Kelly Slater dissects his life and career on the Olympic Channel

December 6, 2019 | Surfing
Kelly Slater: the greatest competitive surfer of all time | Photo: Cestari/WSL

Kelly Slater joined the Olympic Channel podcast for a very special talk about his private life, successful career, and the Olympic Games.

The greatest surfer of all time will not retire before he completes three decades as a professional athlete. And that will always be after Tokyo 2020.

Here's the edited transcription of the interview with Ashlee Tulloch:

 

Do you still feel that your competitive mind is there, or do you feel things are a bit different, and your perspective is different?

My perspective has definitely changed. There's definitely a spiritual connection for everybody with the mindset that you get in to compete.

Looking back on my life and career, I've had a lot of flashbacks and memories and thoughts about how different my mindset is.

I had a lot of sadness this year - not around the people that passed away, that too - but more around the end of a cycle of something in your life.

I guess it's equally exciting and sad, and it's been such a big part of my life that I honestly don't know when I'm going to retire. I'm going just to announce it the day it happens.

But I feel that as an impending thing and so, everywhere I go, and the people I get to see again or I miss along the way that I wanted to see, it all kind of dredges up all this emotion.

So it's been a good thing. I think I'm probably maturing.

Legacy: what would you like your Kelly Slater's legacy to be? Would it be the cherry on the top going to the Olympics, or would it be winning the Olympics?

No, it doesn't need to be that.

Look, I've done enough. If I'm not happy with what I've done, I've got a serious mental issue because I've done it all.

I don't want my legacy to be depending on my career, to be honest.

I'd like to be done with it, and I just have life be good - that's the most important thing, I think, in the end.

Kelly Slater: the most successful competitive surfer of all time | Photo: Williams/WSL

A lot of people ask what your motivation is, what drives you. I want to know what is your why. What is Kelly Slater's purpose?

I don't think anyone's purpose is really too different from anyone else's purpose, to be honest.

I think we're all here to kind of get along, be good other people, look after people, and be the best version of ourselves - that's pretty universal.

Each person has some sort of special thing about them. Mine's been surfing, and I think I do psychoanalyze myself and others have.

I go back and look at it like: "why did I become this? How did I become this, and do all these things?"

Everyone's born into a certain dynamic with their parents and their siblings if they have them, and we all react to our surroundings for whatever reason.

Mine, on a paper, is pretty simple.

My parents had a very struggling relationship. We didn't have much money. We had pretty humble means. My mom was spending her last hour in the paycheck every week just to get us by.

We lost the house that we lived in as kids.

My mom said: "we're down to two more months pay on our mortgage." She couldn't afford it and couldn't find someone to borrow the money, so we had to sell the house.

And then I had an older brother who really pushed me. We were really competitive but, as we got older, it was pretty clear that he didn't quite have the talent to make it on a world level.

And I think that competitive nature and probably that chip on my shoulder... I don't know if I had a chip.

I mean, I've always been pretty nice to people, but just living in a small town, even in a world of America amateur surfing, East Coasters were just looked down upon.

They were not as good as West Coast guys, and West Coasters weren't as good as Hawaiians and Australians.

And I think that's why we see so many good Brazilians now.

They were not the primary guys and, all of a sudden, three of the five best guys in the world are Brazilians. They've won a few world titles.

No one saw that coming. Americans - and maybe more Australians - got a little too complacent, and maybe cocky about the position we've had.

But as a kid growing up, becoming a teenager, turning pro, and watching all the pros that were my heroes, seeing that on a personal level, maybe I didn't respect them as much as I thought I did just because they were like this enigma to me.

And then I met them and they all kind of party and do stuff I didn't approve, and then this whole chain of events happened in my life that drove me.

I had a relationship - my first love - which fell apart... This is all a full-cycle analysis of myself, but the way to fill that hole in my heart was to just win.

And nothing could stop me. I just had this drive that almost feels unfamiliar to me now because I just don't feel that same way.

I want to surf for the pure joy of loving surfing now. But I don't have that same inward need to win so that I feel good.

But I do feel bad when I lose. I still feel that.

Each person who does something that somebody hasn't done, I think they went through something in their life that causes a drive that you just can't formulate.

Kelly Slater: 30 years competing as a professional surfer | Photo: Sherman/WSL

It sounds like part of your longevity was managing that drive, right?

I did this funny sort of equation when I was a kid. When competing against somebody, I used to think: "who are they competing against, and who did they beat?"

"And if they beat that person and I beat them, I can beat that person."

It helped me build my confidence, and then when I turned pro, I remember thinking: "okay, I won a heat against so and so, and he beat the world champion. So, I can beat the world champion. And if I can beat the world champion, I can become the world champion."

