The Mind Games of Kelly Slater

  • 04.16.2021

Kelly Slater

My master at Stab magazine tasked me with a story one evening as I stood on my master bedroom’s deck smoking a cigarette. It was to be a look into the competitive mind of Kelly Slater. An honest, straight, probing story about what makes him tick. No fluff.

Kelly was to be in Southern California for some two weeks for the Trestles Pro, before leaving for France. He was close to his 11th world title and the story sounded interesting and so I excitedly agreed. I emailed Kelly that night. He responded one hour later.

“No thanks. You’ll just say that other people are sexier than me.” I emailed my master and told him that I had been defeated. That my reputation had preceded me into Kelly’s heart.

“Email him back,” he responded. “Kelly is v v competitive and he’ll love the challenge of crossing mental swords with you.” And so I did, and three hours plus seven emails later we had a tentative date. In my last communiqué, I had even offered Kelly final edit before the story went to press. He wrote back, “I don’t need it (final edit). It is just hard to spend your whole life doing something and have it picked apart.” The quiet exhaustion of a man alone with his own greatness was palpable and I appreciated his vulnerability.

We tried, over the next two weeks, to set up a meeting date and finally we had one. It would require me to drive back from Arizona at 4:30 in the morning (I was there with my wife who was attending ESPN’s women in sport conference. She didn’t enjoy it and so called me to kill five-star time with her in the desert) to San Clemente but it would be well worth it.

I arrived in San Clemente early and spent some hours laughing with the staff at the Surfing magazine offices before calling Kelly and confirming our location. He told me, on the phone, that he had fucked up and double-booked a birthday dinner with his girlfriend’s parents. An important event. And so I had to settle for a phone interview.

Phone interviews are always problematic. Not being able to see the subject’s eyes or observe his posture drains a story of life. And I have spent enough time with Kelly, in the past, to know his eyes hold secrets. He fixes you in that gaze. I needed that. To peer in to his soul and to soak there for a minute.

Or I thought I needed it, for the interview that Kelly gave me was one of the most honest I have ever had. He answered each question thoughtfully, pausing and letting the words roll around in his mind before speaking. He took the time to dig into himself and say things that were not only not trite, but very interesting. Very personal.

He gave the interview his full attention and after 30 some minutes I felt bad because he was sitting in his car, alone, talking to me while his girlfriend and her parents were inside the restaurant enjoying each other. I cut him off and told him that I had enough and thanked him for his time. He almost seemed hurt.

Two weeks later I had yet to write the piece. I had the 30 minutes of transcript and I had listened to the recording four times but I didn’t know how to do his words proper justice. And then he emailed me again. Jamie O’Brien’s Twitter account had been saying unkind things about him and he had been told that I was writing the messages. He wrote that, if it were true, he and I were going to have big problems whenever we next met. He wrote that he had given me an honest interview and returning his honesty with Twitter filth was unacceptable.

I have not written anything for Jamie O for years and told this to Kelly and also told him to get his facts straight before challenging me to duel. He was kind in response, but the fact that he referenced the honesty of his interview made me realise that he had given a piece of himself. And the best way I could honour that was by placing his words on the page without adornment. Simply and beautifully. — Chas Smith

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  • 04.16.2021