Thursday, February 11, 2010
“What’s the coolest thing that’s happened to you off the board,” ESPN Sportcenter’s Neil Everett asked Kelly Slater, “because of your celebrity on the board?”
On board, Slater’s been the youngest and oldest champion his sport has known, claiming a record-crushing nine world titles and earning him comparisons to Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan. As his friend/local surf sage/On the Beach owner Kelly Sorensen says, “There’s not too many nine-time world champs out there.”
Off-board, he’s starred on screens big (The Big Bounce) and small (Baywatch), bet shares of stock on golf with Quicksilver CEO Bob McKnight, produced Jack Johnson’s September Sessions, been linked to Cameron Diaz, Gisele Bündchen and Pamela Anderson, and played guitar with Johnson, Eddie Vedder and Ben Harper.
An articulate ambassador for the sport he’s taken mainstream, Slater often thinks before he speaks. And this looked like a tough call. But his answer came quickly. The coolest thing: “Being able to play the AT&T Pebble Beach.”
That – and the fact that today, Feb. 11, is his birthday – means this is a big week for Slater. And it just got bigger. IMAX big.
Ultimate Wave Tahiti 3D – which premiered in Los Angeles Monday, Feb. 8, and launches at Cannery Row IMAX this Friday, Feb. 12 – pits Slater against a so-called “slab wave” named Teahupoo. Riding one, Outside reports, “is like escaping from a collapsing parking garage.”
The Stephen Low-directed film does more than astound visually. Polynesian seafaring culture, wave science and sea-centric environmental education all figure in prominently.
That fits with the Coco Beach native’s natural approach. Slater could have followed the aloof and arrogant lead of the early pro surfers, but instead charted a course to professionalize and popularize the still-fringe sport. He could blow the mortal masses off and no one would blink, but instead he’s known for an easy approachability. He could be content to simply pull down titles and tail, but he’s got an ocean of other efforts in motion.
“I think both [golf and surfing] offer a similar challenge on some level. It’s good when it’s flat, it’s a constant challenge, and you might just do something you’ve never done on the next shot or hole.”
His foundation’s partners are heading efforts to preserve coral reefs (Reef Check), shield storied breaks from development (Surfriders Save Trestles) and bring at-risk youngsters to the beach (L.A. Surf Bus). Others evolve programs to reduce runoff (Miocean) and boost special-needs kids in innovative ways (Surfers Healing and The Space Coast Early Intervention Center); the Slater Brothers Invitational benefits the World Skin Cancer Foundation. In the meantime, Slater golfs ravenously (he’s a 3 handicap), dabbles in bioelectric medicine and surfboard design, and speaks knowledgably about wind and solar power (and goes nuclear on nuclear).
The Weekly reached him at his home on Oahu, Hawaii, as he readied to fly east for the AT&T.
NPR called you “the coolest guy ever” on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. Plenty call you the Greatest Surfer Ever. A more surprising label: Bob Woodward and Planet Green called you a “surfer turned activist… who’s worked up about some things.” What’s got you worked up?
There’s a lot of things I’m passionate about, and basically anything that people put their hands on, there’s going to be benefits for people and there’s going to be problems, and generally our civilization doesn’t look at the next seven generations like the Indians did so we end up with some kind of s*** on our hands that we need to clean up.
Beaches are key to your foundation’s work: access and preservation.
It’s crazy. I have a friend who takes kids surfing from all the inner city areas, and these kids, a lot of them live within 5 or 10 miles of the beach and they’ve never seen the beach, let alone been in the ocean, and then even fewer have ridden waves, so she spends her whole life taking kids down to learn how to surf.
They’re so excited about it. They get the meaning of “stoked” right away and they’re saying “Hey we’re going to be surfers forever” after riding a few waves on a boogie board, so you know it’s a pretty addictive thing.
You’re just out there doing something that’s free. I love to play golf but generally you’ve got to pay a lot of money to buy the equipment and go play a round.
The other day I was surfing some just incredible waves here in Hawaii and I looked to my friend and said, “I can’t believe this is free.” You can go out here and ride as many waves as you want and it doesn’t cost anything. It’s amazing that we actually have this.
Got some golf thoughts from you. “Happy said it best. ‘All golf requires is goofy pants and a fat ass.’”