And then I got on the Tour and, sort of right away, I was beating a lot of world champions.

In my first full year on the Tour, I won the world title, and I felt like I could. I didn't feel like the level was above me. I didn't feel like the level was unachievable.

I actually felt the level wasn't very good. I actually looked at it and thought: "these guys suck, surfing should be way above this."

And that was the mindset that I had to have in order to be successful the way I wanted to be.

I sort of won everything as a kid, and when I turned pro, I expected to do the same, and so I won the world title in 1992, and I almost fell off the Tour in 93.

With four events to go, I was in 28th place. And then I got a first and two seconds in the last events, and then maybe a fifth, I think, to finish the year tied in fifth place.

And then the next year, I was like: "okay, that's not going to happen again."

And I won both the Qualifying Series in the World Tour that year in 94. I surfed everything.

I just said: "I'm just going to win everything I can possibly win."

I don't know if anyone's done that since. I don't think anyone has won the QS and the CT, but I just went on a full travel mission.

I just went everywhere, surfed everything.

I really loved competing. I really loved winning. It felt great, and you make money doing it.

That's another thing that comes into the equation because when I was 21 years old, I was engaged, I was doing really well, making money, winning, and then next year I found out I was totally broke and in debt actually.

And then my relationship fell apart, and I almost fell off the Tour that year.

I just went: "Okay, time to get this thing together and see how far I can go with it." And so I won five years in a row.

But I felt like there was something literally like otherworldly that I couldn't have predicted what happened that made that all gel in the right way.

Kelly Slater: he won 11 world surfing titles | Photo: Scholtz/WSL

There are many people who love you and respect you and wanted to be you. Do you wake up in the morning thinking it's great to be Kelly Slater?

I sometimes wake up and don't like that position at all.

I sometimes wake up and feel totally alone in this world - which might sound strange to people - but I think it happens to people who have had a great deal of success in their lives.

I've heard that that happened to other people.

I don't really know what it's like for anyone else, but I sometimes feel just like super alone.

I've had this thing with my older brother, where he just has for a long time thought everything was just great for Kelly, and he doesn't realize that I have my own challenges and things that are really tough for me to express or communicate or deal with or resolve or understand.

And so sometimes even somebody in your family doesn't understand that - so how can somebody who'd seen you in a magazine have an idea what your life's like? 

I guess it could be hard to figure out who the genuine people are. Some people want something from you.

I think you feel the genuine people. I think that becomes pretty easy to see after a while. And time dictates that.

I have a friend that used to travel with me on Tour. We met in 2003. He traveled with me on Tour for about three years. He stopped traveling with me for about 12 or 13 years.

I might not talk to him for six or eight months, but nothing changes when I see him.

He's living in LA, got a job and a kid, he's been through marriage and divorce since we're traveling together.

There are people you meet along the way you know will be friends for life, and you don't have to question it.

But I don't think it's super hard to figure out why people want to be around you.

[Everyone else is] energy vampires! I guess that's what people refer to. But at the end of the day, they're people that need to help themselves.

Kelly Slater: a fan of wave pools in the Olympic Games | Photo: Poullenot/WSL

There is a lot of people who watch you and are so inspired by you. Do you fell people genuinely get enjoyment and pleasure and happiness out of watching you essentially be you?

I know they do because I tell me - people express it to me a lot.

I got a lot of friends who are at home, in a job, and like surfing. But they don't get to do it enough, and they don't get to ever travel.

There's a way of living vicariously through a friend who's doing something. On that level, I understand it.

I don't see it like pressure or anything. I'm just out to live my life, but I've always been mindful.

My mom really beat it into me as a kid just to be mindful, to be a good influence if people look up to you, or want to listen to what you say.

I've always been pretty hypersensitive to trying to put out a good message.

All people screw up their lives, all people mess up and make mistakes, and so you know sometimes even the thing you say isn't necessarily what you've done or the way you're living, but you're trying to put that message out and deal with your own things not in a public way, in a private way.

So those are tricky situations for people.

I watch that a lot from inside the people who have addiction problems or are very famous, and we've got to feel for those people.

Tiger Woods: the pinnacle of it all.

Everyone has a judgment on that guy - and rightfully so in a lot of ways. But at the same time, no one's ever been there.

There are very few people who have been in that situation, in Tiger's situation.

And if you don't have a real clear directive and a bigger picture of everything you're doing, it's easy to get sidetracked into all these weird little things that seem inviting, and then it blows up in your face, and it's embarrassing.

I'm not defending the guy. I am saying: what percentage of people actually could somehow see the road that he got led upon?

You've been doing this for 30 years, right?

