In the footsteps of Duke
There's only one surfer in the sport's history who was as influential as Slater.
Kelly Slater on 10 World Titles
This might sound like a stretch, but in the 100-year pantheon of modern surf history, there are two surfers who stand head and shoulders above the rest. Considering how many characters, charlatans, icons and legends the sport has seen in the past century, that's saying a lot, but stay with me here.
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The first one, who towers above all like the bronze statue that stands in Waikiki in his honor, is the great Duke Paoa Kahanamoku. The second one, who just picked up his record 10th ASP world title, is Robert Kelly Slater.
Kahanamoku is responsible for almost single-handedly bringing wave riding back from the brink of extinction. Throughout the 1800s, conservative European missionaries made it their goal to stamp out surfing because of its "hedonistic" nature. By the turn of that century, it was all but dead in the water in Hawaii. But, not about to surrender their cultural identity, Kahanamoku, his brothers and a small band of Waikiki beachboys kept riding.
Born in 1890, Kahanamoku initially would rise to international acclaim as a gold-medal-winning swimmer in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm and again at the 1920 Games in Antwerp, Belgium. Using the power of his name, he then spread the gospel of surfing. Teaching notables of the time such as Jack London, Amelia Earhart and a host of others what it meant to be a surfer. He introduced the sport in California and Australia, and, well, the rest is history.
Kahanamoku passed away in 1968. Four years later, Robert Kelly Slater came kicking, screaming and shredding into the world. As in the story of the prodigal son, surfing would soon have a new ambassador.
Emerging from the relative surfing backwater of Florida, by 13, he already had been labeled by the surf industry as the next big thing. By 1992, he won his first world title. If only the pundits had known that, 25 years later at age 38, Slater would be considered the best surfer ever to ride a wave. His competitive dominance likely will never be surpassed. With 10 world titles and 45 world tour victories, there's never been another like him.
To compare Kahanamoku to Slater is to compare legends, not statistics. Consider a 1965 editorial in the Honolulu Advertiser that read:
"The only real question for history is how big his legend will become. Some of the things bearing his name include a foundation, a beach, a swimming pool at the university, an annual regatta, a restaurant and nightspot, a line of sportswear, a music and recording corporation, a new line of tennis shoes, ukuleles, skateboards and surfboards, a surfing club and an international surfing championship sponsored by the CBS television network. In varying ways, each of these attests to the esteem in which this man is held not only throughout our nation but throughout the world."
And here's 2009 world champion Mick Fanning, moments after Slater clinched his 10th title at the Rip Curl Pro Search in Puerto Rico:
"He's the greatest surfer of all time. The ASP has been going for 30 years, and he has 10 titles; that means he has a third of all the titles ever handed out. I think that goes to show. I think when he first came on around the Momentum Generation [in the early 1990s], he led the charge in progressive surfing, and then as the different generations just kept going through, he kept adapting to what was going on at the time and then take it to a whole new level. To be able to keep elevating on so many different levels is just incredible."
And, like Kahanamoku, Slater's impact has hardly been limited to what he has done in the water. He's the most recognizable name the sport has ever had, appearing in countless surf movies, as well as video games, books and just about anything else you can slap a trademark on. He has stood in and played "Keep on Rockin' in the Free World" with Pearl Jam, handed out MTV movie awards, competed in golf's Pebble Beach Pro-Am, and yes, there was that stint when he co-starred on "Baywatch" alongside Pamela Anderson. He transformed surfing from a pursuit enjoyed by a bunch of fringe misfits to a sport with legitimate, mainstream appeal.
"Without him, we wouldn't be in the position we are today," Fanning continues. "For the things that he's done in the sport, it's made people stand up and realize what's going on. There will never be another Kelly."
"I don't think people always realize what he does behind the scenes," adds ASP CEO Brodie Carr. "He's constantly thinking, constantly trying to figure out how to change things and make them better. Whether it's making recommendations on how the world tour format could be improved to going into the shaping room and designing new, innovative surfboards. Improvement is constantly on his mind, and I think that sometimes gets lost in everything else that he's been able to accomplish."
After accomplishing so much, what could be next for Slater? Like Kahanamoku, he is destined to become an ambassador of the sport for years to come and will continue to, as they say in Hawaii, "spread the aloha." Whether Slater decides to keep competing on the ASP World Tour or walks away to pursue other interests, there's no doubt his influence will continue to resonate. There have been other surfers who have had a direct hand in guiding the direction of the sport in the past 100 years, but in terms of growing the sport and bringing respectability to it, the profound impact Kahanamoku and Slater have had on the sport is beyond compare, and for that reason, they are the two greatest legends surfing has ever seen.
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