Loser? Kelly Slater loses a world title and finds himself.

The things we don’t know about Kelly Slater–the most celebrated surfer in history–are countless. What we do know is that he won six world titles and brought surfing culture into the mainstream, while creating a new style and genre that changed the sport forever. But the glossy appearance of his life that we have all seen through the eye of the media over the last two decades is beginning to wear thin, and the man inside is surfacing to meet the world he helped create.

The fist time we were introduced to him, he was as an East Coast honor student with a sordid family life and a knack for winning the ESA men’s-division surf contests when he was twelve years old. In the early 90s he joined the ASP world tour and asked the question, “Why do I have to wait three years to become a world champion?” He proceeded to rack up more accolades than this article has room to recount, all the while fronting for numerous companies that manipulated his image in a million different ways. He survived a stint on Baywatch during an era when the word “sellout” was in every buzz-phrase on MTV.

He did all this under the close scrutiny of the international press, adoring (and sometimes psychotic) fans, sponsors, and family, and he has never flinched in the face of adversity.

After a three-year hiatus that was dubbed “early retirement” in 1999, Slater re-entered the arena to lackluster results in 2002, the year Andy Irons broke through the ceiling. Last year (2003) the two rivals inspired the world with the closest title race since Mark Richards and Cheyne Horan battled at the Smirnoff Pro.

In the end, Andy Irons won a heat that won an event that won a world title. He accomplished what has been called the single most difficult thing to do in competitive surfing: successfully defend a world title … and against Kelly Slater! But Slater found something else this year. He found something worth more than all the titles he’s ever won put together.–M.P., January 4, 2004, Hale‘iwa, Hawai‘i

Tell me about 2002, your official “comeback” year.

When it first started, I was pretty excited. I was really nervous at the first event and there was a lot of emotion attached to it. Probably more from what people were saying rather than how I was feeling. I think I had some fear of seeing the level my surfing was at.

Did you try to take the energy of that pressure and turn it into competitive drive?

Well, there was a lot going on, and I wasn’t totally ready for the year. I had done some events during the three years I had off, but I really wasn’t ready for the attention again. It kind of freaked me out at first.

How did this year (2003) start off on the Gold Coast?

I was just letting the pressure and what other people were saying effect me too much. I felt like my surfing was much better than the ninth place I got the year before.

You got ninth in that event, too. You lost to Dean Morrison the eventual winner.

Dean is a tough competitor. He’s always on the good waves. But when I’m in my top form, I’ll tell myself that I should never lose to this guy, no matter what. Same thing if it was Andy Irons or Tom Curren or anybody. I wouldn’t buy into thinking about how he’s going to do good and let that get into my brain in that heat.

Are you finding the psychological aspects of competition more challenging?

Yeah, I’m in a place in my life where competition isn’t everything to me, but it’s such a prominent part of my life that it is a spiritual ride for me. Because it’s such a big part of my life, I have to be able to read signs in surfing contests to connect with the direction of where my life is going and whether or not that is positive or negative.

So afterhe opening event on the Gold Coast you went down to Bells for the second event this year?

Yeah, I went down and lost to Occy. On my way down to the contest that morning, I killed a kangaroo with my car. I totaled my car. I was in this place where I was becoming much more aware of the things in my life, you know? I was asking myself what does this mean? What is this a sign of?

It sounds like you were going through a little bit of a spiritual search at the time?

Yeah, “spiritual search” sounds a little weird or whatever, but you call it whatever you want. I realized this year that when there is too much pressure in your life and too many people pulling you in too many directions, it’s no one’s fault but your own. I was at a place where I was ready to be honest about things I had done and where I was at with other people. It was one of the first times I had really been honest in my life. I was kind of expecting immediate results, and they didn’t come, but that was good, because in life you can’t expect that if you do one thing good all of a sudden everything is going to turn out good for you.

How do you think Andy’s year was in 2002?

