Hope Floats

Hope Floats
Illustration by Noa Emberson

Current Issue“They call me Dope Man, Dope Man. I try to tell ‘em I’m where hope floats, man.”
—Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter

A few months ago Kelly Slater was unbelievable some more. This time, in four straight heats at Cloudbreak, he got a 9 and a 10, then got two 10s, then beat John John Florence by a score of 10, then combo’d Mick Fanning — in part by getting another 10.

This is unbelievable from a few angles. It’s unbelievable prima facie, just based on the surfing and the scores, with no further context. It’s unbelievable because Kelly’s 41. It’s unbelievable because he’s been unbelievable since John John was conceived.

But unbelievable is a funny word. We use it to mean awesome when it really means dubious, far-fetched, implausible. And I wonder at what point Kelly’s unbelievable feats make that semantic jump from impressive to downright suspicious.

Specifically, I wonder when we start to wonder if he’s doping.

People quip about this all the time but it’s usually just reverential overstatement — like, “Motherf–ker is so good, they should test him for steroids.” I don’t really think they should test him for steroids — no one who finished high school does — and none of what follows implies real wrongdoing. It’s just that, hypothetically…

What if?

What if we found out tomorrow Kelly’s been doping all along, needles and blood bags, Lance Armstrong in a wetsuit? Since Fiji I can’t suppress the thought — all the seeds of consequence that would grow out of that discovery, the practical aftermath, the cleanup, the future.

So let’s see what that looks like.

First there’d be the matter of reassigning all of Kelly’s wins by default to the three generations of his victims. Rob Machado, Mick Campbell, Shane Beschen and Powell would all be new world champions. Damien Hardman would get another title. Andy Irons would have five instead of three, posthumously making him the winning-est surfer of all time.

And with regard to Andy, a doping revelation would change everything. It’d twist the dynamic of his and Kelly’s rivalry into a tale of two drugs, self-destructive versus self-serving, one more tragic but much nobler in the court of public opinion. Andy’s cult would grow without ceiling in the manner of the young and dead, the Deans and Monroes and Cobains and the Hendrixes. Both men’s stories become sad in the end; nobody wins.

On a lighter note, Tony Ray would be an Eddie champ after all. Nice up-turn for Tony.

In that vein there’d be no small amount of schadenfreude among all those pros who slammed, by accident of birth, into the age of Kelly’s domination. A lot of guys who should have been great were instead reduced to bit players in the Slater story and a few must still be bitter about it. Through a scandal the retired ones, maybe, could feel redemption and be satisfied, having already enjoyed their slice of the massive commercial pie Kelly’s been baking for the surf industry, mostly by himself, since 1990.

But current pros would be f–ked as follows:

First they imagine a brief false glimmer of opportunity in Kelly’s fall, a sudden power vacuum they can fill — and then the floor drops out. The sport’s mainstream dreams evaporate as its one transcendent human narrative from the last 20 years goes up in a blood test, taking with it all the fan interest invested in Kelly’s career to date. That’s interest fans can’t get back. They’ve been burned; they aren’t keen to start from scratch with this Mickey Mouse pseudo-sport that can’t see obvious cheating when it stares down from a podium 53 separate times. People turn disillusioned to the UFC.

So that part’s too bad, for pro surfing at least. (Actual surfing is mostly unaffected.)

Now, in a way this kind of doping scandal would make sense — a reasonable symptom of our experiment with money and professionalism. As the stakes grow, so do the lengths to which surfers will go for an edge. First it was training and sobriety, then the retention of an entourage, and soon, what’s a little HGH? If not Kelly you have to think it’ll be someone; if not doping, it’ll be something else.

Which leads us inevitably to the Laurence Fishburne tinted-pill question: Would you really want to know? Would you want to go down the rabbit hole? If Kelly Slater and all he represents were a massive chemical sham, and that revelation would nuke the surf world as we know it, would you even want the truth?

Or would you rather Kelly slip into a dignified retirement at age 50, with 20 world titles and, strangely, in the best shape of his life, as an enduring icon of human achievement?

It’s probably best to reiterate that SURFING doesn’t think Kelly’s ever cheated, at anything. But that’s not really the point.

Kelly’s where hope floats, man. And maybe this is for the best. —Clark Franklin