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It's difficult to imagine surfing without Kelly Slater. And after more than three decades dominating the sport, it's just as hard for the 11-time world champion to envision his life without it.
But soon, both will need to find a way to move on. "At some point, everything comes to an end," Slater, 50, tells PEOPLE.
The surf legend recently spoke with PEOPLE ahead of his 31st year on the World Surf League Championship tour and the debut of the latest season of Apple TV's Make or Break documentary series about the sport, which streams Friday. Slater's looming retirement from competitive surfing is a focus in the upcoming season, just as it often has been throughout the sport in recent years.
"I think about it a lot," he says. "It's a reality, because it's not far off for me. My competitive flame is burning low, but it can spark up at times."
It has, time and time again. During the 1990s, Slater crashed onto the scene and won six world championships in seven years before disappearing from the podium for the next half decade. Then, in the mid-2000s, Slater shot back up to win five more world titles in a seven-year span and solidified his legacy as, according to the World Surf League itself, "the greatest competitive surfer of all time."
"Kelly's been on tour for a hundred years and has a million wins," league broadcaster Ross Williams joked, somewhat earnestly, during the season's opening competition this month near Slater's home on the Oahu island in Hawaii.
There's more to Slater's life on the island now that mainstream attention has somewhat faded from its heyday in the late 90s and early 2000s. In those years, Slater became surfing's biggest megastar. He notched six world titles by the age of 26 and saw his fame skyrocket, appearing in a slew of commercials, music videos, TV shows and movies. An on-again, off-again relationship with Baywatch co-star Pamela Anderson had Slater's name in headlines, while he got his own video game, dabbled in music, wrote two memoirs and became one of the faces of extreme sports counterculture alongside skateboarder Tony Hawk and snowboarding's Shaun White.
Things have mellowed since then, but Slater's legend is carved in history. He's still mobbed by crowds holding camera phones and markers for autographs whenever he hits the beach, as highlighted in a recent 11-part WSL documentary about his life on tour. But the surfer still finds peace when he paddles out alone.
"I don't ever envision that time in my life where I'm not surfing," Slater says. "I've said it before and it sounds kind of strange, but I'd be totally fine passing away, out in the ocean somewhere, someday when I'm 100 years old. I want to surf until my final days."
Those days aren't here yet, though. Slater still toils over remaining competitive, as if there's unfinished business for a man who's run the sport so long he's simultaneously the youngest and oldest surfer to win a world championship. But adding a 12th world title isn't on his mind much this year. "The bigger goal," he says, is to be good enough to qualify for next year's Olympic surfing competition, which made its debut in 2020 without Slater after he missed the cut by one spot.
There's plenty of other things waiting for Slater ashore, like endorsement deals, commercials, and business ventures helping create new types of surfboards and wave pools.
"I'm getting busy," he laughs. And, of course, there's golf: It's "a hobby," Slater assures, though he sees himself competing at that one day. "I would like to try my hand at some point," he says. "I'm at a level where I should be able to perform if I'm not too nervous."
There's also family. Slater's daughter Taylor Slater-Kelleher and her husband Sam Kelleher recently moved to Hawaii after their marriage last October in order to be closer to dad. And perhaps Slater will soon follow suit with a proposal of his own to longtime girlfriend Kalani Miller. "Quite possibly," he smiles. "We talk about it a lot, so it'll probably happen at some point there."
Kelly Slater and Kalani Miller
Miller and their 11-year-old Chihuahua "Action" often travel with Slater, who can't imagine himself a homebody even when he does retire from competition. In fact, he can already see himself coming out of retirement to challenge his younger Make or Break co-stars.
"I'll still probably surf an event here or there for a few years to come," Slater says. "I really want to focus my life on going to my favorite places on the planet and maybe getting a boat and doing a lot of it just with a couple people. I don't know. It's a never-ending journey for surfers. There's always another wave and another place you want to go."