Happy Gilmore. Adam Sandler. There’s a serious side of things and golf’s a pretty conservative sport but I think it’s pretty funny when Adam Sandler and Bill Murray and people like that get involved.
You told Surfer magazine “Golf is the greatest game in the world.”
You know, it’s not a sport in my eyes. Golf’s a game. You’re not out there doing something athletic, necessarily – I mean the actual swing may be athletic and the stronger you are and the better your technique is the better you are – but you know it’s a great game because you meet a lot of different people, and it’s a lifestyle thing you can do until you’re 100 years old, like surfing, and you know the game teaches you a lot about yourself, the way you play. Do you roll your ball over in the fairway? Do you play by the rules?
You said, “Every time the waves aren’t good I’m golfing.” What happens if it’s raining?
I have a guitar.
Here’s another: “I hit a guy in the butt with a line drive that never got six feet off the ground once.”
That was at Twin Lakes golf course in Santa Barbara. I was playing with [legendary surfboard shaper] Al Merrick and the thing just bee-lined straight at the guy and just stung him right through the shorts, right in the butt. I felt horrible but his buddies were already on the green and he was like 50 yards behind the green and he came walking out of the woods and I didn’t see him.
You gave a good Zen-like description of surfing the other day. “Water pushes against the board; you push back.” Can you distill golf like that?
I’m not sure. You swing and the ball gets in the way. Hopefully you’re swinging at the target and the face is square.
Playing on a stage with Ben Harper, doing the Baywatch run, making People’s 50 Most Beautiful, dating Pamela Anderson, making the cut at the AT&T. How do you rank those?
I guess I look back on those in life and think sometimes it’s harder when you’re in something to have an outside perspective. I mean, if some of the things that have happened in my life happened to friends of mine then I’d probably be trippin’ on it a little bit going, “Huh? That’s wild.” But when it’s you it’s just part of your life I guess.
I’ve seen you do some UFC training and understand you’re a big fan. How do you think like that translates to the wave or your training?
I wouldn’t say training in terms of boot camp. I didn’t do the six-month training with them – it’s like a day here and there, with Victor Belfort or Ricardo Arona or Rickson Gracie. These are world champions and amazing fighters and for me it’s just an exciting way to meet these guys. They share what they do with me and we go surf or whatever and I share what I do with them and we have mutual love for each other’s sports.
I love the technical side of jujitsu, I love the aspects of mixed martial arts, as a kid I actually trained in this world champion karate guy’s gym with this guy named Don “The Dragon” Wilson. I was like 10 years old.
As a little kid I think I was pretty confused so I used to like to fight a lot. Luckily that was pre-teen.
Balance seems to be a big thing in that training. When you got that huge wave in the annual Eddie big wave contest at Waimea Bay in Hawaii and everyone saw you disappear in the 40-foot washout, then you come out upright, it’s crazy. Maybe there’s a remnant of that badass Wilson in your legs.
When it comes to surfing it’s such a second nature thing. I can see it happening and I do it without thinking. There’s nothing else in my life that is done that way without needing to process it a little.
I’ve been in almost every situation I could put myself in on a surfboard, every place on a wave that you might need to recover from or get out of the way – things that only come from something you’re passionate about and spend your life doing.
That takes me back to another thought I read from you: “One of the great joys of golf is you’ll get to do something you’ve never done.” People are always pitching you on stuff – “Oh, no one’s ever done this” – how do you keep that critical eye when there’s so many pitches? How do you know that The Ultimate Wave Tahiti 3D is the thing to do right now?
When it comes to this film this is an opportunity that’s probably not going to come along many times – not only in my life but for surfers. Tahiti’s a natural choice because you can get close to the waves, and visually it’s the most stunning wave in the world. Not to mention it’s one of the most beautiful places on Earth, those elements all come together and I was able to work with one of my best friends makin’ a film that’s not just a surf film, it’s a magical release.
I would have been happy just going there and surfing, but it’s an educational thing – in some aspects we got to be directors. He’s looking to us for guidance on certain things. We didn’t have one of the most classic-ever days for the film – that’s part of what the experience of surfing is – but we do get some big surf.
Take me to that wave – what’s a “slab wave” like? How’s it compare to Ghost Tree and Mavericks?
