He couldn't stop staring at her happiness. You won't go. She was working the Roxy booth, selling clothes at a San Diego trade show just across the walkway from the Quiksilver booth where he was greeting fans in September 2006. She was pretty but not marquee, wearing no makeup or heels or bathing suit, surrounded by her kid sisters, not fans. You won't go. He hoped she was 20, feared she was 17, and no, it didn't matter anyway, because he'd already made a vow: Yes, love was the best reason of all to compete, and yes, he was about to ride it to his second straight world title—his eighth overall—but no more one-on-one love, not until this fever called surfing had passed.
So why at 34 did he feel like a teenager again, standing alone on the north shore of Oahu staring at the big waves? Terrified inside until, finally, playing You Won't Go with Jack Johnson and his pals at Pipeline—a game in which they'd bark those words as a monster was about to break and the kid closest to it would never hear the end of it if he didn't go—had forced Kelly to master his fear.
Intimacy. The biggest wave. But here they came, the three sisters walking right up and introducing themselves. He talked to the two younger ones at first, but his nervousness had no chance against her joy, and he ended up joking and laughing and walking Kalani Miller and her sisters back to their hotel. Ended up eating dinner at their home in nearby San Clemente a few days later, ended up inviting the two older sisters to one of his contests, then another and another, just friends. Ended up in a tizzy for most of 2007, terrified because there was no built-in booby trap here. You won't go. You can't go. Twenty years old, for crying out loud, but when happiness and stability are finally standing right in front of you, do you card them?
And so, at last ... he went. And once he stammered out his feelings, once he settled into love with a happy woman, everyone remarked how much calmer and lighter he grew. With Kalani often at his side, stealing time away from her junior year at UC Santa Barbara, he won five of the 2008 tour's first seven events, the most dominant performance in history, and clinched the world title, his ninth, earlier than any man ever had. He became the damnedest thing in all of sports: the superstar who didn't even work out. The one who gazes at the playing field, saying, "Why?" and then "Why not?" The one who won simply by being in the moment in the sport that demanded that the most.
There was little that he couldn't have. Two movies in one year? Coming right up: A Fly in the Champagne, about his rivalry with Andy Irons, and Ultimate Wave, a 3-D Imax special about the science of the wave and the art of its master. A new and stronger union for surfers? Kelly and two other surfers, Jake Paterson and Kieren Perrow, are working on one now. A whole new tour? Kelly and his manager, Terry Hardy, are cooking that up as well, something with prime-time potential that could operate alongside the current tour or, one day down the road, replace it entirely. A new wave? Sure, why not? An artificial one that would revolutionize the sport if Kelly and the engineers get it right, technology that could dial down waves for beginners in suburban condo complexes and dial up endless 12-foot tubes that ocean surfers might not see for years, repetitions they could use to increase the sport's acrobatics exponentially. Waves barreling across pools ringed with stands and rigged with cameras so that surfing, which spawned skate- and snowboarding, might join its offspring in the X Games and the Olympics.
Kelly never aims small. Kelly never stops doubting his aims. He sighs. So much trail remains. He still forgets sometimes and gets scorched by his competitive fire. Still can't quite see past the contradictions, beyond the either-or, to the place where surfing, like anything else a man does, can be communion and enterprise, om and cha-ching.
But Jack Johnson was right. Mr. Slater does go to work. He's bent in labor in the shaping bay of Al Merrick's surfboard factory near Santa Barbara, sanding down another one of his new surfboards, which he designs and shapes with his own hands, the only surfer on tour to do that. World title number 10? It's just a number, he says with a shrug, no more significant than nine. It's probably his last year—again. "It's so freeing to realize, I can't lose," he says. "If you can extend that to all of your life, even dying isn't bad. You are who you are until you start becoming aware of yourself. Then you start to have choices of who you are. Then you get new life."
He takes a planer to the edges of the board and then compares it to the others he has designed. Odd, how each new one seems to be wider and squatter than the last, a half-foot shorter than anyone else's, puzzling everyone on the tour. A surfboard turning into a boogie board, a boogie board turning into a door.
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