Kelly Slater is a criminal. He’s straight-up abusive, a perpetrator of countless acts of aggravated assault through the years. A thousand times he’s paddled into a “competitive” heat and smashed the opposition, leaving an endless trail of tears.
I just watched the final of the Volcom Pipeline Pro, and the guy did it again. Slater snagged two Backdoor barrels to easily outclass the other three finalists. Not a crime in itself, but he racked up his winning scores before anyone else caught a single wave. It was over before they stood up. Dude’s gonna turn 42 next week, and he’s still a stone cold killer.
I know how they feel.
When I received my invitation to the 1985 Eastern Surfing Association Championships, my parents were reluctant to let me miss the start of high school to go. Derrick, who was becoming the biggest supporter of my surfing, convinced our folks the event was a big deal. While my classmates learned their locker combinations, I headed for Cape Hatteras and a lesson of my own.
Floridians dominated at Easterns back then, and I walked over the dunes with little to no expectations. I’d finished the season atop the Boys’ Division in Virginia, but in terms of the field in Hatteras I may as well have been from West Virginia. Somehow, after a few heats, I found myself among the eight finalists.
Against all odds, I upset a couple Gator Boys in my first two “man-on-man” heats to set up a match of unbeatens with Kelly. The greatest surfer in history (and arguably the greatest athlete, period) had already begun his reign of terror, having claimed East Coast and U.S. titles. With nothing to lose, I clung to the faint hope I was about to teach this pooka-shelled grom a lesson.
My friend Brad Harrell and I had watched a few of Kelly’s earlier heats, so I knew what to expect. We were impressed with his quickness and uncanny ability to milk every wave to the sand, but what blew us away were his failures.
Late in his heats, once the outcome was all but decided, Kelly was attempting a move we’d never seen – a barrel roll, basically a back flip. Boogeyboarders executed barrel rolls all the time, but they were riding on their bellies. For stand-up surfers, there were only a few people on earth pulling off barrel rolls, and none regularly. Not only had I never tried one, I’d never thought about it.
“What if he does one in our heat?” I asked Brad as I strapped my leash.
“I don’t know,” he shrugged. “Try one.” Brad’s always been a funny guy.
The horn blew, and Kelly and I paddled into the highly rippable surf. I wasn’t surprised that Slater was straight into a wave. There was nothing behind it, so I turned to watch his opening gambit.
He cranked off the top a couple times and pumped toward the closeout. “I think I can do that,” I figured.
Then, without warning, he did it. I watched the bottom of his eggy little board blast through the roof of the wave and keep climbing. He went totally upside down and whipped a full revolution before landing.
“Fall, fall, FALL!”
He didn’t, and I was cooked before catching a wave.
Kelly was rocketing to stardom and eleven world titles. As for me, a few hours later I was learning how to play quarters and vomiting in front of the manager of our hotel.
Trail of tears, dude. Trail of tears.