So long, champ.
At two-thirty AM this morning there was a loud bang. The whole house shuddered and shook, as if shunted by a giant mechanical hand.
Monumental forces were at work, acts of God. Something big was moving.
Perhaps it was a nod to John Florence, and the tectonic power of his turns I referenced yesterday.
Perhaps, if that was the last heat we see of Kelly Slater as a full-time Tour professional, it was something colossal shifting in the landscape of pro surfing.
It was not the drama of the Cut, which promised fireworks and fizzled out before the Round of 16. And it was not the performances, which were highly competent without being jaw-droppingly spectacular.
Waves and opportunities were plentiful, but in surf scoring parlance, the day was a mid-seven, and that’s mostly what was awarded. Ten heats were won with totals between fourteen and sixteen, and that seemed about right.
Maybe I’d been hoping for too much in light of the forecast, but I was left with the sense that both waves and surfers had more to give. Only Yago Dora, Italo Ferreira and John Florence achieved excellence today.
To my eye, Filipe Toledo did, too, but once again seemed slightly low-balled by the judges. We’ve seen this before, of course. Surfers fall in and out of vogue, even when they perform consistently. Just as I alluded to in my final Bells wrap, judging is subjective, and scores are swayed by the vagaries of temperament and emotion.
Toledo seems a victim of this right now, having fallen out of favour for whatever reason. The change is subtle, but it has happened. He knew this last week when he ranted on the Bells stairs, and he knew again today after blitzing Reef Heazlewood with four scores in the high seven range, frustrated that he couldn’t seem to elicit more from the judging panel.
“Maybe I should just go for a layback”, he said, clearly exasperated, watching Jordy get an eight in the heat after his.
If you follow the NBA, you’ll understand what I mean when I say it’s a bit like the Jokic vs Embiid MVP debate. When awards are opinion-based, fatigue among voters sets in quickly. The unspoken rule is that one man must not win all the time.
Italo Ferreira has been a victim of this sort of groupthink in the years since his world title. That hasn’t been his only issue, of course. But today, joyfully, we saw a return to the Italo of old.
He vanquished Kanoa with a 9.03, the highest score of the day, after flying down the line of an imperfect wave, launching himself skyward, and twirling above the glacier-blue water with the ease and ebullience of a children’s toy.
I found my spirit soaring in his post-heat interview. Gone were the hollow, dead eyes. Gone were the moribund, monotone responses. Gone was the darkness that has shrouded him ever since he shouldered the burden of a world title. The Italo of old was back, the one we fell in love with once.
“Sometimes I just need to catch a wave and surf”, he said. “I just do this for love and that’s it.”
Keep doing it, Italo. It was good to have you home.
The forecast for the remainder of the waiting period is uncertain. A dropping swell then strong onshore winds before a glimpse of potential in a few days. The round of 16 looks good, the draw exceptionally well balanced.
John Florence notwithstanding, the backhand quartet of Medina, Ferreira, Dora and O’Leary have stood out the most. The latter pair will meet in the next round.
On their forehand, some big guns are yet to fire, notably Chianca, Colapinto and Ewing. Each occupies a separate corner of the bracket, and we can but hope for fireworks in the centre.
The Cut is done and dusted, and ultimately there were no major shocks. Only Barron Mamiya and Liam O’Brien have surfed their way from below the line, doing so at the expense of last years’ top rookie, Sammy Pupo, Nat Young and Jackson Baker. Young has been forgettable, Baker and Pupo perhaps a bit unlucky. Both have had memorable performances this season, much more so than Seth Moniz and Ian Gentil, who both squeaked through.
And so we come back to Kelly, just like we always will.
For a minute, as his heat wound down against Liam O’Brien, it looked like we might get a vintage Slater moment.
After coming back from a near-combination situation, he needed a high seven as time ebbed away and O’Brien held priority. In classic Slater fashion, like a grandmaster, he suckered O’Brien into a poor one. He had his chance. It looked possible.
But the timing of his turns was very slightly off, belying both age and reality. Still, he clung onto them like a younger man and somehow stayed on his feet.
The required score looked plausible, or maybe I just wanted it to be. Maybe I wanted that final moment with Slater to be the best version of him, the version that so often left us astonished. The Kelly Slater that carried the entirety of pro surfing’s present and future on his shoulders for so long.
But the judges weren’t feeling so nostalgic. The score came in a full two points below requirement.
If we’re honest, he’s never looked like making the grade this year. Only through rose lenses and wilful ignorance could you argue otherwise. The oft-repeated argument that his problem is equipment based, that he should go back to thrusters or CIs etc is a fallacy spoken by other old men who can’t accept the steady march of time.
We all wish Kelly Slater could stay as we knew him best forever, a fly trapped in amber, in all his simmering, calculated brilliance. He’s more than just some bronzed effigy for Florida retirees to point at but never understand.
But there’s no easy way for the things we love to die. In time, for many of us, Slater may become little more significant than family pets, buried in unmarked graves in some opaque corner of the garden. A resting place that does no justice to how much we loved them in their prime.
I wish Kelly had retired after Pipe. And if he had, I’d have wished he kept going. A blaze of glory will always leave us wanting and wondering; a slow decline will always ache with sadness.
There are only two ways out of this world. You go before your time, by accident or illness, and leave a world wondering what might have been. Or you shrivel and fade into obscurity, drifting ever further from once vivid memories, not least your own, until you vanish like a bubble, bursting softly.
In the wake of defeat today, Slater seemed magnanimous and happy. There were no excuses.
There were no clear answers about his future. I hope there never are. I want to keep guessing. I want him to abuse his privilege and steal wildcard slots for Pipe or Teahupo’o on choice forecasts. I’ve written many, many words about him, and whatever comes next, I look forward to writing many more. Despite the eulogies, mine included, this is not the last we will see of Kelly Slater.
“Whatever. We’re breathing”, he said.
Was this a genuine, holistic view of his life’s purpose and meaning? Or just a way of deflecting hard realities? I’d say only Kelly knows, but I’m not sure that’s true.
I am sure, whether in this moment or the next, that he will feel a release of pressure, a great, invisible weight shifting, like the mighty grind of tectonic plates.
“I want to get really barrelled, somewhere”, he said, staring over Stace Galbraith’s shoulder at the waves in the distance.
Maybe he simply wanted to escape to the ocean, where the turmoil of his mind is still, just as he has done his whole life.