Kelly Slater Reflects on Early Career as Next Chapter Looms

A young Kelly Slater, aged 19, at a Quiksilver press event in 1991.<p>Photo: John Stanton/WireImage/Getty Images</p>
A young Kelly Slater, aged 19, at a Quiksilver press event in 1991.

Photo: John Stanton/WireImage/Getty Images

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The problem – or, rather, concern – with childhood stardom is that kids often burn too bright, too young. Musicians, actors, athletes, and yes, even surfing's seen its child proteges flare out. From an early age, they’re thrust into a world filled with opportunity (good and bad), they’re burdened beyond their developing mental faculties, and thus, they may lose their spark, their fire.

Raised in a broken home in Florida, Slater, who, at 52 years old may finally have seen his time on the Championship Tour come to an end, has been in the game since he was barely old enough to wrap his arms around his first board (airbrushed with the 1975 Jaws poster on it). By age 11, he was presaged as a future champion. And somehow, despite the early stardom, his time in the spotlight has endured much longer than most. Without doubt, no question, Slater has been the most successful competitive surfer in history.

His domination has spanned decades and generations – from his first professional heat win against 1989 world champion Martin Potter, to his last loss as a full-time competitor on the CT at Margaret River against current world #1 Griffin Colapinto (who is less than half his age), and everything in between – namely rivalries with Andy Irons, Sunny Garcia, Mick Fanning, Joel Parkinson, et al.

Below, in a new episode of Barton Lynch’s podcast, “The Stoked Bloke Show,” the two world champions (BL in 1988; Slater 11x) reflected on the early days of Slater's career, his childhood, and how he made it out unscathed…mostly. Here’s some highlights:

On his parents (1:10)

“My mom was born in Bethesda, Maryland. She went to school there. And she got married out of high school, but it was never meant to last. At 19, she moved to Florida, and she got a job at NASA. My dad was born in Ocala, Florida. He moved to Cocoa Beach at some point, and my mom was on a date with some guy, and my dad and her caught eyes. Well, one eye. My dad was blind in one eye.”

On their separation (4:16)

“My parents split up when I was about 10 or 11 years old. My dad drank a lot. Both of ‘em were struggling in their own ways. People really used to get married and have a family young. You didn’t really get to live.”

Related: Kelly Slater is No Longer on the Championship Tour. So, What's Next?

On growing up in Cocoa Beach (10:30)

“It was really good to see all these different types of surfers. There were some longboarders, back then bodyboarding was big, people still kneeboarded…but there were a lot of good shortboarders, and I grew up around that contingent. I learned from them.”

On drugs and alcohol (13:48)

“There’s nobody whose life got better because they drank or did drugs. My mom hammered that into me as a kid. When I was 15, I got drunk the first time. The next time I drank I was 18. I had only been drunk three times by the time I was 21. I hated seeing my dad like that. I’ve dabbled here and there over the years, but I hate hangovers.”

On longevity (25:15)

“If I’m in the right headspace, and I want to be, I can be competitive at any break. I don’t think I’m trying to big-up myself. But it’s rare that I want it now. The only reason I’m still competing…the Olympics, this one’s gonna be at Teahupo’o. I cared again. If I’m focused, and I want it, Teahupo’o is in my wheelhouse.”

Related: 10 Memorable Moments from Kelly Slater’s Career (in Video)

On competitive nature (42:10)

“Even in school, I won the spelling bee. I would win these track and field things. I was really quick in flag football. Even the teacher got in on it. The whole other team said, ‘just go for Kelly.’ I wasn’t the fastest, but I understood how it worked. I always loved competing, and it all came together when I got into surfing.”

And that’s just the first half of the marathon, two-hour conversation. Think Slater is competitive even when it comes to niche podcast endurance? Maybe so.


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