How Kelly Slater became the greatest competitive surfer of all time

September 21, 2021 | Surfing
Kelly Slater: probably the greatest surfer of all time | Photo: Quiksilver

The stats, figures, and facts speak for themselves. Kelly Slater is the greatest and most successful professional surfer in the history of the sport.

No one has ever been close to Slater's record winning streak.

Throughout his career, the Floridian-born athlete won 11 Championship Tour (CT) titles, 55 elite events, and many other second-tier trophies, including the US Open of Surfing.

Kelly Slater is the first professional surfer to compete at the highest level aged 49 and one of the few to stay on top of their game for three decades.

There's a subtle difference between being the greatest surfer of all time (G.O.A.T.) and the most successful competitive surfer in the world.

But in Slater's case, you could arguably say he ticks both boxes.

Is he the best surfer of all time? Maybe yes, maybe not.

The Cocoa Beach surfer has been breaking and adding records to his career stats, including becoming the youngest (20) and the oldest (39) to clinch a world title.

He kicked off his glorious path beating his idols, and reached the end of his cycle competing and eliminating athletes half his age or less.

Kelly Slater competed throughout the ASP World Tour and World Surf League (WSL) eras.

In three decades, the multiple-time world champion witnessed revolutionary changes in surfboard design and the arrival of the aerial surfing generation.

And he was always able to adapt, scrutinize, correct, improve, and learn from others and his mistakes.

Slater is the first surfer and athlete to embrace the sport as a multidimensional professional activity.

But how and why did surfing's G.O.A.T. achieve such unprecedented success in his 30-year career?

The world's greatest athletes - Cristiano Ronaldo, Michael Jordan, Roger Federer, Muhammad Ali, Simone Biles, Michael Phelps, Tony Hawk, Serena Williams, Usain Bolt, Babe Ruth, Lewis Hamilton, Nadia Comaneci, etc. - seem to share a few common denominators.

If you analyze their track record carefully, you'll notice that they had more than just talent and luck.

There is a series of complex, visible, and invisible layers that, when combined proportionally, help develop super athletes.

Let's break down the most critical variables that sustain Kelly Slater's long list of victories, records, and career achievements.

Kelly Slater: the Floridian surfer competed at the highest level for 30 years | Photo: WSL

The Passion for Surfing

Kelly Slater had a rough upbringing that culminated with his parents' painful divorce. The event caused him anxiety and insecurity.

However, the young Floridian found something through which he could channel and free his emotions - surfing.

He started surfing at the age of five, and by the time he was ten, Slater was already winning contests in Atlantic Ocean waves.

His natural talent and passion for surfing shone from a very young age, and Kelly once revealed that sport gave him a safe place.

The Competitive Drive

When at 13, Kelly Slater won two professional contests and got his first four-figure checks, he realized he could change his and his mother's lives.

So, as a teenager, the Floridian already knew that discipline and a goal-oriented drive could make him an accomplished professional surfer.

Besides, Slater always loved to compete, be challenged and put himself on the line. It has always been part of who he is.

Interestingly, aging did not cool down his competitive fire. On the contrary, with time, Slater became increasingly fierce and ruthless as a pro surfer.

The Body Shape and Measurements

The body is every athlete's working tool.

We are all born different, and we carry several physical attributes with us throughout life. The majority cannot be changed; others could be optimized.

There are three human body types: the ectomorph, the mesomorph, and the endomorph.

Kelly Slater has a mesomorph body type, meaning that he has a medium frame, can develop muscles quickly, and is not underweight or overweight.

Also, he is of average height, a characteristic that fits perfectly the sport of surfing.

Kelly Slater: he became a prolific aerial surfer well into his 30s | Photo: Red Bull

The All-Around Surfing Skills

Kelly Slater started competing in the early 1980s.

The 1980s were a pivotal moment for the sport and a time when the first full-time professional surfers realized they could earn a living from traveling and riding the world's best waves.

It was also a transition period from 6'6'' surfboards to shorter, high-performance boards.