If you’re going to compare them, Ghost Tree isn’t a real good quality wave, it’s just a big, kinda dangerous, unpredictable wave. It’s just sort of this anomaly, it almost shouldn’t even break because the bottom’s not real good, it’s real shallow in spots and real deep in others. Mavericks on the other hand is a pretty shallow shelf, it comes out of really deep water and hits a shallow shelf so it jacks up really fast and it’s a really intense wave, that’s more similar to how Teahupoo is in Tahiti. You could call it short and sweet, but it’s not real sweet – it’s short and dangerous. It’s quick and it comes out of such deep water, you’re going from over 100 feet just outside the reef and it’s coming into like 8 or 10 feet of water where it’s breaking, and maybe you have a 30-foot wave – just the physics behind that, it’s intense – with that much energy exploding in a tiny zone the chance of hitting the reef are pretty good, so generally if you do you’re going to get hurt.
What’s been the most fun accidental learning that you’ve gathered in doing what you do?
You learn a lot about how the water moves and about how the ocean works, what happens with currents and what effect that has on the bottom, and the sand flows at different beaches seasonally, how beaches change over time. If I’m up on a mountain with a good view I can see where the shallow spots are in the ocean, not by the color but by how the swells grab the bottom and turn.
Maybe you learned something about how waves are made. You once said, “What we’re trying to do is create futuristic surf communities.”
There’s a wave-pool idea we’ve been working on for a few years, including real estate and homes, where the architecture and the materials used and that kind of stuff are surf style – and also creating the energy that’s used to run the community and waves with wind and solar.
OK. Speed round. It’s reported you were annoyed when the Aussie surfers were calling you “Jimmy” back in the Baywatch days. What’s your biggest pet peeve nowadays?
Let’s see. I hate wet countertops and floors in bathrooms. My girlfriend gets out of the shower wet and leaves the floor wet. That’s probably my biggest.
You and Carson Daly have played together a couple of years in a row at Pebble. Who’s your dream foursome?
Let’s see here. Probably Freddy Couples, who I’ve gotten the chance to play with and I just love watching him play golf. Maybe Bill Murray, and – one slot left – I would maybe pick Moe Norman, my favorite golfer. But Moe’s not around these days so if I had to pick a fifth to replace him it would probably be Adam Sandler. I’ve actually played with Adam once or twice as well.
I’m calling [local shark attack victim and Slater acquaintance] “Shark Boy” Todd Endris later today. What should I tell him?
Tell him if the scars haven’t gotten him any girls yet to put his shirt back on.
What’s the best rumor you’ve seen thrown out there with your name?
I heard I died in an airplane accident in Barbados once.
Worst business idea pitched?
Aw s***, man, I’ve had a few. I had some paddling device pitched to me. These wings that come out from your forearm that widen the size of your arms when you paddle but when you go against the water they wouldn’t. It was just some crap.
Best alternative medicine/bioelectric medicine/homeopathy insight?
There are a couple small home machines that do a number of things to help heal and kill parasites and the like pretty quickly. The Zapper and a machine called a SCENAR, which you can find online.
Favorite Central Cali Coast break? Favorite [On the Beach owner and friend] Kelly Sorensen moment?
Those spots are supposedly secrets but it’s funny how they’re always crowded.
Sorensen keeps trying to gather me in for a shop promo but it’s been about 19 years and I’m gonna keep it going.
Who’s on your best all time pre-surf-tournament playlist?
I basically don’t have one. Whatever I like at the moment I’ll put in.
The craziest thing a female fan has done to win your affection?
Draw on the walls with lipstick and sleep at my hotel door.
Perfect pre-surf breakfast?
Non-dairy smoothie. Lots of berries and acai and greens.
Technology’s affect on surfing – pro and recreational – good or bad?
Probably good. Boards are more consistent and predictable. Jet skis have allowed the biggest waves to be ridden safely that otherwise wouldn’t be caught.
How do you know you’re addicted to surfing? Golf?
When it’s more important than sleep.
What would surprise people most about life as Kelly Slater?
I’m all over the place but pretty low maintenance.
Best club in your bag?
They’re all the same. Driver is pretty consistent though.
Easiest way people can save reefs?
Get sunscreens with all natural ingredients. Mercola.com sells a good one. I think Aubrey organics has one too. I’ve heard Haunama Bay in Hawaii has had major effects on the reef quality from this problem.
You called world championship number nine “the most emotional of your career.” You also note you’re stronger than ever. What would number 10 mean, in 10 words or less?
Another title. A nice bonus. Lots of work and focus.