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Oh, thank you, thank you! That's all the why he'd need. Something vicious would well up in him, and he'd win heats on the final two or three waves, leave 'em all stunned on the sand. He'd do what sportsmen did, grind rivals' quotes between his molars, set new goals every year. 1994: Prove you're no fluke. Win a second world title. Got it. 1995: Go back-to-back. Only three men ever had. Got it. 1996: Win three in a row in memory of Donnie Solomon, the buddy annihilated by a monster wave at Hawaii's Waimea Bay. Check. 1997: Get four straight, baby, tie Mark Richards's untouchable record. Do it for Todd Chesser, the surfing pal who'd just drowned at Oahu. Done.
Hair falling out in clumps. Sleep shredded by his sawmill mind. Heart clenching with each new wave of fans. Hunger to win turning into dread of losing. Arriving later and later at center ring; leaving less and less time to behold the sand circus; sometimes missing the first heat, defaulting into the losers' round; or bolting from his car and into the ocean six waves into a 25-minute heat, angering his foes—another Slater mind game?—and needing that last big swell to wash him to victory.
O.K., just one last goal, 1998: Shatter the record, end all conversation about the best competitive surfer in history. Done. Completely done. He walked away.
THE FIFTH WHY
Hold on. The leash between his ankle and surfboard ... how do you get that damn thing off? He dragged it along behind him, entering a handful of events over those next three years: in or out? He bought land but built no home: in or out? He revived and retreated from his relationship with Lisa Ann: in or out? He flew to Cocoa Beach, saw the tumor bulging in his old man's throat, felt the lump rising in his own: in or out?
The clock was ticking. The tour had granted him permission to return without enduring the grind of its World Qualifying Series, but he knew the exemption wouldn't last forever, and he saw the stunning moves that the next Kelly Slater, Andy Irons, was uncorking. He flew to Australia in March 2001 for the first event of the new season with no real idea why. He was driving through the rain in a rental car in Avalon, just north of Sydney, cellphone cradled against his ear, pouring his heart out to, of all people, the Ironman—Trevor Hendy, the greatest Aussie Ironman ever, whom he'd befriended a few years earlier. Trevor had dominated his ocean sport (composed of swimming, beach-running, surf-ski paddling and long-board paddling events) the way Kelly had his ... and he, too, had ended up on a mountaintop, marooned. But he'd explored its crevices and caves and ended up as an assistant director of a series of transformative courses called Spirit of Freedom. He could talk to Kelly from the rarest place: their common ground.
Kelly pulled up in front of an apartment he'd bought in Avalon. Oh, f---. A half-dozen fans were waiting to pounce. "No worries, we'll talk later. Sounds like they need your attention now," said Trevor. Kelly muttered into the phone. "It really sounds like you need some help with this stuff," said Trevor, and Kelly—cornered in his rental car, trapped in his perfect life—finally admitted it to himself.
A few days later he flew north to the Gold Coast and entered a roomful of strangers about to begin the first course in the Spirit of Freedom workshop. Scary it was, but the philosophy underlying the course's group exercises and one-on-one encounters—that you create the circumstances and patterns in your life, because there's something in them that you haven't learned yet, and you begin to be free once you recognize why you created them—ignited Kelly. He threw himself into it, listening to strangers tell him the effect that his words and attitudes had on them, peering into his anger and sorrow. He returned and retook the first course and then, over the next few years, went on to a second, third and fourth. Some truths came as revelations, light flashing in a dark room. Others trickled to the surface after hours alone, or with Trevor at his side.
Hey, Kelly, you can hop off now. It dawned on him, the knight-on-the-white-horse myth he'd unconsciously been living out, charging in at the last minute to be the hero at beaches across the world, scooping up damsels in distress, discharging his guilt as the child of alcoholism and divorce. And the walls the knight kept running into by saving the most glamorous damsels, someone else's ideal, forever separating him from intimacy ... which may have been his design.
So ... what to do? Dismount, strip off the armor, just when his family was being thrown together for the first time in nearly 20 years? Dad with a feeding tube in his gut on a hospital bed set up in the living room of the Cocoa Beach condo Kelly had bought in 1994; Mom sleeping on the couch to attend to him even though she'd been through another marriage and divorce; he and his brothers there all day and night, stunned to find themselves taking one more, one last, shot.