I turned professional at 18, and I'm 47, so by the time I turn 48, I'll be 30 years pro next summer. I can't retire before 30 years. Funny enough, the Olympics is 30 years to the month that I turned pro.

Is it a sign?

Maybe. It could be. We'll know when we look back at later on.

I'd like to have that spot, but if John gets it, he deserves it, and I'll be happy for him.

But I'm going to do my best to take that position for myself.

Slater or Florence: one of them will represent USA in Tokyo 2020 | Photo: Sherman/WSL

Were you disappointed for not running the event on a wave pool?

I think most people think my opinion is biased because I created a wave pool.

But I feel pretty strongly that we should have had a wave pool option, and it didn't have to be the technology we created.

It could be any technology that is viable to be competitive and really show all we can do on a wave.

It seemed so natural to me. I'm thinking: we're going to Japan, they've always been a technologically advanced society.

You could have a man-made wave of high quality to really show and display and be proud of.

I thought: it's a no-brainer - this will probably happen, at least for a backup. If the ocean's not delivering - bang! - we're straight away for the wave pool.

We can start and run it anytime we need to, we can exactly keep in the schedule, and that's what we're going to have trouble with in the ocean.

I think it's inevitable that that's what we signed up for now.

I don't know where that decision was made. I don't know if it was just the IOC, or if there were other people within that conversation.

I really don't know, but I thought it was unfortunate because I thought it would have been really cool to bring a new sport in and use technology that shows that.

Do you think it's still going to be exciting, something that's going to be really cool, surfing in the Olympics?

I don't know.

Is the future of surfing in the Olympics bright? Imagine if we go to Tahiti for Paris 2024.

That would be amazing. But what are surfers going to do? Go join the team in Paris, fly all the way over, compete, and go back to the closing ceremony?

You're so far removed from the Olympic Games. It would be a little funny.

I personally think that there should be a wave pool in France and it should also be Hossegor and maybe mobile between those.

Hossegor and Capbreton and Anglet will all fight among each other for the contest's rights. So, there's always local politics involved.

I think there should be, at any foreseeable place, a wave pool technology ahead of us.

For 2028, the natural one there would be Lower Trestles. If for some reason, it's just a horrible summer, you go to Lemoore and use the pool or another one somewhere else.

Kelly Slater: he suffered a serious injury when he was 19 | Photo: Sherman/WSL

Is there anything that you wish you had done earlier in your career? Is there anything you regret? Stretching more, Baywatch?

I first injured my hip when I was 19 in a wipeout on a wave. I tore my labrum, and it went undiagnosed. I didn't have it looked up, and I tore it again multiple times over the next eight or ten years.

That's an injury that's really hindered me and hurt my back a lot too.

I was in a lot of pain for a long time and kind of in denial of it and just surfed through it and let the adrenaline take over.

When I was 17 or 18, I got into doing yoga quite a bit, and then in my mid-20s, I really got into it and did it for a few years. I wish from that point on I had stuck with it a bit every day.

I've been doing some Pilates just enough stretching to get by, and I get a lot of bodywork that probably helps me. When I was young, I didn't get my bodywork at all.

I sometimes do five hours of massage. I got a woman who just breaks all the scar tissue in my body apart. I think she one time worked for me for six or seven hours in one day.

And if you take a hot bath after and do some stretching, everything is releasing and letting go.

I didn't really get into my diet until I was sort of like mid-20s - 23, 24 - and looking back, I wish my mom was a hippie.

I didn't learn about eating well until I was in my 20s. I grew up on sugar and chips and ice creams and created a lot of habits I wish I didn't have.

I eat a pretty good diet nowadays - a lot more fruit and vegetables - and I did end up growing up a lot cleaner.

Luckily, I have money so that I can eat well. That's one of the things I spend my money on - food. But I don't eat a lot; I don't overeat.

I think there's probably no one that looks back and wishes there was nothing they change.

But we all have to go through that to learn a lesson and just having awareness around all aspects of your life is important.

There was a time when I thought: why did I do Baywatch? It was driving me nuts but, actually, it probably drove me competitively to be better because I got a lot of crap for it.

It was hard for me to just own it and be like: "I did it. Deal with it. Don't be jealous."

Instead, I sort of became the victim of getting made fun of.

I didn't love it, and so it was hard for me; I was sort of embarrassed about it, but it drove me in my competitive aspects.

I would just think in my head: "this guy's thinking about Baywatch; he wants to make fun of me. I am going to smash him in the heat."

I used it as fuel for years, even if it wasn't true because I was so sensitive to it.

At this point, I look back, and it's hilarious. If I saw someone on Tour doing that right now, it would be so crazy.


Kelly Slater's Olympic Channel podcast is available at olympicchannel.com.