“I think it’s easy to confuse continuing with not being satisfied. If I had never surfed another contest right now, I would be more than happy with what I did,” Slater said in an extensive interview with The Washington Post. “And I’m happy with it all. . . You know, there will always be another challenge if you want it. That doesn’t mean I’m not happy with what I did.
Slater will wear the yellow jersey at this week’s World Surf League event as the highest-ranked competitor on the tour, the first time he’s held that honor since 2014. He won the Billabong Pro Pipeline event last week in Oahu, Hawaii, and no one needed it. an encore, but Slater has made it clear that he’s still quite capable of keeping up with younger kids on their boards.
Slater’s body may have changed a bit, and his approach to the sport has probably evolved a lot. But as long as he’s on his board and in the water, there’s an unmistakable competitive fire, which doesn’t suddenly go out at 50.
“I feel like something is overtaking me and it’s almost like my avatar, when I really step into the zone. I get such intense focus that I almost feel out of my body,” he said. “I guess it sounds like my evil twin. To some degree, I feel like it’s this different type of alpha male inside of me that comes out that has a lot less fear and inhibitions about choices and decisions and other stuff.
“And I think in my normal day-to-day life, I’m a lot more thoughtful and aware of other people’s feelings and that kind of stuff,” Slater continued. “But this evil twin gives me super high intensity, focus and awareness of everything that’s going on.”
The world has seen it since Slater won his first pro event at age 20, but that thirst for competition was born even earlier. Growing up in Cocoa Beach, Florida, a town more known for its sharks than its waves, Slater started surfing at a young age. But he also practiced other sports. He remembers being an undersized nose tackle on the football field, using his quickness and small frame to maneuver around the offensive lineman. He uses the same fearlessness and mental toughness to take on giant waves.
“As a kid, I figured out how to win. I had a chip in the shoulder and an inferiority complex or something,” he said. “I wanted to do something with myself. And the surfing became this thing… which would allow me to channel my inner demons.
All those wins and all those years at the top weren’t just the product of being physically better than the peloton. Surfing legend Shaun Tomson has studied Slater for his entire career and is still amazed at Slater’s ability to connect with his playground.
“I have never seen a sportsman who can connect with his art form with his physique and with the spiritual aspect of this sport in the absolute 11th hour when absolutely necessary,” said Tomson, who is credited for helping to revolutionize tube riding in the 1970s.
“When you’re competing against him, you can’t just kill him. You have to kill him twice because he’ll come back as a zombie. He comes back with that, not aggression, but that pure passion and power. He is that enlightened being, like a Buddhist monk, a Zen master and a ninja warrior all rolled into one.”
Slater grew up with the sport, sometimes pushing it hard and more recently impressed with what the younger generation can do. The skill level of today’s top surfers, says Slater, is beyond anything his generation could have imagined.
Although he’s still able to ride out any wave and win any week, Slater is beginning to recognize that the end is near. He has retired once before, stepping away from competition in 1999 before returning three years later. This time around, he doesn’t want to make a big show out of his retirement or face additional pressure from competition to competition.
And even if he retires from the professional circuit, Slater does not govern future competitions, including the Olympics. He narrowly missed Team USA for the Tokyo Games, where surfing made its debut, but is not ruling out the Paris 2024 Games. However, to qualify for Team USA, he would have to stay on tour , so he raised the possibility of competing for another country.
Either way, Slater will remain an important face in the sport and is unlikely to disappear from the public eye. He has a popular clothing line and runs the industry-leading wave pool company, which he developed before selling a majority stake to the World Surf League.
His passion for surfing is sure to continue, though Slater sometimes finds himself struggling with his exact role in growing the sport’s popularity and introducing it to so many new people.
“Part of me likes that surfing is a mystical, secret thing,” he said. “The more popular I see it become, the less good I feel to be a part of it. . . . We all like to surf alone. There is solace in the water that comes from being alone or just with your friends .
“I yearn for that peace in the water,” Slater said.