The Philosopher Kingby Andy Davis / 18.11.2010
Almost 2 weeks ago Kelly Slater was crowned World Champion for the tenth time in his career. Double digit world championships. The surfing world immediately extolled its old king, and ruler, to greater heights, suggesting he might be the greatest sportsman to ever live, pushing aside the dominance of athletes like Lance Armstrong, Michael Schumacher and Michael Jordan. Kelly Slater, surfing’s superman, at age 38 had shut out three, maybe four, generations of surfers in his 20 year career at the top. That’s a long run. And despite the fever pitch of clichés, adjectives and superlatives thrown at him, watching Kelly surf is still one of the great pleasures of the surfing world. Because even at the age of 38, every time he’s in the water, he always seems on the verge of creating something new, and so frequently and effortlessly transcends the barrier between what’s expected and what’s possible.
Back in 2004, soon after being maligned by Andy Irons, I spent 40 minutes with King Slater, talking about everything from sharks to capitalism and what he believes happens when you die. Then in a fit of journalistic paralysis, I put the transcription on hold and locked. Sitting on that gold for 6 long years. But now, 4 World Championship titles later, is a good time to dust off the ol’ minidisk and roll out that time capsule, for your reading pleasure.
We were sitting in the lounge of one of the houses that overlook the carpark section of Supertubes in J-Bay. Kelly, bald and buddha like sitting cross legged on the couch in front of me.
I start by talking of retirement, back then he’d only won six World Titles. Would he still be on the tour after number 7?
“I think I would be. If I was able to win 7, I’d probably try to win 8. It’s hard to pick a time to stop when you have certain abilities and certain chances to do things in life. I physically feel good. And while I have the drive and desire, there’s no reason not to try and win a title.”
“How do you deal with the crowds and the adulation?” I ask.
“I dunno you just connect with people. Anyone who starts to believe their hype and what’s written about them is getting out of touch. You gotta just try to be a person. Usually you create that thing about you if you avoid them and speed off in your car, you know what I mean? It kind of creates more of an energy around that thing. I find it’s better to just have a chat with people and not get too blown away by the attention. It’s nothing real.”
“What do you want the world to know about you that maybe they don’t?”
“What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind.”
“Just to be able to think I was a good guy. My dream my whole life has been to be the best surfer I can be. And if that’s to be the best surfer in the world for a couple of years, that’s great. Hopefully I leave this world in a better place, for my part.”
“How do you feel about getting older?”
“Doesn’t really worry me. Again, that’s something if you give it too much credit it’s going to take you over. What’s there to really worry about. I mean everybody’s getting older at the same speed, at the same time.”
“Maybe as a guy but not as a pro surfer with all these young guys coming through the ranks?”
“Yeah. Well that’s just nature man. But I’m still beating most of them. But when they all start beating me all the time, I’m out of here.”
“What do you think is missing from pro surfing?”
“Fun.” He pauses. We start talking about the Kelly Slater invitational and his ideas about changing the competitive surfing format.
“What we’re attempting to do,” he continues, “was just for everyone to have the best time they could and not really worry about their results, but just go out and surf their best, surf their hardest. And usually that allows people to surf better because they can more freely. You don’t have to stress so much because I need a six right now, but to just relax and get a 9. Surf contests are really not that much fun. Unless someone’s having a party and everyone’s getting drunk. How fun is that the next day? In pro sports, at the top level, people want to see dog eat dog. They want to see people kill each other. I think it should be the other way around. Everyone having a good time, connecting. And the surfing will be better.”
“Are you still making music?”
“Yeah. I’m not really recording, just goofing around with friends. Nothing on a professional level just fun.”
“Don’t want to bust out an a cappella chorus for us?”
“No… It doesn’t translate well to print.”
“What do you think of George Bush and America right now?”
“Pretty much everywhere I go in the world people are nicer and more helpful than they are in America. That’s just the way our societies are. America is the pinnacle of business and money and it’s like we have 6% of the people in the world and over 50% of the wealth. It just doesn’t make sense. So you have a big power struggle. And everyone else in the world is busy supplying us with goods, making hardly anything for it and working much harder. And I just wish there was some way that could be evened out a little bit. The other thing is that it’s human nature. We’re all sort of playing those games with each other. Everyone wants to to take a wave from each other, everyone wants to make a buck more than that guy, if you can make this business deal and slightly burn someone, you will. That’s just human nature. America’s playing that out on a big level. I think the sad thing is that we have so much there and we’re not just offering to help people around the world unless it gets us something in return. So it’s not real fair trade. It’s not a pure trade. It’s like 500 000 people are going to die in Rwanda in a couple months but where the fuck are we? There’s no oil there. It’s not worth going there for money so we’ll just sit back and hopefully someone will do something about it.”
He pauses again and then continues.
“Capitalism and democracy, ideally, creates this perfect system for everybody to create what they can. But at the same time people just aren’t going to be as good as other people. They’re not as strong, not as smart. So they get left behind. They’re the small people. And maybe there’d be more of an ideal way for societies to create more of an even deal for people. Like when I go to Fiji, everyone in Fiji helps each other. There’s not like one guy who’s got a whole lot of money and is just killing it and everyone else’s working for him. But they do have a chief system and he probably works a little less than the other guys, but they all get along, they all share, and they’re much happier people. It’s hard. And the thing is that those people, people who live that way, they’re not really affected by some guy who’s got everything, because they’re content with what they have. Some times the leaders need to show that – and America is a leader in a lot of ways.”
