Right now, the No.1 ranked surfer in the world is a middle-aged bald guy. This sport, so often associated with reckless youth, is currently led by the calculated Kelly Slater—who turns 50 today after winning the Billabong Pipeline Masters last weekend. That would be 30 years after he won it the first time.
Slater is, by far, surfing’s G.O.A.T., but there are many who see his ability to stay there in four consecutive decades as a sign he may be the greatest of the greats. It begs the question where he fits in with other athletes known for longevity.
In 1965, Satchel Paige took the mound for the Kansas City Athletics at the tender age of 59. It was his only game of the season after a hiatus from the Majors. He pitched three innings, giving up only one hit to the Boston Red Sox. The Hall of Famer’s career had started 40 years earlier in the Negro Southern League—and Paige was still a force in 1948 at age 42 when he joined the Cleveland Indians. He’d continue to pitch in the Majors until he was 47.
“He was still striking people out because his stuff was so nasty,” says Lindsay Berra, contributor to MLB.com and writer for ESPN Magazine for 13 years—not to mention granddaughter of affable Hall of Famer Yogi Berra. “Paige put so much movement on his pitches, you could tell someone where the pitch was coming and they still couldn’t hit it,” adds Berra. “He pitched a 12-inning shutout for the Cleveland Browns when he was 46.”
In the hockey world, the standout equivalent remains Gordie Howe, who began his NHL career in 1946 and scored his final (801st ) goal on April 9, 1980, in a Stanley Cup Playoff game for the Hartford Whalers at age 52. “His son, Mark, got the assist,” chuckles Berra.
In the 90s, Slater was often compared to Michael Jordan when they were both stacking championships. Slater was to surf brand Quiksilver what Jordan was to Nike. They both obsessed about details and both “retired,” but couldn’t stay away from the games they loved.
In terms of pure hoop longevity, there was a guard named Nat Hickey who started playing pro in 1921. As late as 1948, he was coaching and would put himself in the game when needed. But Nat Hickey didn’t have a signature collection of kicks. If you’re looking for the NBA comparison, it would have to be LeBron. Both James and Slater dominated from the age of 18 and continue to be among their sport’s elite long after the average age of retirement, having cultural impact beyond their respective playing fields.
The Greatest Record of All Time
Last Saturday, Slater won the Billabong Pipeline Pro, the first World Surf League WCT event of the year. Back in 1990, the surfing phenomenon aced his first professional event before taking the Pipe in 1992 along with (as it was then known) the Association of Surfing Professionals world title. The Florida native went on to rack up 55 more event wins and 10 more titles, the next closest competitor being Aussie Mark Richards who won less than half that in the 1970s and early ‘80s. It would take a book to retell the entire Slater story and marvel at all those stats. Indeed, his two biographies may have been written a bit prematurely.
If we simply focus on the numbers from last weekend, Slater put up 18.77 of a possible 20 to beat Seth Moniz, from a family of Hawaiian surf royalty. In the 90s, Slater surfed in the same events with Tony Moniz, Seth’s father. Seth wasn’t born until three years after Slater first won at Pipe.
Slater surfed the Tour long after all his “Momentum Generation” friends who revolutionized competitive surfing hung up their boards. His closest contemporary, Taylor Knox, retired in 2012. Slater’s twisted rivalry/friendship with three-time champ Andy Irons ended in 2011 with Irons’ tragic death at age 32. Slater outlasted Aussies Mick Fanning and Joel Parkinson, both 10 years younger, who combined for four world titles. He’s won specialty big-wave events, influenced the competition format, changed the equipment, set a new bar in heavy water, founded separate surfboard and apparel companies, and played his part in the development of the man-made wave at the Surf Ranch—which may completely alter the future of surfing.
In recent years, with Slater fighting injuries, surfing’s focus has shifted to John John Florence and Gabriel Medina, a pair of surfers 20 years his junior. They’ve each won two titles in what should be the twilight of Slater’s career. But with Medina choosing not to compete this year and Florence slipping in the semis at Pipe, Slater is again on top.
