If you're nine-time world champ Kelly Slater, this is your life: Spend a week in Huntington Beach, Calif. amidst the largest action-sports festival in the world, where trying to get from your car to the U.S. Open of Surfing's competitor's area becomes a grim sort of full-contact sport, then take a fistful of days to catch your breath, hop a flight to the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and await potentially life-threatening swell on the ASP World Tour's most dangerous reef.
It's all in a few days work for the most decorated surfer in history, one with a vested interest in the growth of surfing events here in the U.S. and a competitive streak that would make Lance Armstrong blush. ESPN Surfing caught up with Slater before he left for Tahiti to talk about the Open, the world title race and recent changes in Fiji that have opened his beloved Cloudbreak to the public.
ESPN.com: Considering the consistent growth at the Open over the past five years or so, what do you think the event says about the state of surfing in terms of its presence on the U.S. sporting landscape? is this same old, same old? Or is this a positive indicator?
Slater: At Huntington Beach, there's a lot of other things going on -- music and BMX and skateboarding. So, for a lot of people, that's what they're there for. In saying that, on the beach Sunday, when the surfing was happening, there were a lot of humans. And that was without having a big swell. I was sitting with Andy [Irons] and he was saying it looked like the old OP Pro days. For a lot of years, since the '80s, they had smaller crowds for whatever reason. And with the webcasts, surfers can just watch online. But there were a lot of people there and I'm not sure what you attribute that to. Maybe it's surfing's growth, maybe it's just good marketing and publicity and where it's held. You'd have to ask everyone what they're doing there. There were probably a lot of guys there just looking for girls.
Our Open reporter, Jake Howard, claims to have seen you make it through the massive crowds a few times without getting noticed and wants to know how you managed that.
He must have seen me with my hooded sweatshirt up. I actually didn't have one walk where I didn't get detected, but I just kept walking. It was actually sort of fun to see if I could make it all the way [to the competitors area].
As someone who's so vocal about, and invested in, the growth of the sport, are you able to enjoy that kind of chaos as an opportunity to promote surfing, or is it just a grind for you?
It's pretty full on. I get really overwhelmed after I surf. You know, you surf, you do the interviews, and then you do an hour of signing [autographs]. You just want a massage after that. It's a lot of stimulation. That's the biggest thing. From all the people to all the music to watching the contest, there are just so many things going on.
How difficult is it to make the shift from two-foot Huntington Beach to heaving Teahupoo?
Actually, it's easier to make the shift to Tahiti from Huntington than to go from Tahiti to Huntington. I actually forgot how hard it is to surf Huntington well. It's really difficult, and I don't think I surfed well at all. I squeaked through a few heats, didn't have the right board, wasn't really prepared. But, to go to Tahiti? If it's going to be 10- or 12-foot, it's hard because it's scary. I don't care if you're Laird Hamilton or Shane Dorian -- it's intense and dangerous to paddle into surf like that. Even if you're there every day, it's still that way. I feel like Teahupoo tends to spread the field out a little bit more. You see who wants it and who's ready and who's not. Generally, the guys who are good barrel riders will do better there -- not only tube riding, but riding big waves. Most Tour guys aren't big wave specialists and don't surf giant waves that much. If the swell throws something big, it really puts the focus on having to put yourself in the situation and risk life and limb.
You're currently in third on the world title ranking, 5,000 points behind Jordy Smith. Can you put that into context, in terms of some of the other world title races you've been in over the past few years?
I'm four heats behind Jordy right now. That's what it comes down to. You can tell every guy on tour how many points that is, but it doesn't translate that easily. The easy way is, he's made four more heats than I have. But Jordy said it himself, the year's a marathon. At this point last year, Joel was eight heats ahead of everyone. Before the last contest I was two heats ahead of Jordy, so that's how quickly things turn around. After three events, I'm the favorite; after four, Jordy is. After Teahupoo, somebody else could come out on top. Someone in the top five or six could win and be right back in the mix. It's early days. And there's 10 events, but you throw away two results. We've surfed four so far, so let's say you throw out one result? I'm two heats behind Jordy. So, there's not a lot of room for mistakes if you're in the lead.
Smith is only 22. Do you think he feels the heat of a world title race? Or does he have the mental makeup to not let it get to him?
He's been a pretty cool character so far. He doesn't seem too affected yet. But right now is the first time he comes into a contest in the lead, and it's a contest where I don't think he would be viewed as a favorite. I won't say it's a make-or-break contest for him, but it might be a 'make' contest. Given that he's not a favorite, I don't think a bad result will break him, but a breakout result will be great for his confidence.
Teahupoo is the first left of the season, but many surfers consider it an advantage to surf this particular wave on your backside. Do you agree?
I think it's an advantage in that you can grab the wall and hold your rail, stall longer. If you look at the list of winners, I think it's more regular foot winners. But somebody's who's real crafty, like Corey Lopez was in the past, or the Hobgoods, who have made the finals here, I think Damo's won there. Bobby [Martinez] has won out there. The goofy footers who are really good at putting themselves in the barrel, they're going to all be considered favorites.
A lot was made about there being no lefts before Teahupoo, and how it put the goofy foots at a disadvantage before the midseason cutoff.
I think they do have a disadvantage at Snapper, especially on the smaller days. And Bell's is tough on your backhand. But JBay is a big, open face and I can recall a lot of great performances from backsiders -- mostly Occy, but also Bobby and Damo made the final there twice, maybe three times. When the waves are smaller, it favors regular footers. Teahupoo being a barrel, that would tend to favor regular footers. But I just look at it like, I don't surf with my right foot forward, but if I did, I'd figure out how to win there.
If you had to pick one surfer who's currently sitting outside the cutoff point, who you wouldn't be surprised to see go on a rampage at Tahiti and make the cut, who would it be?
Dean Morrison. He's a wave magnet, a great contest surfer, great at Teahupoo. He beat Andy there two years in a row, which is unheard of. If someone could make a run and have a result, it would be Dean. He's so focused and patient in heats.
This is a bit off topic, but what are your thoughts on the recent decision by the Fijian government to open up the reefs at Tavarua to the public?
I think it's awful. On the one hand, surfing's free. But on the other, it's been a certain way, based on tribal laws for such a long time. It's what everyone's used to. And while it was never free in terms of money, if you could pay to be there, that covered infrastructure and medical and safety and food and it all supported the local villages. They've had nirvana for years there, just a beautiful situation. To see those waves go from empty to 40 or even 60 guys in the water ... it's just terrible. I don't know how else to describe it. If you're one of those guys who could never cough up the money to go, you're probably laughing, but pretty soon you're going to get guys coming through with jetskis when it's 6-foot. There's going to be fights and people will get hurt, and when you get hurt out there, you're a long way from shore. It's heartbreaking. Honestly, it feels like when a friend dies and you know you'll never see them again. It's not that bad, but it's something we knew and it's gone.