Old dog learns unconventional versions of new tricks!
Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy. Derek has tasked me with critiquing the best ever surfer and I am completely undergunned. It’s true that all my victims are twice or thrice the surfer I’ll ever be, but they are not The King. To pick apart his flaws feels nearly blasphemous. Still, the heavily subjective truth must prevail.
Like Medina, Kelly hasn’t many recent clips floating around the ether. I can’t recall a proper video section he’s worked on since Innersection in 2011.
Another difficult I’ve faced is critiquing someone whose surfing has changed dramatically over the past three decades. Anything I say could be easily refuted by citing sources as far back as 1990, which puts me in a delicate position. For the sake of this piece, I’ll speak on Kelly’s surfing of the past five-to-ten years, while cross-referencing more dated techniques when necessary.
Just to whet your palate, here’s a little clip from Slater’s science moat.
I’ll attempt to explain Kelly’s surfing through three categories: turns, barrels, and airs.
At forty-five, Kelly is still producing some of the most impressive pocket gouges in the world. When he finds a steep section and decides to let one rip, Slater’s ability to penetrate the wall and discharge massive amounts of water is right up there with Mick, Jordy, and John. But it just doesn’t happen as much as it used to.
Nowadays Slater tends to get off-balance, bog, and fall through maneuvers that he’d historically do in his sleep. Kelly once carried a Curren-esque style, but in recent times he’s become less flexible in the knees, has gotten a bit wild with the arms, and seems to have changed his footwork on the board. The best surfers appear preternaturally fixed to their stick and deeply attuned to the wave, and it’s rare to find Slater in that form today.
So, what gives?
It’d be easy to blame his age. The man is damn near fifty in a sport where the last three champs average a mere twenty-five. But while his body’s slow deterioration has surely taken its toll, I believe Slater’s boards to be most culpable in the decline of his turning ability.
I’m no board expert but from what I’ve gathered, Slater’s been working to create boards that are shorter and more curved than what he was riding ten years ago. He wants to fit tighter, more powerful turns in very steep sections of the wave, and his new shapes do just that. The shortening of the board means there’s less nose to catch in the transition, and the curvature allows for full usage of the rail, especially through positions where straighter boards may flatten out. This concept works really well for one section on any given wave, but it’s not the key to consistent, fluid surfing.
By riding boards that work for one particular turn on one particular section, Kelly’s taking half’a step forward and three steps back. The King’s surfing was best on boards that facilitated speed through maneuvers, as opposed to being built for the maneuvers themselves. Kelly’s grandeur came from his ability to read waves and link turns better than the rest, but his current stable of boards fights that notion head-on.
Perhaps still the greatest barrel rider in the world, it’d be hard to criticize anything Kelly does in or around the crystal cathedral. His ability to make late drops, set impossible lines, and remain on his feet through a gauntlet of chandeliers and foamballs has resulted in more tens than Al Hunt could ever correctly count.
While Kelly’s approach to the barrel may seem reactionary and mindless, his interviews tell a different story. Slater’s ability to verbalize mid-wave thought processes is a gift to the surfing world, as it demonstrates how much brain power goes into technical barrel-riding. Kelly is constantly reading the lip and adjusting his line, all while maintaining a stable base and using different techniques to control his speed. He is a virtuoso of the vortex.
Buuuuut I still think he rides too far back on the board sometimes. See the wavepool video above? At 2:49, Kelly sets up for a long tube across the inside section, but for some reason plants his foot on the tail block, making him appear squirrely and out of control. If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a thousand times — the more forward you ride on your board, the more ability you have to control your speed and maintain a steady line. Perhaps it’s different because the pool doesn’t have a trough, but Slater’s also done it at Pipe, plus Steph seemed to have it pretty dialed.
By simultaneously destroying Kelly’s surfing and proving him to be more extraterrestrial than ever imagined, airs have certainly had their effect on the Slater legacy. Once Dane and Gabby and John came along and started to produce video-level punts in competition, a switch was flipped in Kelly’s mind. He became obsessed with the idea of remaining modern in his craft, and that meant matching the best of the next generation.
As a result we got to see some wild shit from Slater. The New York air. The Bells air. The Portugal air — the first ever frontside 540(/720) in the history of the sport, performed by a forty-three year old. That comma is significant.
So Kelly’s proven that he’s able to stick ‘em every now and then, but are they… good? Aside from the objective positives that they’re massive and spinny, most of Kelly’s airs are performed in a non-functional fashion (Bells air excluded). Instead of the coordinated, tightly wound techniques of John and Filipe, Kelly throws his airs with a singular focus — to ride away. The man flings himself off major sections, rotates as quickly possible, sometimes throws in an accidental grab, and manages to land on his feet. I’d call it a fluke if he didn’t pull them off so damn often.
But while Kelly’s airs have brought him praise and the rare heat win, I’d argue that in his pursuit of “progressive surfing” he’s forfeited the very techniques that made him so great in the past. Where Kelly used to be a master blaster with the back foot, his surfing has become significantly more front-footed with the aerial transition, leading to a deterioration of his turns and natural style. He seems too conscious when approaching aerials, as if trying to remember how to make certain moves instead of allowing the body to work organically. This has then translated to his turns and caused, in my opinion, his current trend of unbalance and falling excessively.
It’s important to note that front-footed surfing isn’t inherently bad. In fact, all the best progressive surfers are great at utilizing the front foot — from John to Julian to Jordy — but this technique is difficult to pick up later in life.
Think of Mick and Joel: two classic, rail-first surfers. Ever seen them try a nose-pick reverse? They mostly appear awkward and forced, and the same applies to the best surfer of all time. So why are three of surfing’s greats unable to properly perform a twelve-year-old’s throwaway maneuver? Because they didn’t grow up in an era where that was a widely utilized technique, and therefore missed the window to establish the necessary muscle memory to throw a legit nose-jive. Old dogs new tricks etc.
In sum, if Kelly had stuck to his former technique and surfboards, he’d probably be surfing better than he does right now. BUT, and that is a colossal but, he’d be so much less endearing. Kelly is a dynamic little firecracker and we wouldn’t want him any other way!