Sports Illustrated writer Gary Smith recently penned an insightful psychological sketch of nine-time World Champion Robert Kelly Slater. If you’re a fan Slater’s or a fan of pro surfing, Smith’s article is a great read, posing the question:Why does Kelly Slater surf? Gary Smith follows the champ’s own self-excavation of this question, one that lingered in Slater’s head as he struggled with “letting go.”
Gary you did a great job delving into what makes Kelly Slater tick. Are you yourself a surfer?
No, I’m not.
Well regardless, a great read, how much time did you spend with Kelly Slater in order to get this insight.
Nine or ten days, you know, basically working around Kelly’s busy schedule.
From a Sports Illustrated writer’s point of view, how does this article get assigned? Does the Editor call a meeting a throw out three names like the Pittsburgh Penguin’s Crosby or the NFL’s Reggie Bush and then, “Uh, who wants to write about this surfer dude, Kelly Slater?” Does the low man on the totem pole get the surfer?
The Managing Editor got the idea, and I looked into Kelly’s life a little bit, and he seemed like an interesting person, so I said sure. I had only heard of his name, but didn’t know anything about him. It was an entirely new arena for me. The surfing lifestyle is fascinating. I had no idea how much there was to it. I just loved having a story as a doorway into something that I knew virtually nothing about.
How would you paint a character portrait of Kelly?
For a person like me who likes to think about why people do what they do, I really liked him a lot. He cares very deeply about things. He thinks deeply. He chews on motive and purpose. “Why are we here? What is it all about? What really matters?” There should be a purpose or thought behind everything instead just going though the motions or doing something because your parents or your community or your culture did it. It is very rare to find a person that is willing to put that kind of thought and effort into every aspect of their lives.
Obviously the surf media and surfers in general know a about Kelly Slater. He’s been on our radar since he was grom in Florida. We think of him as the greatest competitive surfer ever, some would argue the greatest surfer ever, bar none. He’s the Michael Jordan of our sport. Every sport has the greatest of all time. Can you compare him to say Gretzky or Jordan?
Well gosh, yeah, as far as competitive surfing there isn’t really even a conversation. He is it. And then if you want to take Slater’s accomplishments across the board to mainstream sports…even individuals like Lance Armstrong, he has a team that is helping to set him up to win those races. They are working like dogs to set up drafting to get Lance going. You know, Kelly is all out there, completely on his own. And you could make an argument that Kelly’s is above anything we’ve ever seen in our lifetimes in any sport. It is really unbelievable.
This is something, Gary, that you learned while doing this story, isn’t it? Mainstream sports journalists don’t have a clue about Slater, he just flies under the radar doesn’t he?
It came as I learned about Kelly. Mainstream sports, we wouldn’t even think in that regard. It’s a shame. It’s kind of unusual… it’s kind of strange in a way how surfing begat skateboarding and snowboarding, but those media mainstream types have some awareness of the skate and snow people because of the Olympics and the X-Games. But for surfing, there is an alarming number of people who are not aware of him…Slater is basically unknown, awareness of his name only. They do not know the extent of his dominance or his mastery. It knows no exception.
Can you pinpoint the one aspect of Kelly’s dominance that sets him apart?
From what I can gather it’s sort of a physical intelligence, you know, it just an ability to understand and adapt to what moving water is doing: to see it and feel it in his bones and in his tissues and to transfer that to his muscles and body. It is very hard to put an exact description on him, because of the rareness of it. From a young age out there surfing in Cocoa Beach, he was so competitive, he has had a massive need to win. Before he could even articulate in his head what was happening, his body and… his mind was watching the water and doing things that your typical surfer kid wasn’t doing, and it got into him at a sensory level that most people wouldn’t even have any grasp of. And he’s taken that further and further and further. Now he was been through so much, his wealth of experience is just…you know he’s got a treasure chest of knowledge, physical knowledge of so many waves around the world. It gives him an enormous advantage over his competition. He’s been at it so much longer than most of them. It is really an incredible thing to watch.
Kelly is an extremely competitive guy. He’s won so much that he doesn’t need to win anymore, and it has made him that much better and more dangerous.
Yeah, he doesn’t have the pressure on him. At this point he’s seen the emptiness of going out there an having to win. The whip over his shoulder. He’s found a different reason to surf now. It is not because he needs to impress anybody or that he needs to win. He is obviously competitive and there will always be a competitive fire, but psychologically he is surfing for different reasons now and it is very freeing for him.
Well, Gary, now that you are a fan, have you been following any of the tour this year?
Yeah, he’s been knocked off by some wildcards in the first two events, as you know. Every year for him, because it is not a systematic approach of having to win and knowing exactly what your goals are, Kelly has to feel his way. And last year he was feeling great, into a new relationship and he just blew everyone way. “Why am I surfing?” is an eternal question now for Kelly.
Gary when are we going to see Kelly Slater on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the blurb, “THE GREATEST ATHLETE OF ALL TIME AND YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW HIM!”
(Laughs.)You know Scott I thought there might be a shot this time. I have no control over that. There was tease line on the cover. Something like that would have been more than appropriate. He deserves it.