In the ’90s, Kelly Slater’s impact on surfing mirrored the technology revolution of the Internet. What was initially dismissed as merely a toy became the standard. The limits were redefined. The bar was raised off the scale. Nothing would ever be the same.
Slater got his feet wet on the bunny slopes of Cocoa Beach, a sleepy Central Florida town made famous by a sexy, prime-time genie in the ’60s. Cocoa Beach, in Slater’s estimation, is as good a place as any to inherit a solid foundation as a surfer. “It breaks farther out,” he says, “so it’s easier to learn. If I had the choice of learning in Florida or Hawaii, I’d choose Florida. You don’t try to run before you can walk.”
And given his resume, no one would argue. As a preteen, Slater showed flashes of the right stuff. Tossing his freakishly limber frame around like a gymnast and equipped with an insatiable lust for perfection, he quickly entered the spotlight.
As a perennial amateur champion — six Eastern Surfing Association and four national titles — Slater surfaced in the media with his brother Sean in Sundek boardshort ads during the mid-’80s. By the time he was ready to join the pro ranks in 1990, he was a household name. After a well-publicized bidding war that included some major mainstream apparel companies, he kept true to his surfing roots and went with Quiksilver. Kelly Slater in Black and White, a 30-minute Quiksilver promo video, was the first public offering of his explosiveness and creativity.
In his first full year on the tour, at age 21, Slater solidified the hype by claiming the world title — the youngest ever to do so. But more than that, he ignited a revolution. Exposed by videographer Taylor Steele’s Momentum flicks, Slater ushered in the New School of surfing. Gone were the days of letting the wave dictate the ride. Slater drew lines never before imagined, not even from drawings on your high school notebooks.
The best surfers in the world, mesmerized and feeling inadequate, studied his every heat. To the point of boredom, he would almost play dead in the early stages before mounting an inconceivable late-heat comeback. Everyone else looked silly.
But Slater could look silly as well. On land, he tested the opportunities afforded him through his hero status and Hollywood looks. A stint as Jimmy Slade on “Baywatch”, the most popular show in the world, satisfied his curiosity for acting. A musical endeavor with friends Rob Machado and Peter King, where the trio adopted the hokey name “The Surfers,” yielded a major record release and a U.S. tour. An off and on relationship with Pamela Anderson Lee kept his name rolling in the mainstream press.
Meanwhile, Slater continued to rack up world titles. After an unprecedented six, he eased into semi-retirement at age 26 with nothing left to prove.
After extremely limited competition in 1999, Slater returned to Hawaii for the season-ending event — the Pipe Masters. In maxing conditions, he greased the field — including new world champ Mark Occhilupo — for his fifth Masters crown, repeating the effort in 2000 at Teahupoo. Two years removed from the tour, his surfing is better than ever. But until a serious challenger emerges from the pack, he has no reason to return to competitive life. For now, he will relax with friends and family in Cocoa Beach, tend to promotional obligations for Quiksilver and occasionally show up at world tour events to see his friends and remind us who is king. — Jason Borte, February 2001