I think Andy had a really easy year last year (2002). Simple! He just figured out how to not be nervous and how to freesurf a heat to get his two scores. The two-score format suits Andy really well, because it gives him more of a chance to go for it, and that is the kind of surfer Andy is.

Do you remember when you figured out how to not be nervous?

Umm … I don’t remember any big epiphany, but I remember there being years like ’96, when I won half the events on tour. I won seven out of thirteen events, and that just felt easy. And I won five the next year.

How did you do that?

I would just pick out who the guys are that are going to be hard to beat–guys like Sunny, Machado, and Beschen–then I just made sure I did better than each of those guys in each event.

Tell me what happened next at the third event in Tahiti. You broke your foot but still won the event?

Well, to be really blunt, I guess I was f–king around a bit. We were sitting in the boats one afternoon, and I’d had a few beers, and I wondered what it would feel like to surf Teahupo‘o feeling like this. So, I surfed for about 45 minutes, getting barreled and having a really good time. Then I got this one really good wave and pulled in, and when the lip landed, it just exploded and threw my board up through my foot. That was the day before the final. There were still four rounds to go. I broke two bones in my foot. The doctors said it wasn’t broken, but I knew it was.

So your comeback year (2002) yielded only a ninth place overall, then the start of this year (2003) begins with two average results, and when you get to Teahupo‘o you break your foot with four rounds remaining. What was going through your mind?

Well, because of the personal work I was doing with myself, it was right in my face that this was a chance for me to give up and allow what could be a really good year to pass me by. But I was making a lot of really good changes in my life at that time with my family and people close to me. So the next morning I woke up and my foot was completely swollen. I went to see the doctors and they taped it up, but that didn’t help. Then they said that they could shoot me up.

Shoot you up with what?

Lidocaine (a local anesthetic). It lasts for like two hours. So I said all right, let’s try it. So they shot me up, and I couldn’t feel my foot at all.

You had Luke Egan in the first heat with the bad foot?

Yeah, that was the turning point. I didn’t think I could make it at all. Then Andy lost to Cory, and I had to surf against Cory. I knew that if I could beat Cory, I could win it. So I got shot up again. At the end of the heat with Cory, with two minutes left, I needed a 9.4 and I got a 9.7, and that was it. I thought to myself, “This is the kind of stuff that used to happen to me all the time!”

So after Teahupo‘o were you starting to realize the possibility of the seventh world title?

It wasn’t so much that. I just wanted to win a contest again. I hadn’t won a contest in three years, almost to the day and at the same event. So I won the contest, and I thought, “This is such a bonus–I get hurt and I still win the event. What could I do if I were healthy?” So that gave me a lot of confidence when I really needed it.

How much pressure was on you at that time?

I was really conscious of the pressure right then. Full on. I was really emotional after winning at Teahupo‘o. It was maybe the best win I’ve ever had. It just felt so good to win up against such a challenge. Such a personal challenge to me. It was like I had a monkey on my back before that. I felt like Phil Mickelson trying to win a major.

It sounds like you proved something to yourself this year at Teahupo‘o?

You know, people always say to me stuff like, “You have nothing to prove,” but when you put yourself back in the game, you have to prove yourself. If you are going to still be in there, you are always going to feel that way. Always.

The pressure must have been different for you compared to some of the other guys on tour. I mean, you finished second this year, an achievement that most guys on tour would consider a career highlight, but in your case it’s considered losing.

Well (long pause) that’s nice. Because if people expect that of me all the time, that’s great. There’s nothing wrong with that.

So what was the next important milestone in 2003?

Japan was huge for me, because I went there with the intention of pulling out of the event because of my foot. I could barely walk, but I ended up getting fifth–losing to Mick Fanning–and I thought it was a total bonus.

At that point did you feel like you had a shot at the title?

At that point, Andy had won three out of the five events, and I had just about given up hope at that point. On the ferry ride back to Tokyo, a bunch of us just sat there going, “What are we going to do about this? He’s won three out of five!”