He cracks his knuckles.
“Surfing at the moment is pretty much a microcosm of that.” I offer
“It’s the same thing with Quiksilver, Billabong and Rip Curl,” he throws in. “These things are all playing out in the same way, they just get bigger and bigger with multinationals. But the same thing’s going on at school between kids, in houses between people. The only way you can hope to change it is to change yourself and change your surroundings. That’s really all you can do. You can’t go out and change people. You can’t change anything other than you. And when you change yourself you have an effect on other people and I think that’s exciting.”
“Do you see the same duality in surfing.” I ask. “On one level it’s a personal and selfish pursuit and on the other side it’s the purist expression of freedom. Riding a wave…”
“Um…” He takes a long pause and then says. “If you live somewhere where it’s crowded you got to go on surf trips where there’s no people. If you live in the Gold Coast you’ve got to fly down Sydney and drive down the South Coast. Fly to Western Australia or something. Maximum exposure, minimum exposure. You have to even those things out at times. I mean I love surfing the Superbank. Kirra’s probably my favourite wave in the world, but there are so many people in the water it’s frustrating, it’s not healthy for you… after a while. It’s probably good as a competitor but it’s bad as a human being. After a while you’re just going give me a wave that’s half the size and half the speed but there’s no one out.”
“Do you sometimes lose it.”
“Oh yeah. I have times where I’m as frustrated as anyone else.”
“Dungeons, are you interested in surfing there?”
“I like big waves, if I was here and I had the equipment, it’d be fun. But I don’t know, I’m not really looking forward to flying halfway around the world for freezing water and sharks. I mean the place just seems so sharky.”
“What do you believe in?”
“Yeah, um.” Another long pause, as if he’s weighing up whether to tell me this or not. “I believe we’re a spiritual body. A spiritual energy in a physical body. I think energy is transmitted. Energy never ceases. Even though a physical body will die, energy never dies. So I guess what I mean in saying that is people never really die, physically they die but they’re always around us… I dunno. Death is a strange thing. I believe in the possibility that you live many lives, but I don’t know that. I can’t say that.”
“Believing and knowing are two different things.” He says. “I don’t believe there’s a place called heaven or hell. I don’t believe that you’re judged by this person called God and he deems you good or bad and based on that you go to the one place or the other for eternity.”
“Does that belief help with your surfing?”
“Yeah. I find the more connected I feel, in a spiritual sense, the more I tap into the physical world, in a good positive way. In a way where I’m in the right place at the right time, the right wave comes to me, the wrong wave comes to the other guy. And he’s not quite as clued in. And I know that happens. That’s not even something I believe, I have it happen every day.”
“How do you get into that space?”
“I think we intentionally get out of that state. And that is our natural state. But since the world has turned into what it is… I really believe we tune into things and tune out of things. And most of the time as people in modern society we’re tuned out of things. I find the more stuff I have the more it tunes me out of that.”
“You always seem to be pushing an imaginary line in your surfing, always pushing at what’s possible?”
“When you get to a really high level of performing on a wave, I think for me when I’m at my top level, I feel that my board and the wave are not separate, like I’m part of my board and we’re part of the curve of the wave and you tap into the flow line of what’s happening on the wave. You go to the right place, you don’t have your mind getting in the way. You’re not thinking, its instantaneous, thought to action. You just react without thinking about it. That’s really just putting time in. And when you get to start maneuvering without thinking about it, when you’re not thinking okay you got to lean here to go there, that’s the process as you’re getting better at anything. It’s like driving a car, at first there are a lot of things to think about. After a while you don’t think about it and you can shift as fast as you want. But it’s just doing it. That’s all surfing is. Doing it more and more until it becomes second nature and then you can go wherever your eyes see. Wherever you feel. It’s really just putting that time in.”
“We’ve spoken a lot about consumerism and capitalism in the world right now. But you’re a commercial entity, you’re basically the face of Quiksilver and drive a lot their sales. How do you deal with that?”
“I’ve definitely battled with that at times. I had a period of time in the mid 90s where I wanted to quit having any sponsors, I just wanted to live on prize money. But it’s like where do you draw the line? What is soul surfing? What is living purely? We got to face it, we do live in this society. We do function with money… Money’s just an exchange between people. I do my best to give back. Sometimes I win a contest and just give the money away to either a charity or some local people. I give my surfboards away. I do my best to do my part and not be too selfish. If you can get all that money and then do something good with it then that’s great. I do have feelings that probably contradict certain things in my life and you got to look at those and assess how you’re going to change them.”
Later that day, I was sitting in the water trying to get some waves with about a hundred other people at Supertubes. Way up the line I saw Kelly take off and start picking up speed. I immediately started paddling. As the wave walled up, with Kelly screaming down the line, I shamelessly dropped in on the king, and started my slow, kooky bottom turn. He simply adjusted his line, drew a bigger bottom turn around me and shot off down the line towards Impossibles and beyond.