At the Florida shorebreak, the boy surveyed the Atlantic Ocean as it punched land.
He calculated the sizes and shapes of the undulating waves, analyzed the angles and directions as they arrived and deciphered what he believed was a language meant just for him.
“I felt like I was interacting with the waves,” Kelly Slater says, “and they were interacting with me.”
About a decade later, the 15-year-old danced with the Pacific Ocean off Hawaii, and other surfers saw how he read the water in ways they could not, as if he were plugged into its energy and had uncovered secret rhythms.
“He had a connection with the way the ocean moved that was light-years beyond his peers,” says Chris Malloy, Slater’s longtime friend.
Now 40, Slater is still beyond his peers and his legend has moved to the discussion of “Greatest Athlete Ever.” Crunching the numbers, it’s an argument that holds water.
“If nothing else, it’s an interesting debate,” Slater says, shrugging.
It is not just that the Cocoa Beach, Fla., native has a record 49 Assn. of Surfing Professionals Elite Tour wins — he’s shooting for No. 50 this week at the Nike U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach — or that he has 11 world titles while the next closest in surfing, Mark Richards, has four.
It’s something beyond wins and titles. It is time.
Slater has been the Everest of his sport for most of two decades. No athlete — not Jordan, Gretzky, Ali, Pele, Nicklaus, Tiger, not Phelps — has been that dominant for so long.
Slater is the youngest surfer to win a world title — at 20, in 1992 — and the oldest — 39, achieved last year. This year, he stands No. 2 on the ASP World Tour behind Mick Fanning, with title No. 12 within reach.
Slater says he’s not concerned with legacy, and that unconquered goals are not what’s standing between him and retirement. Though notoriously competitive, Slater says he’s more calm and at peace than ever, that he’s not as attached to the outcome as he was years ago.
Instead, he’s just out there in the blue, sculpting waves into works of art in a place that helped rescue him whenever his world crumbled to pieces.
“The water was his security blanket. That was where he felt safe.”
Slater’s mother, Judy
Slater’s father, Steve, owned a bait-and-tackle shop, worked in construction and was an unpredictable alcoholic. “He wasn’t violent or mean in any way,” Judy says. “He was just scary.”
In his autobiography, “Pipe Dreams,” Slater wrote that his mother would scream at his father for hours until he’d finally pass out. The two divorced when Slater was 11, and he found solace in the sea.
“He could just unload his problems in the water,” Judy says.
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