Kelly Slater’s Heart of Stone

“You know why I was the best competitor ever? Because my heart was stone, and nothing was going to pierce it.”

Kelly Slater, 2024

Kelly Slater has surfed his last heat as a full time member of the World Surf League’s Championship Tour, closing the book on the greatest competitive career the sport has ever seen. I recently attempted to summarize some highlights from Slater’s 27 years on tour — 11 world titles, five in a row, 56 event wins, you know the drill — and someone astutely pointed out that it might be easier to point out the major records Kelly doesn’t own.

Over the past few days the surf world has been working overtime to give Kelly his flowers, as the kids say, and deservedly so. I’m a pedantic pain in the ass, so I feel compelled to point out that technically, Kelly hasn’t retired from the tour. He didn’t make the mid-season cut, and he has already requested a wildcard spot for the upcoming contest in Fiji. Still, this is looking an awful lot like the end. It’s hard to envision the WSL granting Kelly a season-long wildcard spot next year (especially considering he got one in 2024), and there’s no way he’s going to grind it out on the Qualifying Series to claw his way back.

Even in the midst of all these heartfelt Instagram captions, I still don’t think we talk enough about the Kelly the competitor. Yes, we can all spout off the stats, but the dude was ruthless. We talk about eleven world titles like they just appeared out of the ether, but a lot of dreams got trampled on the way to this achievement. Maybe we lose sight of this because he’s so bright and thoughtful and engaging during interviews, but Kelly ripped people’s hearts out and he relished it. Whether it was masterminding an interference call on Shane Beschen in the 1996 US Open finals, which had fans howling about its deviousness; the truly insane move of trying to psyche out Andy Irons by whispering “I love you” moments before their world title-deciding heat at the Pipe Masters; or any number of tactics, Kelly did whatever it took to win. To me his single most memorable season was 1998, where he trailed for most of the year behind Aussie upstarts Danny Wills and Mick Campbell, only to mount a miraculous comeback, capped by a quarterfinal win at proper Pipeline and Backdoor, and his record fifth consecutive title. Neither Wills nor Campbell’s competitive careers were the same afterwards, and even Kelly took some time off the tour after the season, until Andy Irons emerged as the only challenge worthy of his undivided attention.

Kelly leaving the tour is a seismic event, and who of us isn’t bummed on some level? But with all that said, as someone who just wants to see footage of Kelly surfing perfect waves at the highest possible level, I think leaving the tour is the single best thing he could have done. I hate to say it, but it feels less like Slater is too old to hang with the best, and more like he’s shedding dead weight. Kelly might be 52, but he’s not the cliché grizzled vet who’s scraping by on wits and experience. He’s still an athletic freak, limber and explosive, and I can’t wait to see him on the freesurf program, unencumbered by the tour’s contest windows and lukewarm corporate vibe. (I just hope someone films it all.) There was a tantalizing glimpse of Slater’s post-tour existence earlier this year when he bailed on the underwhelming conditions at the Portugal contest to chase some cyclone swell on the Gold Coast. It’s not ideal for the WSL, but the video evidence suggests he made the right choice.

Other than winning, if there’s anything Kelly has excelled at, it’s reinvention. And sure, it’s sad to think that his time as a competitor is almost complete. But I think we all agree this is certainly not the last we’ve heard from Kelly Slater, and there are plenty of reasons to think the next phase will be just as exciting as the ones that came before it.

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  1. Tim Orr says:

    Aloha Henry,
    Great words here & writings on Kelly & his departure from “pro” surfing status. He will always have that competitive fierceness, no matter what sport he’s focusing on. Hip replacements will tend to slow one down, but only speaking for myself, with Titanium hips. I applaud the hand shapes & have fixed a couple of Kelly’s personal shapes in Hawaii. Him leaving the WSL is a good move, as the Soul of surfing left professional surfing years ago. Congratulations to Kalani & Kelly on their new journey ahead & blessings to them & their Ohana.🌅🌊🤙🏽 A L O H A