Kelly Slater by Chris Grundy

Closure is bullshit

This story is from the latest issue of SW on sale now.

Back in 2015 when I predicted this would be his last year on tour, I wrote this. “Well, when I say, ‘retire’, he’ll retire in much the same way a zombie or John Farnham retires. You can bet he’ll be surfing the 2020 Pipe Masters – most likely winning it – but this will be the last year we see Kelly full time on tour. He’s hung around mostly because the tour is still his, his stage, even when he doesn’t win. There’s a compelling argument there for him to just keep on rolling. But what happens if Kelly is rated ninth at the end of this year, or worse? He’s let perfect stage-left exits slip through his fingers at Pipeline over the past three years, falling a single heat short on each occasion from winning one last world title and going out on top. The thing is, the most illuminating surfer of all-time simply cannot fade out – it delaminates the narrative he’s created – but with the rise of John and Gabby, the Hollywood ending on the beach at Pipe is looking less and less likely. There are matters of dignity and legacy at stake here and Kelly Slater needs to go out on top. Surfing owes him that.”

Soon after I wrote that he revealed his Lemoore wavepool to a disbelieving world, a new chapter of Kelly’s life opened up before him, and my prediction was soon being used to wrap fish and chips. If he couldn’t win the game, he’d just change it. I made a note to self to no longer make any predictions around Kelly Slater’s future.

And so that brings us to this year. Four years on and Kelly’s still here. Finally fit again after a year with a broken foot, there was a feeling as this year kicked off on the Gold Coast that this was a valedictory lap. Once more with feeling. And while a world title was beyond him (he’d keep referring to his chances all year) an event win was more than possible. But it was the Olympics that held the real interest. Kelly’s dream of Big Surfing, a dream he’s had since he was a kid, included both wavepools and surfing in the Olympics. He’d already made the wavepool a reality, and that just left the Olympics. If Kelly could finish the year as one of the two highest-placed Americans on tour this year, he’d go to Japan and surf for the first Olympic gold medal. He’d seen those first gold medals won in other sports, other sports he loved like golf and snowboarding. He wouldn’t say it straight up, but that’s what was driving him.

Kelly’s year didn’t start well. He finished dead last in the first event on the Gold Coast. “I’m pretty bummed,” he said the following day. “You live by the sword and die by the sword in our world. If you’re not on, on any given day you’re exposed to the world and if you have a bad day at the office that’s the end.” John John and Kolohe looked to have the Olympic spots locked down. Kelly seemed like he’d made peace with missing out on the Olympics. He was surfing well in the first half of the year, and he was open and seemingly content with that being enough.

But then John blew his knee out in Brazil and… you’re telling me there’s still a chance? All of Kelly’s pet events were still to come – J-Bay, Tahiti, Lemoore – and it seemed just a matter of time before he overtook John on the ratings and took his Olympic spot. It wasn’t even a glimmer of hope. It looked odds-on to happen.

But it didn’t. He flamed out in all of them. The Lemoore wavepool event played out bizarrely. Kelly got nowhere near the final day. The WSL soon after released a behind-the-scenes edit of Kelly during the event. Bizarre doesn’t come close to characterising it. Kelly is coached during the contest by an Australian energy healer, the pair working through some deep-seated Kelly issues for the cameras as Kelly bombs out of his own event. It feels like an episode of The Office – awkward to watch, bordering on mockumentary – but as it rolls on the viewer comes to the realisation that this is actually happening. Here we had the most stratospherically successful strategic surfer who will ever be, the man who has psychologically dismantled generations of surfing foes, taking heat advice from a non-surfing, self-taught, self-promoting TV quack. Well, it didn’t do much good for Kelly at the Surf Ranch where he bombed, but the healer at least was able to put to Kelly a truthy notion those close to him probably can’t. I paraphrase: “Dude, you’re 47… isn’t still being here enough?”

Probably not, it seems. What would fill the void that has consumed his personal universe for 35 years? “I’ve thought about it a lot. Part of me wants to disappear and quit everything. I’ve put my whole life into this career and all my focus, and when it’s not there I’m not sure if I’m going to miss it or not. I’m most happy when I get good waves and I’m around friends, and that could fill the void enough. Maybe I wanna go and have kids, maybe I wanna keep working. Who knows?” For now he’s got the Pipe Masters to surf. He’s long odds to make the Olympics but a good showing at Pipe – who knows, maybe a win – might provide the closure he’s after.

But who are we kidding? As James Ellroy puts it, and as Kelly’s surfing career has proved, “Closure is bullshit.”

Sean Doherty