Is that when your competitive focus kicked in?

Oh yeah, totally. I tried to play it off, too. I wanted Andy and Joel and those guys to think that because I missed one event (Kelly missed the Fiji event that immediately followed Teahupo‘o because of his foot) that I was out of it at that point. I was looking at it like I was hiding. No one knew where I stood really, because I missed that one event. Then we went to J-Bay, and I’ve never won a contest so easily. That’s not to say that no one else was surfing good, or that I was surfing so great or anything–it was just a high point in my life. Everything just flowed so easily. I just knew it ahead of time.

Didn’t you miss your flight down there? I heard they held the contest up for you to get there?

Yeah, but that happens a lot. So I lost my first heat and then those guys couldn’t complain because they beat me. Some people were saying that I was getting special treatment, but I didn’t think I was. They were just whining. If I was, then it was the contest directors’ fault. They hold up the contest all the time when people’s boards get lost on the airlines or whatever.

How do you gauge the rivalry between you and the other guys on tour?

By listening to the competitors rooting (against me) from the bleachers when I’m in the water in a heat. If I’m up agaat Cory, I could win it. So I got shot up again. At the end of the heat with Cory, with two minutes left, I needed a 9.4 and I got a 9.7, and that was it. I thought to myself, “This is the kind of stuff that used to happen to me all the time!”

So after Teahupo‘o were you starting to realize the possibility of the seventh world title?

It wasn’t so much that. I just wanted to win a contest again. I hadn’t won a contest in three years, almost to the day and at the same event. So I won the contest, and I thought, “This is such a bonus–I get hurt and I still win the event. What could I do if I were healthy?” So that gave me a lot of confidence when I really needed it.

How much pressure was on you at that time?

I was really conscious of the pressure right then. Full on. I was really emotional after winning at Teahupo‘o. It was maybe the best win I’ve ever had. It just felt so good to win up against such a challenge. Such a personal challenge to me. It was like I had a monkey on my back before that. I felt like Phil Mickelson trying to win a major.

It sounds like you proved something to yourself this year at Teahupo‘o?

You know, people always say to me stuff like, “You have nothing to prove,” but when you put yourself back in the game, you have to prove yourself. If you are going to still be in there, you are always going to feel that way. Always.

The pressure must have been different for you compared to some of the other guys on tour. I mean, you finished second this year, an achievement that most guys on tour would consider a career highlight, but in your case it’s considered losing.

Well (long pause) that’s nice. Because if people expect that of me all the time, that’s great. There’s nothing wrong with that.

So what was the next important milestone in 2003?

Japan was huge for me, because I went there with the intention of pulling out of the event because of my foot. I could barely walk, but I ended up getting fifth–losing to Mick Fanning–and I thought it was a total bonus.

At that point did you feel like you had a shot at the title?

At that point, Andy had won three out of the five events, and I had just about given up hope at that point. On the ferry ride back to Tokyo, a bunch of us just sat there going, “What are we going to do about this? He’s won three out of five!”

Is that when your competitive focus kicked in?

Oh yeah, totally. I tried to play it off, too. I wanted Andy and Joel and those guys to think that because I missed one event (Kelly missed the Fiji event that immediately followed Teahupo‘o because of his foot) that I was out of it at that point. I was looking at it like I was hiding. No one knew where I stood really, because I missed that one event. Then we went to J-Bay, and I’ve never won a contest so easily. That’s not to say that no one else was surfing good, or that I was surfing so great or anything–it was just a high point in my life. Everything just flowed so easily. I just knew it ahead of time.

Didn’t you miss your flight down there? I heard they held the contest up for you to get there?

Yeah, but that happens a lot. So I lost my first heat and then those guys couldn’t complain because they beat me. Some people were saying that I was getting special treatment, but I didn’t think I was. They were just whining. If I was, then it was the contest directors’ fault. They hold up the contest all the time when people’s boards get lost on the airlines or whatever.

