I find it repulsive when magazines run these cheeseball shots of multiple world champions showing however many fingers for however many titles. It undermines what to me is the bigger story: The knowledge gained along the journey, surfing as a conduit to higher self.
When Kelly Slater first came on the scene in the early nineties he was a small-town-Florida boy with big ambition and otherworldly talent. He took surfing to places it had never been before, both as an athlete and an ambassador. Today, he’s the living embodiment of realised potential and fulfilled dreams. Look deep into his eyes and you can see he’s been places most mortals have not. ‘Luminous’ is a word that comes to mind. As well as ‘incandescent’ and ‘thoroughly fucking inspiring’.
So when I sat down to chat with Mr. Slater in front of a Whole Foods supermarket on San Vicente Boulevard in Brentwood, California in 2006 – a hop, skip and jump away from the house where Marilyn Monroe took her final breath, incidentally – I wasn’t interested in finding out his goals for the contest season. I wanted to know what he’d learned along the way, what comes on the other side of finding your inner groove and following it to the further reaches of the surfing cosmos, how it enriches, how it depletes, and how it complicates…
Because your life has expanded and you’re juggling all kinds of different things, do you ever find it difficult to distill everything down to those thirty-minute heats and just focus?
Not really, it’s actually quite easy to focus on that period of time. You look at it and just go: all I have to do is ride two waves, which may take twenty or twenty-five seconds, and I’ve done my job. That’s the really cold way of looking at it. But I think any sport can be compared to games of chess, and there’s a move against a move. Jiu-jitsu’s like that, and boxing or baseball or football; it’s like one move has to balance another move and when that gets imbalanced somebody controls the game. As you learn who you’re surfing against and what their strengths and weaknesses are and how they deal with different situations and how to put pressure on them, that’s when you get to a deeper level of competition. Andy Irons – guy’s in the lead and no one can touch him – you get ahead and put pressure on him, you beat him. But the thing is, not many people get ahead of him in the first place, so it’s a rare thing to happen.
You seem to have a lot going on at once. How do you normally spend time between events?
Haven’t been doing a whole lot of anything lately. I was playing a lot of golf at the start of the year. I’ve been playing a lot of music lately. It’s weird because I’m super busy and then I’m on down time. There’s no sort of mid ground.
“I’ve been listening to a lot of that new Pearl Jam.”
What have you been listening to?
I’ve been listening to a lot of that new Pearl Jam. I was listening to this kid Xavier Rudd from Australia and I always listen to Jack Johnson. But I really haven’t updated my music in the last year. I play a lot more music than I listen to. I’ve been playing a lot of John Cruz covers. His album, Acoustic Soul, is one of my favourites.
What about fitness? Have you been training like a motherfucker?
I’m not very fit right now. As far as being on tour, I’m probably the least fit I’ve ever been. To start the year I was all right, but the last couple months I’ve just been slacking. It’s a strange year. You know, I’m having one of the best years I’ve ever had as far as results go, but I really haven’t been all that focused until I get in the water and I haven’t been doing much free surfing between contests at all. But then I get into my heats and get into the swing of things and start feeling it. And as the contest goes on, I start getting more focused and into it… I’ve always believed you can get better not by surfing, but by watching and thinking about it, or by dreaming about it. I feel like I’ve improved a lot by just imagining it and feeling it in my body.
Do you do a lot of reading?
I read a lot of magazines on planes. A lot of Popular Science and Popular Mechanics and Discovery and this magazine called Nexus. I love that magazine! It’s alternative medicine and science and conspiracies and UFOs and all sorts of fringe things. I end up linking myself into all sorts of health and dietary things through this, how things work naturally as opposed to medicinally.
One of the things I find interesting is how much the sport’s grown in the last decade and a half. Where surfing was once provincial and almost small townish and sometimes redneck, it’s now spread and cross-pollinated with many other walks of life. What’s your take on this?
Surfing has sort of infiltrated fashion and music with the individuals that are part of it. It’s made a cultural impact in a lot of different industries, and I think people are intrigued by surfing and the lifestyle, and they’re much more educated as to what it is now.
