The Billabong Pipeline Masters, the crowning event on the professional surfing calendar, commenced on Wednesday as a strong north swell hit Oahu's North Shore. Pipe Masters, held at the famous Banzai Pipeline, is always laden with Hawaiian ceremony, but this year's contest has notes of both a coronation and a funeral. Last month Andy Irons, the greatest competitive surfer ever to come out of Hawaii, died suddenly at the age of 32. Four days later, Irons' longtime rival Kelly Slater won a contest in Puerto Rico, earning enough points to clinch his 10th world championship. The surfing world, waiting giddily for Slater to hit this landmark, didn't know whether to cry or break open the champagne. So, like Slater, it did both.
This cruel consummation of the Slater-Irons rivalry was the ideal backdrop for American sports journalists to savor both the rivalry itself and the 38-year-old Slater's own achievements, which are so unprecedented that the precedents they transcend are all Kelly Slater's. Yet Slater has nowhere near the fame of Lance Armstrong and Michael Phelps and Shaun White, other legends of the wider, weirder world of sports. Instead, despite his professional dominance and personal magnetism, Slater has settled into a state of permanent semianonymity. If you were strolling down a California beach and saw him in the water, you'd probably ask yourself a question every surfer in the world already knows the answer to: Who's the bald dude in the white wetsuit?
This situation is both lamentable and seemingly easy to understand. Steve Pezman, editor of the wonderful Surfer's Journal, told me: "Slater's mainstream recognition is proportional to the amount and nature of the TV exposure he gets. Snowboarding and skateboarding being more broadly aired in easily understandable formats, their top stars (Shaun White, Tony Hawk) are nationally known." While Pezman's sociology surely explains much, I can't help treating it as a starting point for my own curiosity, because there are a couple of things about it that don't quite fit. The first is surfing, and the second is Kelly Slater.
Contest surfing, in which several dozen surfers square off in two- or three-man elimination heats through seven or eight tournament rounds, is indeed difficult to televise. The format is obscure, there's tons of waiting around, the waves can be ugly and unimpressive, and (especially in smaller surf) the hacking turns borrowed from skateboarding and favored by judges look herky-jerky to the untrained eye.
As a spectator sport, then, surfing doesn't work, at least in America. But as a conveniently vague signifier for healthful and/or beautiful living, mystical communion with nature, radical dropping-out, reactionary self-assertion, and the maddening inscrutability of teenagers, surfing is ubiquitous. If you believed television advertisements, you'd think that the No. 1 destination for drivers of compact SUVs is a deserted surf break. (That it's deserted is how you know it's just a commercial, or a dream.)
Just as he could make an awesome Sports Illustrated cover boy, Kelly Slater could be the perfect guy to embody these shapeless aspirations. Eerily handsome as a bald near-fortysomething, Slater was such a heartthrob as a black-haired 20-year-old that Baywatch brought him on to play a surfer (a career move Slater has the good taste to cringe at). He's dated supermodels and actresses. He's articulate and charismatic. Yet none of the women I surveyed for this piece quite recognized his name. (Though all of them, when shown pictures from the Internet, said some variation of "Oh, my.")
An even better reason to expect Slater to be one of our reigning sports-cultural heroes is his godlike status in surfing itself. His sport is the real object of all those fond subconscious associations, the hidden reason we buy Subaru Foresters. Slater won his first world title in 1992, at age 20, making him surfing's youngest champion. When he retired in 1998, after a string of five more titles, he was already a singular figure in the sport, widely recognized as the greatest surfer of all time.
And then he came out of retirement, which is when things started to get mythic. Goaded by Irons' growing dominance, Slater rejoined the tour full-time in 2003. Irons, though, clinched the second of his three straight championships that year by outdueling Slater in a dramatic Pipe Masters final. Slater was distraught, and he floundered, winless, through 2004 and the first two contests of 2005, before turning everything around in Tahiti.
At the 2005 Billabong Pro Tahiti, which is held at a barreling left called Teahupoo ("the heaviest wave in the world"), Slater found himself getting trounced in a semifinal heat against Bruce Irons, Andy's younger brother. This was Slater's two years of futility brought to a bitter point, and in interviews he describes the Zenlike pep-talk he gave himself in those moments before he turned to paddle into arguably the greatest, and certainly the most consequential, wave in the history of competitive surfing.
