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Ready For The Next Wave
GARY SMITH
May 04, 2009
Kelly Slater is winning world titles again—a record nine and counting—and planning to bring his sport to the masses. But before he could do that, the uneasy rider had to solve the nagging mystery of why he surfed
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May 04, 2009

Ready For The Next Wave

Kelly Slater is winning world titles again—a record nine and counting—and planning to bring his sport to the masses. But before he could do that, the uneasy rider had to solve the nagging mystery of why he surfed

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THE FOURTH WHY

On to Japan, Brazil and Hawaii. Back to ocean-dancing for points, money, fame. The vision that had freaked him faded. He went back to feeling like a cheetah on the hunt when he dropped into the barrel, the world suddenly gone silent, his body crouched low and flying across the surface while his head, and his mind, remained perfectly still. An athlete didn't have to answer the question, did he? That was the beauty of sports: They compressed everything. They crumpled the world into the two or three hours of a contest, the six or seven months of a season, the five or 10 years of a career. They gave athlete and audience both a free pass from why, really?

The tour saved his sanity during his disintegrating engagement. The tour made him forget the hollowness and contradictions of the tour. Competition as numbing agent: the fourth why.

But wait. He hated numbing agents. He stopped taking the antidepressants that a psychiatrist had prescribed; couldn't they make him stop feeling something he needed to feel? He stopped going to therapy. He analyzed, and mock-analyzed, himself: "Obsessive-compulsive disorder mixed with a little borderline addictive personality disorder," he once told a writer. "Kelly has used surfing as a replacement for intimacy and stability, and goes from being very present one minute to seemingly aloof the next. He's a pretty complex case study because he lives a lot of different lives ... his surroundings and friends constantly changing." He began reading self-help books on long flights to exotic isles teeming with exotic women eager to help.

See? That was the problem. Everyone everywhere chorused it: Hey, Kelly Slater! Wanna trade lives? He had the dream job. He had guitars, golf clubs and surfboards stashed across the globe. He surfed with Eddie Vedder, hung with Sean Penn, jumped onstage to play with Pearl Jam, Ben Harper and Jack Johnson. He was drop-to-his-knees grateful; the bounty of his life mocked his disillusionment.

So just ... don't ... think about it. Crissakes, Kelly, friends teased, you could chew a dead horse to dog chow; nobody needs a why for competing in America. They'd shake their heads, remembering the mousse Kelly put on his Ping-Pong paddle to get more grip, the tears that welled in his eyes when he lost 18 straight matches on his 18th birthday to his Cocoa Beach buddy, Drew Filliben. The judges he screamed at, the surfboards he—who never showed a trace of temper elsewhere—punched and head-butted and flung and smashed to bits. The notebook he kept, the Encyclopedia of How Every Man on Tour Could Be Beaten. The tactics he used, once even sneaking behind an opponent to steal inside position and draw an interference call that swung the contest in his favor.

Uh-oh.... He began reading Deepak Chopra. Warning! He began identifying with his victims. Danger! Drop ... the book ... now. Asked who he'd be if he could be anyone for a day, he selected a homeless person, or someone with AIDS, or someone on his last day of life, because that's how a man could really learn. He walked up to homeless people, bought them meals, sat and talked with them. Where was his home? Cocoa Beach? He'd spent one Christmas there since he was 12, when the surf industry began sending him abroad so he could learn how to handle big waves. The guest bedroom in his manager's house, where he'd crash between contests? The apartments he'd move out of before he'd ever really moved in? His girlfriends' places? His buddies' couches and floors? Fort Lauderdale, where Taylor, his daughter, lived? The child, born in 1996 after a brief relationship, soon had a close family of her own—a loving mom, a stepfather and siblings—that would leave Kelly flailing, unsure how to be more than a fifth wheel; damn, was he duplicating Dad?

Months could pass without him calling his mother or brothers—and never during competitions. That was when he moved in with other people's families, close-knit ones that he'd met along the tour's 10 to 13 annual stops and returned to each year like the prodigal son. Studying intimacy and normalcy, aching for them even as he sniffed beneath their carpet for tedium, then stepping outside to call the latest of the glittering women for whom he'd fallen. Actress Pamela Anderson not once or twice but three times, models Gisele Bündchen and ex-fiancée Bree Pontorno, actress and model Lisa Ann Cabasa. Long phone calls, because so many of the women were wounded birds, his friends kept telling him, and he was such a kind, thoughtful listener. "If you could plant a seed and grow a person, you'd grow Kelly," Anderson said. Bang-sizzle phone calls, make-ups and breakups—you went back with Tommy Lee?—but drama was what he'd been weaned on.

The death of those relationships destroyed him. Those women's arms were his one place of belonging, his home. Where should he point his rental car when he got off the next plane? The Dakotas. The produce aisle. That's where his mother told him he should forage for someone he could trust.

The gap grew between Kelly and the guys on tour. He didn't stay at their hotels, didn't bother with their bars. A handful were his friends, ones he could go deep with, but he was a mystery to the others, the eclipse that wouldn't move on, and they were just so weary of his shadow. Imagine how they felt when live webcasts crashed from the crush of viewer hits and crowds doubled on the beach during his heats, when bikinied babes clutching cameras thrashed through waist-deep water to clutch at him, when fans turned their backs on the world's second- and third-best surfers in battle to watch him towel off. Imagine how he felt, trailing in a heat, looking ashore and seeing opponents pooling on the beach to hoist the underdog on their shoulders, crowing, "He's f—ing going down!"

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