Kelly Slater interview: Olympics, surfing and artificial waves

Kelly Slater interview: Olympics, surfing and artificial waves

By Ashlee Tulloch

There is no end in sight for surfing legend Kelly Slater.

The 11-time world champion revealed to the Olympic Channel that he wants to surf legendary Hawaiian surf-spot Pipeline 'until he is 70'.

Slater is 46 and still going strong. Although a foot injury has kept him pretty much out of action since July 2017 when he broke his foot while free surfing at Jeffreys Bay.

But he's launching a comeback - with an eye on representing USA at Tokyo 2020 when surfing becomes an Olympic sport.

And he's been practising on his new invention: the Surf Ranch. 

It's an incredible wave pool 160 kilometres inland in California that professionals (and also snowboarder Shaun White) seem to love.

It offers the first 'on-demand' pro waves that Slater hopes can make competitive surfing more reliable.

Olympic Channel spoke to him just before the first big WSL competition at the ranch - the Founders' Cup.

Unchartered waters

How do you feel in this wonderful playground that is your surf ranch?

I feel at home. It’s really great.

Let’s go back to the start. What was the idea? Was it that you and your mates could have pools all around the world? Or was it to have professional competitions?

Well, I thought we could have competitions. I also thought that we could have different waves all around the world. When I got into golf, I made friends with a guy who has all these great properties around the country. And I thought that it would be pretty cool as a lot of people love the surf lifestyle. And love that lifestyle around a wave. So I envisioned having these communities all built around this. And the people who lived there would all be, sort of, members of this thing. I was sort of envisioning – first off a community and second a competition could be part of that too. But also teaching people and sharing the fun.

So the objective wasn’t to make the best man-made wave in the world?

Oh - it was. That was the objective. But I figured – once we made the best man-made wave in the world that all that stuff could be part of it.

So did you envisage that you would be one day holding a competition like the Founders' Cup here?

I thought we could. It wasn't out of the question. The idea that you could make the best possible wave that you could – that is a good quality wave that the pros like or love and then you could then have an event and the everyone would back it.

How much longer?

*The purist who might say it’s not right because it’s not surfing in the ocean - what do you say to that person?

Don’t come surf it then. Doesn’t bother me. I understand that mindset. People are really dynamic and complex creatures. And there’s a whole load of reasoning that goes in to what we think. It can be as simple as ‘I don’t think I am ever going to surf it so I am going to hate that thing’. It can be that’s something I don’t understand so I don’t like it. And some people will just think yeah, that’s not what surfing is. Or that is not surfing to them so I am not going to take anything away from them. If that’s how you feel then that’s how they feel – I don’t know.

You personally believe that this maintains the essence of surfing and can they co-exist? The ocean and the wave pool…

They co-exist. This experience is what you bring to it. Come have some fun and ride a few waves. Go home that night and plug back into your other life.

You always get asked about retirement. When you are going to put the surfboard away? Does a wave pool like this help your longevity?

It could. A wave pool like this makes you really tired (laughs). My legs are fried. I feel like – I don’t know – I ride a couple of waves and I don’t know if I can get actually in as good a shape as I need to maximize what the wave is because it’s such a long ride. But it will definitely extend the life of my fun.

So how is your foot?

My foot is pretty good. Getting there. These wood chips kind of hurt. Yeah – but I am back into surfing. And I am enjoying that. Just a couple of days ago I started running for the first time. I was just running and someone goes ‘You are running!’. And I was like, woah, I didn’t realise that so the foot is starting to feel good.

You broke your foot at Jeffreys Bay in July 2017. You competed at Pipeline but haven't competed since...

I had a second surgery after that. I competed at Pipeline where I was touch and go. If the waves weren’t just tubes, I wasn’t going to surf. I couldn’t really do the small waves stuff. I couldn’t really move around and turn. I couldn’t even run. I was kind of hobbling on my foot at the time but I figured that if I could stand up and go straight and pull up the tube then I would do it. And the waves were pretty good. It wasn’t massive. It wasn’t super dangerous but it wasn’t tiny which would be even more difficult for me.

