"To Florida surfers, Kelly Slater is Superman, King Neptune, and Jesus Christ all rolled in to one."
Nick McGregor, editor of Eastern Surf Magazine, admits that his words sound sacrilegious, especially in the South.
"But if Kelly is considered the best surfer in the world for people in South America, Australia, Africa, Asia, and Europe, imagine how proud we are of him back here where he came from. And the fact that he came from Cocoa Beach, where waves rarely top chest-high and most surfers are more likely to spend their day drinking at Coconuts than training for worldwide domination? One thing is for sure -- a complete waverider of his fortitude will probably never emerge out of Central Florida again."
So, Kelly Slater recently nailed down his 46th ASP World Tour victory. He's nearing 50 wins among the world's best, and that's not including his Quiksilver Eddie title in 2002, a few X Games golds, and every other accolade to basically double his closest competitor's resume. It's almost hard to think of Slater as a Floridian anymore. You can barely think of him as from the US. He is seemingly a man of the world -- sometimes not even our world.
But the folks in Florida don't ever forget where he's from. He's a sports icon in a state where sports are religion.
"In beachside Florida communities --- especially in Brevard County -- Kelly is followed by fair-weather surfing fans and your average bargoer with the same fervor usually reserved for football, basketball, and baseball. Every sports bar has prized Slater memorabilia on the wall, along with well-worn copies of "Kelly Slater In Black & White," "Momentum," and other Kelly classics," offers McGregor, "Everybody has their version of the 'I knew Kelly when he was knee-high to a grasshopper' or 'Kelly signed my kid's arm after his 6th world title' story.
He was born right there in Cocoa Beach, in a region referred to as the Space Coast, better known for NASA launches than surf shred. He was the middle child of three boys. Pops owned a bait and tackle shop. Naturally, he excelled at an early age, and fell under the tutelage of early Florida pro and aerial pioneer, Matt Kechele.
"To see a kid go from being a hot grom at the end of your street to becoming the best our sport has ever seen -- it's pretty hard to sum it up in words. He was so focused at a early age that at 13, you kinda felt pretty comfortable in saying he would be world champ someday," remembers Kechele.
Because Slater wound up facing off against Dave Speir constantly growing up, Speir was Slater's first rival.
"I collected quite a few second place trophies as a kid," remembers Speir, who is now the Oakley rep for Florida and much of the Caribbean, "Once in a while, I would catch him off his game and beat him. Of course, when this happened, Kelly would come back extra focused in the next contest and take it to me."
But as Speir remembers, the finals were just a part of a broader relationship.
"As kids, we were just free spirited and having fun regardless of what we were doing. One thing I noticed though is that he would always excel in whatever we were doing. It didn't matter if it was football, skateboarding, or learning how to do a gainer in a hotel pool. I think the difference between Kelly and his peers back then, was he was a lot more driven and focused at a very young age."
In 1990, he signed with Quiksilver, already making him more than just an East Coast phenom.
"I remembered when he signed his deal with Quik. I think he was around 17 and I thought to my self 'I can't believe you can get paid to go surfing.' It just blew my mind," remembers fellow Floridian tour vet, Damien Hobgood.
Slater was much bigger than the Sunshine State when he won the Pipe Masters and his first world title in 1992. Ten titles later, Slater has now arguably dominated his sport beyond any athlete in modern history. He's been surfing's most valuable stock now for over 15 years.
Last fall, Florida Republican Congressman, Bill Posey put forth a resolution to recognize Slater for his contributions to the world of surfing that passed unanimously.
"Slater has worked hard to master a sport that so many have tried but so few have actually been able to conquer," said Congressman Posey, who represents Cocoa Beach, "His world championship record is impressive and is certainly worthy of recognition."
Slater is a household name, which is very impressive, considering almost half the households in the US are nowhere near an ocean. His celeb friendships have run the gamut from Cameron Diaz to Eddie Vedder (and that's skipping the most obvious.)
Slater himself owns houses in California, Hawaii, and Australia, but when he does return to Sebastian Inlet, it's like Obama going back to Hawaii (although Slater is actually allowed to ride waves, the Pres isn't these days.)
"Kelly outgrew the nest a long time ago. And now he, rightfully, spends his time at major contests around the world or in some far away wave-rich surf zone that doesn't bare the slightest resemblance to the waves he grew up surfing -- the waves we still surf and teach our kids to surf," opines former tour surfer and friend, Shea Lopez, "And because Kelly learned in theses very same waves, we hold our heads up high believing that anything is possible. Kelly may not be here in the physical sense very often, but what he has left behind is a way of thinking that has shaped every great surfer to come out of Florida with both guns drawn ready to take on the world and his title -- a title that no one from Florida, or the rest of the world, has been capable of taking from him for very long."
And after such a long love affair between Slater and Florida, the flame still burns as bright as ever.
"Floridians are very proud to call the champ one of our own. He is considered by most to be the best ever. I think most people are amazed that a kid from the small, mushy waves of Cocoa Beach has accomplished so much. Ten titles, going on eleven. Never heard of that in surfing -- or any sport for that matter," adds Speir.
Before the season, Slater had been very indecisive about his plans for 2011. He's been talking retirement on and off for the last decade. Then he again blew his Florida fans (and the world) away again, shortly after his 39th birthday, at the Quiksilver Gold Coast Pro in Australia. It wasn't so much that he won, but that he wanted to win so badly.
"Still winning events after all these years and still finding the motivation is just crazy. I mean, he seemed more fired up for this event than any I have ever seen him at my entire life," says Hobgood, "He's usually is pretty low key before the event, barely ever surfing the contest spot, but for this event he was always practicing at D-Bah or Snapper, testing his equipment, and hanging around the event. He even watched most of the trials, then went and practiced right after. I mean that's what I do, always trying to get as comfortable as possible with the break, trying to find an edge, but when Kelly was doing that, it made me think the guy is hungrier than ever."
Of course he's hungry, because let's not forget, the man is from Florida.