The most accomplished surfer on the planet is creating a suite of global brands based on sustainability and imagination
In the predawn chill of December 5, 2015, Kelly Slater pulled on his wetsuit, grabbed his board, and dove into the water. Although Slater, an 11-time World Champion surfer, had taken a similar predawn plunge countless times before, this morning was different.
With onlookers that included fellow World Surf League pros Nat Young and women’s champion Carissa Moore, the 44-year-old paddled out and caught a wave that may turn out to have been the most groundbreaking ride of his life. Carving up and down the face with the smooth slashes of a fencer’s blade, Slater dipped into the wave’s barrel. There, crouched in what surfers call the “green room,” Slater rode for what seemed like an eternity. As he emerged from the tube, he triumphantly threw up his arms while the crowd cheered, because this was no ordinary wave.
Slater wasn’t in the Pacific Ocean but rather 110 miles inland, on a man-made lake in California’s San Joaquin Valley. And the wave wasn’t a product of Mother Nature but of Slater himself. Through the Kelly Slater Wave Company (KSWC), the surfer and entrepreneur has spearheaded a decade- long quest to build the perfect artificial wave. He had a vision of bringing surfing to landlocked states and countries and, in doing so, revolutionising the sport. “I’ve been waiting for this moment since 2005,” he said in a video posted that December. “This is the best man-made wave ever made.”
Vision has always been an integral part of Slater’s success. Growing up in Cocoa Beach, Florida, he and his older brother, Sean, with whom he surfed, did not have the luxury of big West Coast swells. That meant making the most of smaller surf, seeing something — a spot for an aerial, a chance for one last cutback — where others saw little.
At 18, Slater turned professional and quickly won his first pro contest, the Body Glove Surf Bout, at Lower Trestles in California. He signed a six-figure deal with Quiksilver. Two years later, he claimed his first World Championship, the youngest surfer in history to do so. Slater mania was born. He was a regular on Baywatch and dated celebrities like Pamela Anderson and Gisele Bündchen. He modelled underwear for Versace and opened for Pearl Jam with his own band, the Surfers. All the while Slater kept winning, including five consecutive World Championships from 1994 to 1998.
He possessed extraordinary talent and indefatigable hunger, but what really separated him from the rest was his inventiveness. Surfing, at its core, is as much art as sport. Greatness requires improvisation and pushing limits à la Miles Davis or Pablo Picasso, and no one was more imaginative than the kid from Florida.
Then Slater retired, only to return to the WSL Tour (formerly called the Association of Surfing Professionals) in 2003 and eventually win five more titles, the most recent in 2011. In an interview, the surfing magazine Stab asked him to describe himself in clinical terms. Slater replied, half-joking: “Obsessive-compulsive disorder mixed with a little borderline addictive personality disorder when it comes to things he loves.” While his love of surfing hasn’t waned, he shouldn’t, theoretically, still be competing. The average age of the rest of the WSL’s top 10 surfers is 26.3, and Slater is nearly twice as old as 24-year-old points leader John John Florence. Yet last August there was the senior citizen of pro surfing beating Florence in the final of the Billabong Pro Tahiti. With his showing at Teahupo’o, one of the most powerful breaks in the world, Slater earned his 55th elite tour win, further cementing his legacy.
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