“I look at surfing or skiing or snowboarding a little different,” says Berra. “You have two opponents—your actual opponent, then the elements of the waves or the hill. You can be a smart, old boxer, but you can still slip and a young guy can break your jaw. It’s athletically incredible that Kelly is doing this 30 years later. In his case, age is almost an advantage. He knows his body and Pipeline so well.”
In fact, Slater is credited for smarts more than any other surfer. In any given heat at Pipeline, there may only be so many waves to come through that will garner an excellent score. Had Seth Moniz been in position for one of those three amazing Backdoor tubes, Slater would have been runner up. But time after time, decade after decade, Slater is the guy with the strategy to nab those coveted waves in each heat.
Tom + Kelly
On Tuesday of this week, just days after Slater’s Pipe win, newly retired NFL quarterback, Tom Brady, 44 posted a congratulations to Slater on Instagram, to which Slater replied “@TomBrady Legend! Congrats on your retirement this week, but I’ll hold out hope that with the skills still obviously intact, you make another appearance. You’ve made Florida and @Buccaneers fans proud. Thank you, Tom.”
The two have a mutual admiration, but possibly more in common than that. Seth Wickersham, award-winning NFL reporter, senior ESPN writer, and author of It’s Better to Be Feared: The New England Patriots Dynasty and the Pursuit of Greatness has studied Brady’s career and spent countless hours with him. He reports that Brady has started surfing and skiing in later years—and has a library of surfing books at his home.
“I think when Brady came into the league, he figured he’d play 10 or 12 years then move on to something else—but I think his love for the game only intensified,” notes Wickersham, who recalls a transcript of a 27-year old Brady interview on 60 Minutes where correspondent Steve Kroft asked him, “What really scares Tom Brady?” Brady’s reply was, “The end of my playing career.”
“It was one of the most autobiographical statements of his life and shadowed much of what was to come,” adds Wickersham. “He continued to play for a few years before hurting his knee in 2008 and missing the season. That was when he started working closely with body coach Alex Guerrero, who became a controversial figure, but at the time really helped Tom with his rehab.”
Guerrero and Brady developed an entire approach to wellness designed to keep muscles soft and pliable. Wickersham stresses how Brady became evangelical about diet and hydration. Wickersham also mentions that Brady, as a rookie in 2000, started practicing yoga—leading to some very strong parallels with Slater, who’d quietly educated himself on fitness philosophies before anyone else in surfing. Prior to the mid-2000s, tour surfers worked out by carrying rocks underwater then rehydrating with cheap beer. Slater was into yoga and Pilates dating back to the ‘90s. By the time exercise balls started showing up at tour events, Slater could’ve had a degree in sport physiology, and his muscles were already elongated. The similarities didn’t stop there.
“When he missed that year, Brady not only began to question some of the tenets of Western medicine, but he also saw the game move on without him,” says Wickersham. “I think the next couple of years is when he really started talking about playing into his 40s.”
This sounds an awful lot like Slater’s attempt at retirement 20 years ago—while watching Irons start gobbling up titles.
“You saw Jordan come back after he retired because nothing makes him happier than playing basketball,” adds Wickersham. “Tom Brady saw that in himself. He was going to challenge the conventional wisdom that once you’re in your mid-30s in the NFL, you’re a senior citizen and you’re on your way out. Kelly is a phenomenal athlete. As great athletes age, often their love for the game doesn’t lessen. It actually intensifies.”
Slater was visibly emotional in the circus surrounding him last Saturday. He hadn’t won an event since 2016.
“I committed my life to this,” he gushed to the world, “To all of this. To all of the heartbreak and winning and all this crap. You know, I’ve hated lots of it, but I savor this and this is the best win of my life.”
And then he threw an awkward stick in the spokes of the moment, mentioning he might not compete at the Hurley Pro Sunset Beach, which could start today. Does that mean he’s skipping an event to focus on the rest of the season? Does it mean he’ll never put on a jersey again?
Hard to say.
Kelly Slater has thought aloud about retiring as many times as he’s won titles. Keep in mind that while he has a mastery of Pipeline, Trestles and Teahu’poo, the big tricky walls of Sunset have never been his thing. But it certainly sets up the intrigue for the rest of the season. No matter what he decides to do, at 50, he’s earned his place on a very short list of greats.