Could Kelly Slater be the best athlete ever? No seriously?
By: Chris Mauro, GrindTV.com
Nine-time world surfing champion Kelly Slater won the Hurley Pro Saturday at Lower Trestles, the same San Clemente, Calif. venue where he won his maiden victory as a pro nearly 20 years ago to the day.
Of course, if and when any mention of his win makes the mainstream sporting press in the U.S. it's likely to be shoehorned between coverage of the latest hot dog-eating contest and a brawl between college mascots.
Yet this win in particular should be acknowledged because it marks a milestone in sports that's rarely -- if ever -- reached. I'm biased, of course, so I'll ask you to shoot my theory down by answering the following question off the top of your head: Please name an athlete -- any athlete -- who's been the dominant force in their respective sport for a span of two decades?
Mind you, I'm not talking about somebody who's hung around the top level for 20 years with a single title or two to show for it. Sports history is rich and thick with lovable legends who've endured like Brett Favre, Nolan Ryan, Cal Ripken, even George Foreman. Yet there's a large chasm between enduring and dominating -- as in being the primary gravitational force that others must orbit around. Favre, Ryan, Ripken and Foreman were all that force for a time, no doubt, but for 20 years? Nope.
Find me somebody who, let's say, holds the record for being the youngest and oldest world champion. Whose career win percentage over two decades was near 80% and climbing. Who 20 years after his debut win as a pro, recaptured a lead in the race for yet another world title, maybe a 10th? Somebody who's owned the top slot in their sport's All-Star voting 15 times, and year-after-year humbles a fresh set of young rookies -- even those less than half his age -- who are allegedly coming to dethrone him. Yep, those are just a few of Slater's stats.
I've been racking my brain to trying to come up with somebody else. I even asked my buddies deep inside Y!Sports and ESPN for help. Surely they'd know someone? "A bowler? poker player? billiard champion?" In their defense, they were buried in NFL and MLB drama and had little time for such silliness from an Action Sports guy. Nevertheless, they politely threw me some meat just to appease me, Jordan, Armstrong, Navratilova and Bonds. I didn't want to rile them by telling them Slater's stats trump all of the above.
I dug deeper, only to find that most athletes who rule for two full decades come from sedentary sports, like golfing, curling, angling or lawn darts. Or they spend their careers in idle positions that are highly specialized, like pitching, punting or goal keeper.
Arnold Palmer and the Golden Bear are good examples of golfers who enjoyed marathon careers. Jack won his first championship in his early 20s, and The Masters when he was 46. Yet, even according to Golf Magazine, the 70s was the only decade he owned, while Palmer ran the show in the 60s.
Tiger Woods is the obvious man-to-beat now. And though Woods (the first golfer to ever hit the gym?) is four years younger than Slater, and just 14 years into his pro career, his reign will undoubtedly surpass all comers. But that's still TBD for now, especially since Woods is slumping after his recent foray into public relations hell.
Mariano Rivera is arguably right there with Tiger. He's been baseball's dominant closer for 15 solid years. And he stands a decent chance of going five more years since, well, he only throws a handful of pitches per week.
Admittedly, I'm operating under a completely deranged definition of an athlete, especially compared to the contemporary excuse for one. I weigh all of them against an ancient Roman scale that involves lions, tigers and The Colosseum -- an imaginary venue where today's sedentary athletes would become breakfast, brunch or lunch at best.
I know this sounds like an absurd notion. There's simply no way a surfer can enter the conversation when we're talking about the most dominant athletes ever, right? Can we even dare to measure Slater's athletic feats against Wayne Gretzky and Jerry Rice? Those two really did dominate physically grueling sports for two decades. That's why they're considered the greatest. And maybe being blasted into the reef at Teahupoo isn't as scary as being checked, or catching an ill-timed pass over the middle, but watch, then consider which fate you'd choose given the choice.
Whether surfing is a sport or not is an argument even surfers can't agree on. In fact, anything with judges is suspect since it's crossing into art. But there's no denying that whether you're paddling into 25-foot waves at Waimea Bay, or flying high at five-foot Bells Beach, the act demands endurance, timing, speed and flexibility, not to mention commitment, all which favor the young and athletically spry...or so we were told.
After winning five straight titles in the 90s (six total) Slater retired in 1999, which, when translated, means he went surfing more. He chased swells around the planet for three years, visiting friends at every stop, waiting for a new crop of talent to mature and actually threaten his legacy before coming back to competition in 2003. In his first year back, he fell short in the final heat of the season. But by 2005 he had his title back, repeating again in 2006, and nabbing another in 2008. Now he's leading in 2010.
Like Favre, Slater threatens retirement at every turn. Unlike Favre, he tends to go the distance when he comes back. Today 38-year-old Slater is not only defying gravity with his results, but halting time with his surfing, which is still getting better. When asked how old he thinks he'd be if he didn't know how old he was, he says 24. Take one look at his sculpted physique and you'd agree that's his real age.
It doesn't hurt that he's having fun. "I'd let a hundred thousand people punch me in the face to surf these waves alone," he said after collecting his check for $105,000. "I can't believe you guys are paying me for this."
His decades of dominance required serious sacrifice though. He attributes some of his longevity to never being married, which was supposedly rough. His years running around with the likes of Pamela, Gisele and Cameron earned him more mainstream press than any of his records, compounding the torture. Poor guy.
His travel schedule is grueling, too, but 12-hour flights or not, there's little sympathy for anyone headed to Tahiti, Fiji or Australia for a match. Slater's pro athlete friends are quick to remind him it beats Pittsburgh, Detroit or Cleveland.
If Kelly wins his 10th ASP world title this year he'll be tempted to walk away for good...again. Yet after being to the moon and back several times now he's surprised by where motivation continues to come from.
"Once you've done all you've set out to do it becomes about things much larger than yourself," he says. He dedicated his landmark win Saturday to Daisy Merrick, granddaughter of his longtime shaper, friend, and mentor Al Merrick, who's bravely battling a rare form of cancer.
In an era when our sports heroes continually disappoint, Slater, the human, is somebody parents needn't fear their kids emulating. The former Straight-A student has maintained his über-cool (Jack Johnson's singing career was spawned out of Slater-produced surf movies. Eddie Vedder invites Slater on stage for jam sessions at his concerts.) while neutralizing the old pejorative of being a surfer over the course of his reign.
On any coast, in any country, Kelly Slater has tens of thousands of loyal fans who adore him. Yet he can rest assured that his peaceful refuge is always five minutes away, roughly four miles inland. Because on Main Street U.S.A. Slater will always be able to walk down the sidewalk unnoticed, despite being one of the most dominant athletes ever.
Could Kelly Slater be the best athlete ever? No seriously?