he stepped away to improve, citing other sports greats like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods who didn’t look at what their competitors were doing for inspiration, but rather, what they felt could be done.
All the while he was hoping for a new generation to emerge and offer a challenge: Andy Irons was that guy.
Irons clawed his way up the ratings ladder through the late 90s, just as Slater was walking away. By the time he clinched his first world title in 2002 he’d won over the hearts and minds of surfing fans worldwide. He even managed to take Slater’s place in the Surfer Magazine reader poll, the sports’s version of all-star voting.
Irons rise and sudden dominance was all the motivation Slater needed to fuel a comeback. He rejoined the tour fulltime in 2003, and that year the two surfing icons waged a fierce battle for the world championship that came down to the final heat of the year. It was pro surfings’ biggest battle ever, and Irons won, handing Kelly a rare and painful loss.
Slater eventually wrangled the title back from Irons in 2005, and again in 2006, cementing his legacy. And he’s been back on top of the Surfer Poll since 2004, with Irons two year interruption being the only one in 17 years.
Since 2006 Slater has been dealing with new challengers like Mick Fanning, who he’s traded barbs and world titles with over the past few years. Kelly and Andy, meanwhile, became close friends. This year, a new generation represented by Jordy Smith, 22, has arrived on the scene and blown fans away with their new brand of acrobatic surfing. Smith was the last man standing in Slater’s way in 2010. He was only 4-years old when Kelly won his first world championship back in 1992.
The emotions of this week are sure to carry over to the tour’s final stop in Hawaii next week, where Irons friends and family are preparing for what’s sure to be a very emotional outpouring. Slater will be at his brother’s wedding, but is sure to bid Irons a final goodbye at the final event at Pipeline in December, site of both surfers’ biggest triumphs.