Kelly Slater is synonymous with surfing and is one of the most successful athletes to walk the planet. The greatest surfer of all time. The GOAT. Kelly’s surfing has transcended generations, changing how surfers approach waves and redefining radical surfing. A combination of old-school flow and new-school flare led to a style of surfing that won the Floridian 11 x world titles and imprinted him in the memory of surfing forever.
Kelly’s influence on surfing is clear, and his prowess in competitive surfing is what he’s so famous for. But in this article, we take a deeper dive into the life of Kelly Slater. We’ll discover how his early career played out, how he got so damn good at surfing in wave-starved Florida, and how this competitive dominance in waves of consequence. We will also look closer at his personal life, what the 51-year-old life looks like outside of surfing, and what the future holds. It’s a long and inspiring story, so grab a cuppa, and we’ll dive in!
The Rise of a Young Surfer:
Kelly Robert Slater was born in Cocoa Beach, Florida, on February 11, 1992. While Florida has produced some notable professional surfers over the years, the region is not typically associated with world-class waves. In fact, it’s flat most of the year. This makes Kelly’s rise to surfing success all the more astonishing. A young slater, the son of a fishing shop owner, came from a troublesome home and spent much of his childhood outdoors and at the beach. He has two brothers and began surfing at the age of 5.
Kelly was competing by age ten and beating kids much older than him in contests up and down the US East Coast. Kelly started competing in 1984 and turned pro in 1990. However, his first two years on the WSL World Championship Tour (then ASP) weren’t plain sailing. He struggled for results, and it took time to adjust to life on tour and surfing well enough to beat his competitors, many of which were his idols.
But by 1992, Kelly was winning—a lot. In the first five events of the 1993 tour year, he finished 3rd place or higher in three of the events before winning his first Championship Tour event at the Rip Curl Pro France later in the year. The event was held in windy Hossegor and beat tour veteran and fierce competitor Martin Potter to claim his maiden win. He later won the Pipeline Masters and his first world title, aged only 20. Kelly is still the youngest-ever surfer to win the world title. And, the eldest, winning his last at age 39.
After a 6th place “blip” finish in 1994, Hawaiian legend Michael Ho won that year. Kelly went on to win five consecutive world titles in 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, and 2002. Yes, five! A feat is unmatched by anyone and a record unlikely to be broken. After 2002 and his fourth win, Kelly took a break from professional surfing.
How Did Kelly Get So Good?
Before we come back to Kelly’s competitive career and his return to professional surfing, how did Kelly get so good at surfing? For lack of a better description, the waves in Florida are terrible all the time, so how did young Slater improve, particularly in waves of consequence?
Kelly would have to travel the world to surf better waves, bigger waves, and in line-ups where competition would be fierce. Line ups like on the North Shore of Oahu. It would be here that Kelly would go on to learn how to surf big waves and gain confidence as the World Tour became the dream tour, where waves of power and quality were added to the schedule, waves like Teahupo, Cloudbreak, and G-land.
Now, Kelly is renowned for surfing well in barreling waves, one of, if not the best. But it wasn’t always this way. In Kelly’s autobiography, Pipe Dreams, he states that everything changed for him one North Shore Season. One day, a huge NW swell hit Oahu, and a young Kelly headed to the island’s West side. He pulled up at a spot called Makaha, one of the original big wave spots and a legendary break in Hawaii.
Here, he met with Brandon Davis, who was waxing up a big wave gun and took Kelly under his wing for the session. They paddled out together for a wicked session at 30-40ft Makaha. It was the tips Davis gave Kelly during this session that Kelly used for confidence in big surf, and Kelly still references the session today. Kelly has put more time in than anyone on the North Shore, a place where traditionally, non-Hawaiians fare poorly in competition. Kelly is now regarded as one of the best Pipe competitors ever.