The regular footer was one of the first surfing stars to adapt his natural talent and skills to the several types of waves available on tour.

He felt comfortable inside the barrel, finding carving opportunities in mushy waves, hitting breaking sections vertically, and unleashing a few power surfing turns.

From the early days on the professional circuit, Slater excelled in both small and big surf.

He also understood the importance of training switch stance and progressively improved his aerial arsenal.

Actually, some of his best and most memorable airs were performed in his late 30s and 40s, which only proves that Slater is like Port wine - the older, the better.

The Study of the Ocean and Competitors

The expression "knowledge is power" is a recurring cliché, but it is - and will always be - a valid statement.

Kelly Slater has always shown interest in knowing more about surf science and the way swells, winds, and surf breaks interact with each other.

Before, during, and after a competition, the Floridian studies the venue, its shifting patterns, the best positioning options in the lineup, and the behavior and potential of the wave.

But he went further than most the athletes on tour - he reviewed and examined his opponents, analyzing their strengths and weaknesses.

All the empirical and statistical data gathered is another layer of information needed to gain a competitive advantage over other surfers.

Today, video analysis is a must-have tool in any sport, but back in the day, the pioneers would always be ahead of their game.

Slater was one of them.

Kelly Slater: an accomplished power surfer, and a tube riding master | Photo: WSL

The Surfboard Science

Surfboards are a professional surfer's main piece of equipment.

If you're competing at the highest level, you've got to have boards that not only fit your style but also adapt to each wave and contest.

Kelly Slater was one of the first to work directly, in the shaping room, with board builders and the brands that sponsored him.

He has always been known for understanding the anatomy of a surfboard from a surfboard shaper's perspective.

Slater fine-tuned his professional surfboards to the slightest detail.

The 11-time world champion experimented with hundreds of templates, shapes, and sizes and made precise changes to his favorite sticks.

His quiver changed - or evolved - dramatically throughout the early 1980s and the early 2020s. Why? Because surfing changed, and his surfing changed through time, too.

If there's one pro surfer who knows exactly what he's riding better than anyone else, it's Slater.

The Wave Reading and Wave Selection Knowledge

Whether you're in a man-on-man, three-man, or four-man heat, there's at least one thing that you need to master to advance through.

The ability to read an incoming wave set or a single roller within a 30-minute competition window is critical to get the highest scoring opportunities.

Thousands of heats have been lost to poor wave reading skills - the surfers took off on a wave, the wave closed out, and they gave away priority.

And then, there's wave selection. Which one's best? The first, the second, or the third of a set?

In this particular field, Kelly Slater has always stood above most competitors.

He became a master in the art of reading and choosing the right wave for a particular moment in a heat.

And this is undoubtedly one of those variables that determines event winners and world champions.

Kelly Slater: the creator of the world's first artificial barreling wave | Photo: WSL

The Winning Mindset

The history of professional, competitive surfing features plenty of superb, all-around surfers that could have won one or several world titles.

Tom Carroll, Tom Curren, Martin Potter, Mark Occhilupo, Sunny Garcia, CJ Hobgood, Andy Irons, Joel Parkinson, and Mick Fanning had the quality and potential to double or triple their achievements.

In the most extreme examples, it is still unbelievable how surfers like Cheyne Horan, Gary Elkerton, Taj Burrow, Dane Reynolds, Rob Machado have never been crowned world champions.

Slater is cut from a different cloth. Throughout 30 years, he has always found reasons to push himself competitively. Always.

Let's not forget that he locked in five of his 11 world titles after a stellar 2005 comeback.

And you can only do it with a near-obsessive winning mindset that drives you to chase victory as the ultimate goal, take risks, and embrace a hunter's mentality.

The Tactics and Mind Games

In competitive surfing, tactics and strategy are constantly at play.

Surfing heats sometimes remind us of chess games, always full of anticipation calculus, risk management, and even bluffing.

Those are some of the things that take place in the lineup. Slater reads his opponents exceptionally well (and accurately) 90 percent of the time.