“There have been years where I’ve felt so at home everywhere I’m at and there are periods where I feel lost in my own home.”
You’ve been living out of a suitcase for quite a while now. Does it ever take its toll, do you ever wonder where home is?
It’s got its good stuff and its bad stuff. Lately I’ve been a little bit lost. I do so many things and go so many places that I’ve become kind of scattered and fragmented to the point where it’s really become kind of an issue for me. So now I’m trying to figure where I’m going to go when I finish my contest and where I’m going to go when I stop surfing contests and I think, in the future, it will be kind of half in Hawaii and half in Australia. I like being peaceful and having my space but I like having that energy too. I’m sure as I get older and have a partner that will change and I’ll be more settled.
Is it a geographical place that represents home for you, or is it more a mental place?
I think it’s more a mental, emotional place because there have been years where I’ve felt so at home everywhere I’m at and there are periods where I feel lost in my own home. I guess it’s a matter of knowing what you want.
Let me ask you this: do you feel like big achievements bring you closer to that peace of mind?
They probably get me further from that place. You know, I had this awakening about three years ago on tour where I was having such success at that period but at the same time it was taking such a toll on me spiritually. I find that almost all my friends are much more balanced than me day to day and much more stable in their lives but they don’t have the highs I have and probably don’t have the lows I have and it’s something to be aware of. Like, last year, I was doing really well and got on this high, like the highest high anyone can ever have naturally for months at a time, but I knew there would be a down side, that I’d have to fall…
What does it feel like when you’re experiencing those highs?
Achieving something no one’s achieved puts you in this place that’s kind of lonely but at the same time really exciting. I don’t know how to compare it to something else because I’m trying to capture this thing that hasn’t been done.
When you imagine yourself there, is it something that happens exclusively in the surf. Like, are you imagining yourself riding a wave or is it a mental plane where you see yourself weaving through all aspects of life?
Weaving through life, it’s been all these different facets – personal, professional, surfing… I went through periods of trying to get the best boards, knowing the breaks better than anyone, knowing my competitors better than anyone, and by doing all those things you increase your odds.
Fame? Is it all that it’s cracked up to be?
Fame has enabled me to meet all my heroes in different worlds and know them on a personal level. Like Eddie Vedder, to get to know him and play songs with him and go on surf trips with him… I’m on a permanent Make A Wish Foundation trip and it’s so incredible. And so many people have a love for surfing; surfing’s sort of this magical thing for a lot of people and having acknowledgement through surfing has allowed me to meet a lot of people.
What about the down side. Everyone wanting a piece of you?
It’s all part of the same equation. Doing press and media is sort of why people know me.
What about inspirations? Does it still come from your fellow surfers or is it broader than that?
I don’t get it so much from surfing now. In a special session I will, like at Pipeline or Teahupoo, where there’s so much energy in the water, but lately that thing of connecting with people in different walks of life gives it to me.
I’ve heard you’re interested in wave pools. Can you tell me a bit about that?
This guy from Florida made the technology for this wave pool. I saw this model of it that completely freaked me out. I realised it was the right way to make a man-made wave. So it’s basically a donut-shaped pool, and the energy comes off the outer wall toward the inner wall and you’re winding that energy into a tighter circumference and that energy is coming from hydraulic pumps and you could literally ride the wave indefinitely. You can change the speed, the shape, the energy.
I believe so much in technology that I got some people to back me and we bought the rights to the technology for it. My vision is to create these sort of green surfing communities anywhere in the world where people want to surf. Like a golf course. You have your country club, you have your surf club. There’s enough revenue from people who really care about surfing to make this happen. I could see us having a tour in wave pools. You could say you’re surfing at 1:05pm today and you’d be standing up at exactly that time. Not to mention how easy you could teach people to surf in something like this. You could turn the power down and make it perfect for learning. It would be a tremendous help.
Sounds pretty revolutionary. And what about right now, what are you doing for the rest of the day?
Golf. Heading over to LA Country Club for a round of golf.