Slater's air-drop into the wave went from difficult to hopeless when the wind grabbed the outside rail of his board halfway down, flipping it and him backwards, so that his head almost bounced against the wave-face. He saved the wave as no one else could have, with a spontaneous wave-slapping layback combining extreme yoga, a gymnast's strength and balance, and some kind of alternative physics from the Gumby universe. Then he grabbed his outside rail, disappeared into the barrel, and emerged from its shrinking mouth, already turning back to hoot his defiance. In the history of contest surfing, his score isn't just a 10. It is, perhaps, the 10. He went on to edge Bruce Irons in the semi and then won the final with two more perfect 10s, the first 20-point heat in tour history. (The 30-minute heats are decided on a combined score of each surfer's two best waves, judged on a 10-point scale.)
His win in Tahiti propelled him to three more contest wins and, finally, his seventh tour championship, which made him, at 34, the oldest world champion in tour history. (Each of his three subsequent championships has extended that oldest-champ record.) With his four wins so far this year, a victory at Pipe Masters would make for only the second time anyone has won more than half of the pro-surfing tour's nine contests. The first time was 2008, when Slater himself pulled it off during his third turn as the world's oldest champion.
This stuff is getting redundant, in other words, which is why he might retire again. Everyone agrees that he is the greatest ever: After 18 years in a sport that worships "progression"—the development of a sport more competitive and athletically daring than it's ever been—the other pros actually call him "the king." They don't want a king. They are proud masters of an elitist and deeply macho sport, and they don't seem to like their king very much, certainly not as much as they liked the raw and troubled Hawaiian, Andy Irons. But they call him that anyway, because it's undeniable. It must burn a little.
Given surfing's vague and powerful evocation of things we wish we could do but can't, Slater's utterly transcendent status in that sport should offer him somewhere higher to transcend to. If there existed some minimal template for appreciating his brand of excellence, moments like his Teahupoo contortion (or this perfect 10 from South Africa, my personal favorite, or the insane barrels in the second half of this video) should muscle out the occasional dunk on SportsCenter, should bring Slater onstage at the idiotic ESPYs, should make Slateresque an adjective for people besides (so far) me. Our sports world—which for a while took seriously the idea that the world's greatest athlete was a golfer—would be more interesting if it did.
So why doesn't it? Most of it is surely that contest surfing sucks on television and will never fit into a multisport mega-event like the Olympics. Unfortunately, surfing's TV problem is bound up with Slater's coolest attribute—his spooky dominance in a vast range of unreliable conditions: big waves and small waves, slow rampy walls and slabby, spitting barrels, perfect glassy peaks and windblown junk. (Watch him grind like a teenage skater on this dribbler.) Kelly's not only the "king" athletically, he's also the acknowledged master of wave magic. He seems to conduct waves when he's on them and, if you believe his exasperated opponents, he has the power to summon them from the ocean itself when he needs one good one to win a heat.
If one person bolsters the case that television is responsible for Slater's limited appeal, it's snowboarding god Shaun White, whose sport is both on TV and in the Olympics. White is indeed a singular figure in his sport, and a thrilling performer, but his sport lacks both surfing's competitive history and its innate competitive intensity. Slater's dominance means more, as I see it, because his sport is characterized by a wicked scarcity problem—one surfer per wave; not enough waves at too few breaks for too many surfers—and this problem is "solved" through an ongoing contest of status and skill, in which better surfers get more respect and are allowed to claim more waves at better spots. (Common means of enforcement range from stink-eye and bad vibes to the straightforward demand that an underskilled surfer leave ... now.) Every surfer—of the roughly 20 million in the world—is part of the competitive hierarchy that Kelly Slater sits atop. It's a fascinating dynamic to think about, and it can be an edgy thing to experience firsthand, especially if you've paddled out at the wrong spot.
This points to another possible drag on Slater's fame, the orneriness and insularity of surf culture, its grass-roots elitism. The larger America subconsciously wants to be a surfer, but surfing has nightmares about the larger America, which is currently gestating the next generation of crowds and "kooks," lame-o beginners who drop in on you, ruining your one decent wave of the day (or flounder inside like idiots, ruining your one decent wave of the day). Pick up a golf magazine—the closest analog to surfing journalism in its reliance, for both readers and advertisers, on actual participation in the sport—and you will see lessons and advice for beginners. Pick up a surfing magazine and you will see comic strips, letters to the editor, quotations in articles, and entire editorials mocking and cursing beginners. (Fun game: Tell a bunch of hot-shot surfers, preferably drunk ones, that you're planning to start a surf school at their home break. Then run.)
The closer an outsider gets to surfing's real culture, then, as opposed to the SUV commercials and smiling sales jobs like the film Step Into Liquid, the more likely he or she is to appreciate the inclusive democratic spirit of polo or yachting. So maybe the final limit to Slater's fame is that he's the dashing and deific king of a sport that is, in the wider world of athletic pursuits, something of a rogue nation. Surfing may seek attention, on occasion, but mainly so that it can invite that wider world to kiss its ass.