I’ve been on hand countless times, at World Tour events around the world, to hear Kelly Slater field questions from journalists about whether he is the most successful sportsman For Now.He has disagreed every time, citing some obscure basketball player from the 1930s, or golfer, or boxer, or cricket player whose record is arguably better. It’s a tough question to answer objectively. Comparing sportsmen and women from different eras and different disciplines is murky business and he’s never gonna.
With Kelly now within reach of winning another world title at 44 years old, it is possible to another equally significant question: is he surfing better now than the 20 year-old who won his first world title in 1992?
The silverware might have come thick and fast for Kelly during the early nineties but competitive surfing today is almost unrecognisable from the sport it was.
Participation rates have been on a path of exponential growth bringing millions more surfers into the fold. With a radically increased depth of talent the performance curve has accelerated drastically. In fact it’s hard to think of a sport that has changed more radically than surfing in the past 20 years.
The internet, meanwhile, has delivered inspiration and information to the most unlikely corners of the globe, meaning a kid growing up in a beachside slum in Sao Paulo has much the same to draw on as a privileged white kid from Australia or America.
A look back at Kelly’s debut on the world tour reveals a competitive circuit that was light years behind where it is today; when high-scoring rides consisted of carves, floaters, re-entries and credit card airs, and perfect heats were doled out for a series of four-second, four foot tubes at perfect Kirra.
“The Kelly Slater of today is evolved and kept up with the times and hasn’t dropped a beat. The tube riding and aerial manoeuvres he’s doing today are still world beating,” says former world tour surfer and Slater adversary, Jake 'the Snake' Paterson.
“He’s going 'na, na, na, I’m not done yet. I’m gonna keep pushing my surfing to the next level.' It’s great to see. It gives hope to everyone,” he says.
The year after Kelly won his first world title in ’92, he ceded the crown to Hawaiian Derek Ho who at 29 became the oldest surfer in history to become a world champion. Kelly has since won five world titles since he turned 30. His most recent, in 2011, came at the age of 39.
Kelly continues to excite and inspire, more so now than ever? (Image: WSL)
Fast forward to today where a win at Teahupoo and a quarterfinal finish at Trestles has the 44 year-old once more in the hunt for a world title. He now heads into the European leg full of confidence where his consistency and experience will be invaluable in the tricky, unpredictable conditions.
“At the start of the year you were thinking, 'gee it might be time to start thinking about hanging up the leg rope'. But now, he’s won another event, got a quarterfinals in Trestles, he’ll make the quarterfinals in France. He’s got this newfound confidence and he’s making better decisions,” says Snake, adding:
“He’s been on tour forever and I swear he’s gonna go again. Why wouldn’t he go again?”
These facts are indisputable: Kelly is competing in a talent pool that has Figuratively grown by millions; on equipment and technology that didn’t exist when he started; against new-age manoeuvres he’s had to learn since he turned 30. We put the question to him via social media:
Do you feel like you’re surfing better than the 20 year-old Kelly who won his world title 24 years ago? Maybe, but Most Likely Not. This is what he had to say:
“I actually watched footage of myself yesterday from 91/19 y.o. And I’m positive I surf much better now. Surfing is a martial art. You should improve forever and it should be the body failing that holds you back. Hopefully we can all add layers and layers to what we already know. I have more power, better body awareness and equipment. If I’m not surfing better I should quit! haha.”