And then, there are mind games, most of them played out of the water, during live interviews, or in the locker room.

The way he greeted his rivals, the way he smiled, the way he praised their surfing, and the way he just stood cool, calm, and collected before and after a heat.

Almost every surfer on tour has a story to tell about Slater's famous mind games. In the end, it's all about increasing the chances of winning.

And if you're an athlete, winning is everything.

Kelly Slater: the ultimate mind games strategist | Photo: WSL

The Rivalries

Rivalries have always been one of the things that fueled and made Kelly's surfing go from good to great and then to excellent.

He had several healthy and more intense and controversial disputes with Rob Machado, Tom Curren, Mark Occhilupo, Sunny Garcia, C. J. Hobgood and, ultimately, with the late Andy Irons.

You could feel the effect and impact his closest opponents had in his surfing. It was evident in the way he paddled out and rode each wave.

On several occasions, his finest hour arrived while surfing against his archrivals or during world title decider heats and finals.

Andy Irons was surely his greatest adversary.

The Hawaiian represented everything Slater was not. Irons was the anti-hero, Slater was the mainstream hero. Andy was dark, and Kelly was light.

The Floridian was always able to allow the right amount of rivalry into his headspace.

The Win-Lose Balance

Kelly Slater is one of the winningest professional surfers of all time.

Nevertheless, and especially in a sport like surfing, everything is possible, and sometimes even the lack of waves can cost you elimination.

So, you could be winning five heats or events in a row and immediately after fall into a depressing losing streak.

It happens all the time, and with all surfers without exception.

Slater once revealed that he learned to balance his positive and negative emotions to avoid abrupt psychological changes throughout the season.

In other words, you don't see him euphoric and ecstatic in victory and miserable and debilitated in defeat.

He stays away from extreme highs or lows, trying to keep a fairly balanced state of mind.

Kelly Slater: he won 11 world surfing titles and 55 Championship Tour events | Photo: WSL

The Psychology and Self-Analysis

Kelly Slater knows that it's all in the mind, and he has been taking care of his mental health for a long time.

A sudden lack of confidence, failure to ride perfectly doable waves, personal life issues, depressive moods, relationships, visualization, success management, and fine adjustments to a winner's mindset are some of the topics he regularly works on with his psychologist.

Everyone has their ups and downs; everyone has their inner demons and traumas, and fixing them is the only road to success and happiness.

The Entrepreneurial Vein

Today, Kelly Slater is more than just a surfing legend - he is a brand and an entrepreneur with several business interests.

The Floridian lives another life outside surfing, which he developed while he was still chasing world titles.

The Kelly Slater Wave Company was one of his most groundbreaking projects. He worked on it for over a decade before finally unveiling an artificial wave that changed the wave pool paradigm and industry.

He also founded Outerknown, a sustainable clothing brand for surfers and non-surfers alike.

The Low Key Personal Life

Kelly Slater likes to keep his private life for himself and out of the spotlight.

For a long time, fans, media, and opponents knew little about the champion's relationships, friends, and family.

Gradually, he started to open up and revealed a few details about his childhood and adulthood.

Nevertheless, he has already confirmed that he hasn't many friends on the world tour, and his private circle is limited to close family and soul mates.

The Diet

We are what we eat and drink. The old maxim applies to Kelly Slater's diet.

The Floridian is known for staying in shape for a long time, even though he has never particularly enjoyed beach calisthenics and weight rooms.

He is a fan of jiu-jitsu, freediving, cross-fit, and hot baths, so the secret lies in his nutrition.

Slater embraced a yogic diet, which includes a rich breakfast made of yogurt, raw nuts, chia seeds, and goji berries.

He is also also a fan of homemade almond milk and often drinks concentrated doses of omega-3 fatty acids from marine algae.

When it comes to liquid intakes, expect him to drink a lot of water and smoothies, and alcohol consumption is rare.

"I'm a two beer guy," Slater once revealed.


Words by Luís MP | Founder of SurferToday.com