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Wednesday, November 2, 2011
A world champ looks at 40

By Jake Howard

For seemingly ageless Kelly Slater, the ride continues on.

It had been a cold and rainy day in the Basque region of Spain. Needing to make one more heat to win his eighth world title, which seemed like a lot at the time, Kelly Slater was suited up and ready to paddle out. For just a moment, somehow nobody was around him. He ducked back to where the ASP world title cup was being stored, slyly looked around as if to make sure there were no witnesses, then proceeded to dump a bottle of water into the challis, swirl it around, and scrub it clean with his hands.

Cup sparkling, he went out and won his heat, and shortly thereafter was guzzling champagne out of it before getting thrown in the Mundaka harbor.

When asked about the cleansing later he joked, "Mick [Fanning] had it last year. Who knows what he did with it."

That's what you call veteran experience.

Three world titles since, and Slater explains, "When I hear that number, 11, it's really hard for me to believe that I've dedicated so much time to this and it's paid off in this way."

Unequivocally the greatest competitive surfer of all time, 11 ASP world titles over 20 years puts Slater in "immortal" territory. But he's transcended both sport and stereotype. Surfing today is what it is because of him. To be a surfer and a household name, that just doesn't happen in America. And it's not just the U.S. -- the largest surf market in the world -- that loves him so. Around the world people flock to the beach by the thousands to see him do his thing.

He is to surfing what Pelé was to soccer, what Muhammad Ali was to boxing, what Tiger Woods was to golf. They changed their respective sports forever, introducing it to masses of humans along the way.

But all of that comes with a price. "It's been so many years," says Slater, a hint of weariness creeping into his voice. "It's been really helpful in a lot of ways, but it's also been a huge obstacle in a lot of ways. … I just set out to do it as good as I could and it's all worked out like this."

Occupy Ocean Beach in effect.

And as any game-changing athlete may be able to attest to, with great success comes a great burden. And inevitably, as age enters the equation, the question of how many more titles can you win becomes the first one asked.

On the bright sunny day in San Francisco that Slater made history for the 11th time, in the midst of the media scrum, one half-wit reporter asks, "What are your thoughts on 12?"

"I haven't even dried off from 11 yet," retorts Slater, smiling. He's far too polite and politically correct to say, "What the hell kind of stupid question is that," but really, what the hell kind of stupid question is that?

So is he? Going for 12?

One thing you can depend on Slater for is that he's going to play whatever decision he comes to close to the chest. But he does say, "I thought a lot about 11. I haven't thought at all about 12."

As he rapidly approaches 40 years old, the sacrifices of being a nomadic world dominator may be starting to weigh on him now more than ever. A man notorious for not really having a permanent address, these days he's more consistently basing himself out of a home in Malibu. He and his girlfriend have a dog -- they named him "Action."

Last year, after he won his 10th title, all Slater could talk about was how excited he was not to have to worry about everything -- his boards, his diet, etc. He was particularly excited to have chicken with the skin on it.

This year he was excited to have a drink. "I haven't had a drink all year long," he said. "I figured I earned one."

I'll toast to that.

But taking a more serious tone, Slater says, "Sometimes I wake up and think it's the greatest thing in the world, and sometimes I wake up and think it's the worst and just want to get away from it. But you have to run through all those emotions to figure out what you're going to do."