Surfing: After a week of tragedy, a wave of jubilation for surfing's superstar

In winning a record 10th world title, 18 years after his first, Kelly Slater has helped his sport cope with his great rival's death. He tells Ben Mondy about the mix of emotions.
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The Independent Online

Professional surfing has experienced its most dramatic week in living memory, starting with the tragic death of the three-times world champion Andy Irons at the age of 32, and ending with Kelly Slater clinching his 10th world title in Puerto Rico.

Slater's victory caps an outstanding career spanning two decades, one that is unsurpassed in surfing and unrivalled in any other professional sport. And by clinching his 45th career win at the age of 38, the Floridian neatly becomes the oldest ever surfing world champion some 18 years after he became its youngest in 1992.

"It's been the most stressful title I've ever had," Slater said after his triumph at the Rip Curl Pro Search event, "because it's sort of an unknown place and you know at my age people say, 'You shouldn't be doing this'."

The feat is even more remarkable considering that Slater took a four-year hiatus from the competition circuit between 1999 and 2003, being coaxed out of retirement to win his seventh world title back in 2005.

In between his first and 10th world titles, Slater became the most recognised surfer of all time, helped in no small part by an acting stint in Baywatch (playing an up-and-coming surf star), as well as a much publicised romance with his then co-star Pamela Anderson. The exposure – combined with his all-American good looks, professionalism and supreme surfing ability – made him perhaps the first household-name surfer since Sally Field's Gidget character of the 1960s.

In Puerto Rico, Slater defeated Australian Bede Durbidge in the final and amassed enough points over his nearest rival, South Africa's Jordy Smith, to wrap up the title, with one event, the Pipe Masters, still remaining.

It is perhaps fitting that the last event of the year, held at the wonderfully-named town of Pipeline in Hawaii, famous for its huge waves, is now set to be renamed the Andy Irons Pipe Masters. Irons was Slater's greatest rival, having won three consecutive world titles in 2002, 2003 and 2004. He was the feisty McEnroe to Slater's icy, Borg-like temperament, and the two men created some memorable battles on the world tour, the most heated of which were undoubtedly on Irons' home turf: Pipeline.

Irons was due to compete in Puerto Rico, but after suffering from the effects of dengue fever he pulled out of the event, deciding instead to return home to Hawaii and his eight-months pregnant wife last Tuesday. He made it only as far as Dallas, where he booked into a hotel room awaiting a standby flight, and was found dead by hotel staff the following morning.

"Everyone had their own connection with Andy on so many different levels," Slater said on hearing the news. "Although he and I butted heads a lot of years ago, I have a million good memories of Andy and we had become pretty good friends since."

Slater is still trying to reconcile his achievement with the death of one of his greatest rivals. "I've dedicated my life to surfing and to improving how I ride waves, and this 10th title is a result of all that hard work. But with this week and Andy's death, while it doesn't change any of that, it definitely gives it some sense of perspective."

Slater's historic 10th title provided some solace to a close-knit surfing community that had been rocked by the news of Irons' untimely death. For more than 20 years, Slater has had a pivotal role in the direction of professional surfing, being its best practitioner and most articulate spokesman. His achievement is now being compared to that of Lance Amstrong's seven Tour de France victories or Pete Sampras's 14 Grand Slam titles.

Slater, however, is loath to compare himself with such figures. "You know that stuff comes up," he said, "but it's a conversation I prefer not to have. It's like comparing apples and oranges. I've just dedicated myself to the sport I love and since a kid really have spent most of my energy trying to improve the way I surf and the way I compete."

Slater's dedication has reaped an unprecedented success and meant travelling the world for 20 years non-stop, either chasing the next perfect wave or the next big winner's cheque. "I don't see it as having made any sacrifices to get where I am, because I love what I do," Slater says. "A lot of people may think that not having a permanent home for all those years, or not raising a family, is a sacrifice, but those types of things haven't really been on my to-do list. To achieve what I've achieved means I've focused solely on surfing."

What many wish to know, especially his fellow competitors, is whether the 10th title is a bookend to his career. The statistics make this seem unlikely. The American won four and came second in two of the nine events that make up the world tour, even though his closest rival and the No 2-ranked surfer, Smith, is 16 years younger than him.

"The short-term plan is to catch some waves here in Puerto Rico, and then head back to Florida for my brother's wedding," Slater revealed. "Then I'll head to Hawaii. As far as long-term plans and competing, I've always been one to just play it by ear and take it as it comes. We'll just have to wait and see."

It seems Kelly Slater is not done yet and his continued dominance rests entirely with him. In a week when surfing lost one of its best to tragedy, it's comforting to know that the greatest surfer of all time, and one of the world's greatest sportsmen, hasn't quite finished with his extraordinary legacy.

Slater: making waves

Born 11 February, 1972, Cocoa Beach, Florida, US

World Championship Tour (WCT) victories: 45

World titles: 10 (1992, '94, '95, '96, '97, '98, 2005, '06, '08, '10)

* At the age of six, Slater showed significant promise that ultimately earned him a contract with Quiksilver at the age of 18. Two years later he won his first world title.

* Five further titles followed in quick succession as Slater went on to dominate the WCT during the Nineties. Following a break from the sport beginning in 1999, Slater returned four years later to form a rivalry with Andy Irons. During a pivotal 2005 tour Slater overcame Irons to claim his seventh world title.

* The 38-year-old won further titles in 2006 and 2008 before clinching his 10th championship in Puerto Rico last weekend. Slater is now the youngest man (at the age of 20) to have held the WCT title, and also the oldest (38).        ALEX PENNY