Kelly became obsessed with surfing heats and gained a notorious reputation for using mind games in contests. He took things very seriously. While much of the World Tour contingent were partying their way around tour locations, Kelly took detailed notes on his competitors, their heat strategy, waves scores, and what he had to do to ride waves more critically. He was also part of the group of young tour rookies sticking it to the old school with a new way of surfing–the Momentum generation,
Channel Islands Surfboards
Another considerable aspect of Kelly’s surfing success was his decades-long relationship with surfboard shaper Al Merrick. Getting boards dialed in takes a long time. The two worked meticulously to create boards that allowed Kelly to surf more critically, perform tighter arcs and ride more in the pocket. Surfing that would fetch Kelly bigger scores.
Health & Diet
Kelly’s out-of-water training regime is shrouded in mystery, and no one knows what he does to stay fit out of the water. However, it’s well known he takes his health, diet, and body extremely seriously. After all, the guy’s still competing at age 51! Magic pills, perhaps?
Kelly Slater’s Career (Career, Achievements & Awards)
After a few years absence from professional surfing, Kelly returned to the competitive scene and soon got back to winning ways. However, this time around would be different. Very different. A new kid was on the scene, someone who could Match Kelly both competitively and in performing well in good waves. Andy Irons. The Andy vs. Kelly rivalry is one of the best surfing rivalries ever! The pair hated each other and did everything possible to overcome each other.
Kelly would end up losing to Andy 3 x times, consecutively, for the world title, and he is one of the only surfers to beat Kelly at his own game. The rivalry will live long in surfing folklore. There’s an awesome story from the North Shore, where in the lead-up to a world title showdown at Pipe, Kelly randomly turned up at Andy’s house on the North Shore.
He claims he was asking for a friend, but many call it a sneaky mind game on Kelly’s behalf. Andy proceeded to go nuts at Kelly and kicked him out. Mind game or not, it certainly rattled Andy, and they hated each other at the time! If you haven’t seen the “Fly in the Champagne” surf film, I’d highly suggest checking it out.
In his professional career, Kelly would become the winningest surfer of all time and one of the best athletes ever. Up there with Ali, Woods, and Jordan. He has won the WCT 11x, taking out 56 events in his time on tour. A competitive machine. Kelly won his first event in 1993 and his last in 2022, beating Seth Moniz in the final of the Pipe Masters at pumping Backdoor. He is also the first surfer to score a perfect heat (scoring two waves marked 10/10), with two mind-blowing waves Teahupoo in Tahiti, before repeating the same feat at the 2013 Fiji Pro at firing Cloudbreak.
Alongside his competitive prowess, which speaks for itself, Kelly has starred in some of the most influential surf movies ever. Kelly has starred in some of the most notable surf films ever, including Loose Change, Kelly Slater in Balck and White, Momentum 2, and John John Florence’s Incredible View From a Blue Moon.
Kelly Slater’s Personal Life
Kelly Slater is dating his long-term girlfriend, Kalani Miller; they have been together for 13 years. Kelly also has a daughter from a previous relationship (born in 1996) and was famed for dating Pamela Anderson for a few years as they worked together on Baywatch. His net worth is $25 million, and he has income streams from investments, endorsements, and his companies, such as Outerknown and the Surf Ranch.
The Future of Kelly Slater
As of April 2023, Kelly is still competing on the WCT, at age 51. We don’t know how long Kelly will continue to compete, but he has hinted at retirement multiple times over the past 12 months, stating a loss of motivation. I, as a fan, hope this isn’t the case, but whether Kelly quits tomorrow or we see him for years to come, I think I speak for everyone when I say I will always remain an avid Kelly fan. We don’t know what Kelly has up his sleeve regarding future endeavors, but it will be exciting, and the surfing world will continue to watch.
Kelly. The GOAT. The most influential surfer ever and one who changed how we all ride waves. We now ride three fined boards and perform turns in the way we do because Kelly did it first. If you grew up a surf fan in the 90s, he was almost certainly your favorite surfer at some stage. If you want to dive deeper into Kelly’s life and career, check out the book, Pipe Dreams, watch” A Fly in the Champagne,” and thank me later!
Dan Harmon is a content writer and full-time surf travel enthusiast. He travels the world full-time while creating surf content, traveling to the world’s best surf destinations, and hunting out some lesser-known corners. You can follow more of Dan’s travels over on his YouTube Channel, website, and Instagram.