On a bright summer morning in 1990, Kelly Slater, a lean young man from Cocoa Beach, Florida, only a couple of years out of high school, paddled his surfboard into eight-foot waves at a beach area called Trestles, in San Clemente, California. By the end of the day, after a fierce series of acrobatic rides against top competitors, Slater took the $30,000 first-place prize in the Body Glove Surfbout. Anyone who witnessed his performance that day saw the beginning of the greatest winning career in the history of surfing, and one of the mythic careers in all sports.
After more than two dominant decades—he won his most recent world championship at Ocean Beach in San Francisco in 2011, not long before turning 40—Slater may be the greatest athlete in the world who hasn’t become a household name. He is, however, the closest thing to a crossover star that surfing has ever produced. He’s been on the cover of Interview magazine (“Half Fish, Total Dish”), played guitar with the group Pearl Jam, formed his own rock band, posed for a Versace underwear ad and even appeared in the role of an aspiring surfer in nine episodes of the television series “Baywatch.” Today, his place in the saga of sport has achieved iconic status: one of his sleek foam-and-fiberglass boards, embellished with a pattern of interlocking circles, and the initial “K,” is displayed at the National Museum of American History (NMAH).