Then in February, I had a second surgery that put me out for about six weeks. I couldn’t really surf for about five to six weeks and then we had the first contest of the year in Australia and it was a really good swell. I was trying my hardest to get better for that. In fact, I missed my first round heat and asked them to hold the spot – I was going to practise in Hawaii and see if I could surf then try to get there and surf and hopefully catch that swell. But it was a little – I was being a little generous with where my foot was at at the time. It wasn’t probably the smartest thing to try and do. I pulled out and I just figured let’s just pull back for a few months. I want to be that I am not even thinking about it before I really jump back into competition. I am just getting close to that point now. I think I am fine.

Going back to 2016, you said that you were going to have one more crack at getting a 12th world title. Are you still motivated for that given what’s happened to you now?

I am pretty motivated. I think this time off has been good for me. As it has given me a little down time to say 'let’s just put that one more bit of energy in for a year'. Get the body right. Rehab my back – it’s had an issue. My hip has had issues. I have broken both my feet a combined number of four times. It’s an injury that I keep having in the same way. It’s just where I expose myself. On a tube ride mostly. So, yeah, it’s a thing that has happened over and over again. I’ve been lucky in my whole career. (But) I have missed more events from this injury than I have missed my whole career from injury. All combined. So I have been real lucky. I have only missed one or two events ever in any given year from injury.

How much longer are going out there with Slater on your back?

I am not sure. Next year could possibly be my last full time year. But I will probably compete for a number of more years in events, if I can get wild cards into events that I really love. If they will let me – I will surf Pipeline until I am 70. If they give me a spot in the event. Pull me out there! There’s a few events that I really love, year after year – I love to be at. Whether I am surfing or not – I would probably show up at.

The Olympic future of surfing

Your list of achievements is long. But one thing you don’t have is an Olympic gold medal.

Nobody does. Not in surfing.

So will you be gunning for a Tokyo 2020 spot? What will it take for you to make it onto that USA team?

As of now, I am going to do my best to try and make that team. If I make it great, if I don’t – I am totally fine with that. I’ve had a good long career in surfing, a great life in surfing. It would make a great kind of bookend to my career if I was able to make that team. It looks like they are only going to take a couple of guys from each country. So I might move to Bolivia next week and try to get on their team.

Where are your parents from?

I might have to go to Italy and join Leonardo (Fioravanti). And jump on that team.

What about the wave pool in an Olympic capacity? How realistic do you think that is? And do you think it’s a necessary thing?

I do think that a wave pool technology is necessary for the Olympics. I really do. To have that consistency – to please the Olympics as it were. To please the (International Olympic) Committee so that they (see) what can really be on display for our sport.

This is kind of the perfect example. When you go to the Olympics, it’s all about the performance. You don’t want to have luck factors in those sports in the Olympics. If you are playing a ball sport then it comes down to a score. It’s pretty easy. If you are playing golf the ball goes into the hole or it doesn’t. If you are running – everyone has the same distance. There’s no difference – like the wind was different when that guy ran and this person ran. So, this is the one way that we can limit all of those into somewhat of a controlled environment. There could be some wind differences so there’s a little bit of nature in there. But for the most part you are going to surf the same thing as someone else did. And I think that’s the way the Olympics would be most fair.

Where does the wave pool fit in terms of being environmentally friendly?

Well, we have to look at the materials we use. The amount of concrete and where that has come from. What we do to get our water and where that water goes if we are done using that. Here in this property, we have a great filtration system. We do lose some water to evaporation. That’s natural. Not much we can do about that. In the past when we have cleared out the water from our lake, we’ve given it to local farmers to grow – we’ve basically put it back into the irrigation system.

And when we have broken things down and rebuilt we have tried to re-use and re-purpose everything we have. Either by giving it someone else to re-use it or re-using it here on the property so. When you build anything of this magnitude – this size and scale – you are going to have some things that aren’t perfect to be perfectly blunt but we are trying to be mindful of that and we want to bring in different technologies and different experts to be able to alleviate that in the future.

Kelly Slater was this week’s exclusive guest on the Olympic Channel Podcast. Each Wednesday we take a topic and find someone Olympic to talk about it. We want you to think like an Olympian.

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