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He began dumbfounding judges and winning age-division competitions: Three 360s on one wave ... by an eight-year-old ... on a boogie board? He began arriving at the beach soon after the sun did, paddling out with a snack in a plastic bag between his teeth. He began creating new twists and aerials on a skateboard as he flew off the quarter-pipe ramp in their driveway. He loved it when storms rolled in. The rain made surfing even more dreamlike, more cocoonlike, more his.
His father moved out when he was 11. Sean and the youngest brother, Stephen, shared weekends and fishing holes with their dad. Kelly kept his distance. One lingering fear was the knuckle-gnawing rides to surfing competitions that Dad, two beers and counting, relished providing. Kelly began shutting his eyes before his heats, picturing no's scrawled everywhere in the sand, then rewriting every one of them into a yes before entering the water. He won the Eastern Championships every September at Cape Hatteras, N.C., six in a row from age 10, and the U.S. National Amateur, four straight from age 12. He became Kelly the Contest Machine, a freak packet of everything: Body with a gyroscope's sense of center. Feet with arches so fallen that they stuck to the board as though glued. Spine so rubbery that he could backbend and touch his chin to the ground, so freakish that a surfmate named Charlie Kuhn, finding Kelly asleep with his head arched so far back that it almost grazed his feet, ran terrified through the Hatteras house that they shared howling, "Kelly's dead! Kelly's dead!" Mind, above all—that shark's mind that missed nothing and demanded everything, the cruelest of weapons in a sport spawned on summer breezes and "Whoa, dude, just chill."
For years Sean and Kelly were packaged in surfing ads and trade-show promotions as Florida's young hotshots. At last came the showdown: 17-year-old Sean versus his 14-year-old, 85-pound squirt of a brother in a heat of the 1986 pro-am Excalibur Cup at Sebastian Inlet, a half-hour drive south of their home. The waves were head-high. The local pros were all watching. The cup winner would receive a magnificent handcrafted English sword ... if, in a reenactment of the King Arthur legend, he could withdraw it from the foam stone in which it was embedded.
Sean still swears he had the winning wave in the last 10 seconds, but his fins clipped a photographer. Kelly beat him, won the championship a day later, yanked the sword from the stone on the third tug and got to dance at the awards bash with the hottest new blonde actress on TV, Heather Thomas from The Fall Guy.
If one of the reporters there had asked him why he competed, he would've said what every young athlete says: Because I love it. Had the reporter said, "No, why really?" Kelly would've looked at him as if he were nuts.
THE SECOND WHY
They became tumbleweeds, the three Slater boys. Sean blew across America in a 45-foot bus, setting up surfing, snowboarding and music events for Volcom, an action-oriented clothing line. Stephen would drift across the world on the long-board surfing tour. Kelly turned pro in 1990, the summer before his senior year of high school, and spent every year in a blur of Balis and Fijis and Tahitis and Oahus.
Damn. Where'd that come from? It was the memory of what really motivated him to surf his ass off during those first few years as a pro: seeing, in the hotel on the eve of contests, his competitors—men he'd worshipped as a kid—slamming beers and cheating on their wives.
They wouldn't have a clue what had hit them the next day. All they'd see was this teenage dervish slashing this startling calligraphy across the canvas of a wave that no one but Kelly could read.
F.U. F.U. F.U.