Interview: Kelly Slater

10 time world surfing champion Kelly Slater knows that catching a good wave is more than just a sport. It’s a lifestyle. Transforming the image of surfers beyond board shorts and rad lingo, this perfectionist athlete claimed his first world title at age 21 (The Youngest to do so). More importantly, Kelly revolutionised surfing with his own style which dictated the waves instead of vice versa. He became a household name in the ’90s with high-level endorsements,√ā¬†advertisements, his own band (The Surfers) and the occasional romance with Pamela Anderson. JUICE catches up with him a day before the Quiksilver Pro New York 2011 Surf Competition for some watery wisdom.

So how does it feel like to be in New York City, what was the first thing that you thought of today when you woke up?
I actually woke up in Montauk. And, um, I drove out here early. I don’t know, when I got down here to the Long Beach, it was a nice feeling cos you know East coast is home for me. I know we’re still a 24 hour drive from my house but it’s still East coast. I’ve spent a lot of time in New York over the years and I’m starting to get that excitement for the contest to start and waves to begin. You know the swells are gonna start today or tonight or tomorrow morning and we’re gonna get the good winds tomorrow.

What did you think when they said they were going to open a competition in New York?
My first thoughts were “where are we going to surf”, “what waves are we going to ride” and “what’s the forecast”? I thought New York would be cool because I always wanted to go to New York and now I have an excuse.

How does surfing rank as a sport in America?
It’s 23rd I think, (*laughs) err… actually I don’t know where it is, but it’s growing quickly. Anyway, this event will probably bring it to a lot more people… you know, because people don’t really think of New York and surfing at the same time, so to link those two will probably wake up some interest in people.

When you’re walking around Times Square, do people recognise you?

Ah yeah, quite a lot yeah. I used to be anonymous there when I was a kid. In my early 20s, I could walk around and it was kind of rare for someone to notice me. In fact, I remember when i was in Little Italy having food when it was the 2nd year I won the world title. This guy who worked there recognised me and I was pretty surprised. But now most people recognise me…well, not most people, but you know, I can’t walk too far without people going “Hey Kelly how are you?” It is strange when you’re far from the ocean and people recognise you. Sometimes it’s pretty cool, sometimes it’s pretty overwhelming. I was in an empty beach in Australia and there were four guys surfing there. Within two minutes, a film crew was there and by the time we got out of the water, there were about 40 people surfing and hundreds of people on the beach. And there was this guy half a meter away from my face just taking pictures. He didn’t say “hi” or anything. I said if I did that to him, I would expect him to punch me in the face. I know they recognise me but there is a limit.

You’re turning 40 next year, do you have any problems with that?
Just you bringing it up! (*laughs). But no, I don’t have any problems with it.

Surfing is a lot about timing as well. Some of them miss the time frame when they should’ve quit, how do you make sure this doesn’t happen to you?
Time travel. I don’t know… You just gotta figure it out. Most athletes, they have been doing something a long time and when they look at their statistic and it’s going down, it’s time to… you know, back out of there. But it is also your confidence and ego. You want to go out and say that when you stop, you’re at the peak of your thing. But then, if you love what you doing it is a different story, so it is entirely up to you.

You’ve mastered a sport which consists of falling and getting up again. Do you think surfing is like life? That you have to learn from every fall?
Yeah.. When you ride a wave you have to figure out the right turn, the right manoeuvre, and the right speed to put in all parts of the wave. And do they fit right, do they look right? And when you fall, hopefully you learn something. They say in life you learn from your mistakes more than your success.

When hurricane Irene came, there were surfers all over the coast surfing. Do you ever seek out a good wave disregarding your own safety?

For sure! Surfers are the only group of people that see a hurricane and get excited – more than a newscaster. And my mom starts freaking out, she starts worrying about the dog and stuff, I say “What’s the problem? It’s the best time of the year!”. But yeah, for surfers, it is like going to heaven. The wind’s good, the surf’s good, it’s the perfect combination.

What are the risks involved in doing what you do?

There are a lot of different types of risk. You can have shallow reefs or really big waves and deep water. In Tahiti, there were some of the scariest waves I’ve seen in my whole life, they were as high as 40 feet. Just imagine a wave with that much energy and crashing into shallow water. I was really surprise no one died, it was really scary.

Who is your idol and why?

He is a friend of mine, a surfer, more like a god father to me. Just a good guy. Taught me how to play guitar. He’s got a family, he surfs every day. He flew helicopters in Vietnam. And spent his whole life surfing. He is happy every day, he got the exact life he wanted and a good family. Every day he wakes up and surfs or plays golf, smiles a lot, tells stories, and sings songs.

You said your life is a complete dream, but if you could rewrite your life, what would you do differently?

That’s always a hard question because you only know what you know at that time and you can’t know any differently. That said, there are things I would’ve changed. There are some ways I would’ve learnt when I was younger. As far as being a perfectionist was concerned, I was pretty hard on myself when I was younger. When I was in school, I put a lot of pressure on grades. Probably this came from my brother who didn’t do very well in school and it really let my mom down. I didn’t want to do the same so I tried my best. It was a tough thing to deal with as a teenager.

You’ve been in the water for so long, and you have world titles and everything. Do you still sometimes get nervous when you surf?
Well, yeah, good question because the other day I was really nervous. When there are two guys in the water and people are watching you, I don’t care how many times you’ve done it but there is still some pressure there and you might get hurt. I actually saw some of my friends get really hurt; broken ankle, cut up faces, pressed in the reef. The dangers are there you know, and when you have to go up the wave, it is really hard to hold back those emotions.

You’re good at surfing, but what is it that you really suck at?

I’m terrible at chess and crossword puzzles.

Not a big lost there, dude!

For more on Kelly, surf to www.kellyslater.com. Checkout the latest Quiksilver gear at www.quiksilver.com.