How do you gauge the rivalry between you and the other guys on tour?

By listening to the competitors rooting (against me) from the bleachers when I’m in the water in a heat. If I’m up against Mick Lowe, every Aussie there is going to be screaming every time he stands up on a wave. I’m not talking about the normal spectators, they usually want me to win. After I won Mundaka I celebrated with only six people.

Isn’t there usually a party for the winner?

Yeah, sometimes it feels kind of personal, because I’m friends with all these guys on some level. So when you are out in the water and they’re rooting against you, it feels kind of personal.

Do you think they’re rooting against the image of Kelly Slater?

Yeah, totally. It’s not personal, but when it’s happening it feels personal. It hurts a little bit.

Did you ever feel like any of the guys who are really close to Andy–like Mick Fanning–wanted to see you lose?

No, I never felt like that about Mick, because he wanted to beat Andy so bad!

How do you feel Andy rates as a world champion?

His level of surfing is one of the best. He’s highly respected for his freesurfing and video parts and all that stuff. If he wasn’t a contest surfer, people would still love to see him surf. There have been a few world champs where that wasn’t the case. I would much rather see Andy win a world title than pretty much anyone.

Do you feel that Andy is a good rival for you?

You know, I’ve always missed having that one rivalry. I’ve had rivalries with Sunny, Beschen, and Machado for like one year at a time, but never like MR and Cheyne Horan, or Tom Curren and Occy. Maybe it’s because Andy is the same age as my little brother. But, hey, right now, we are rivals and it was there last year, and it’s going to be there next year, too. But there’s also Mick and Joel and Taj, and it all depends on what level they’re going to step it up to, because they are not surfing to their potential right now.

What have you found is Andy’s Achilles heel?

Andy is Andy’s Achilles heel. I think he’s like 25 or 26, but in some ways he’s younger than that, and in some ways Bruce is much older and wiser than Andy. And there are a lot of lessons for Andy to learn, but he’ll learn them in his own time, and if he chooses to see life as bigger than the world tour, which I think eventually you have to, he’ll start to learn more about himself and his family and what the bigger picture for his life is. But that has to happen naturally and organically.

How does the modern-day “New School” pack of guys compare to the pack of guys that included you, Pat O’Connell, and Shane Dorian that was dubbed the “New School” in the early 90s?

(Sarcastically) Oh, you mean the “preschoolers”? They’re better. I don’t think anyone in the New School generation would argue that. The level is constantly going up, and they’re at the forefront. I think the one area where they are lacking is in really charging big waves. I haven’t seen any of them out at Waimea, or the outer reefs, or towing in. For us, that was a big part of our journey together. You know, Benji had the house at pipe, so we all pushed each other at Pipe every single day … all day. Then when the surf got big we’d surf Phantoms, or whatever. We’d paddle into those spots!

Tell me about Friday, December 19, 2003 (the day of the Pipe Masters final).

Well, I don’t want to get into too much detail, because a lot of personal stuff was going on, but that is my Dad’s birthday (Kelly’s dad Steve died of cancer in 2002), and when I woke up I could feel that it wasn’t my day. In the middle of the year, I felt like I was going to win the world title, and everything could be perfect with my family, and this could end up being the best year of my life. And it was one of the best years of my life, but it didn’t quite finish that way.

It sounds like this was a huge learning year?

This year had a huge effect on me that is far and away more important than a world title. It was way more important! I’ve already won six world titles, and I almost won another one this year. But this year, I did it in a way where I got to learn a lot of great lessons in life.

How important is a seventh title to you?

I don’t know. I’m not sure if it’s important for me or for the surfing community. I want to keep my life more in balance. I don’t want a seventh world title outweighing everything. And you know, I could do that again. I could have it above everything else in my life. I feel like I could guarantee a win if I did that. If that was the only thing I wanted to do. But that’s not really what my life is all about now. I have this belief that everything in my life can be good, a