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.