“If I’m in a contest, I wanna win,” replies a deadpan Kelly Slater, when asked what he’s aiming to get from competing at this stage of his career. Moments before he’d been chaired from the water after beating Taj Burrow in an anti-climactic final at the Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast. As he got close to the podium, he threw a flurry of high-fives to supporters then laid backwards into the crowd.
While winning is at the core of Kelly’s motivation, his 46th tour victory and third in Coolangatta (he’s won the Billabong Pro Kirra twice and claimed the Quik Pro title in 2008), will occupy a different place in his mind.
“I’m trying to get to a place where I’m focused but I’m not stressed out by it. I don’t really enjoy the stress of the contest. I put pressure on myself. In the break [competition was suspended for four hours over high tide] I put a lot of pressure on myself and I didn’t realize it. When I was driving back I wanted to loosen up a little bit. I like to try to get to a place where I can compete relaxed,” he said, adding, “It’s about performance [and] performing well all the time. If you can do that, you compete well. [My goal] is to make the idea of competing secondary. I’m not that fired up to go beat people but I like to win heats if I’m out there.”
Until he walked out for the final, Kelly had joked with beach marshals, various personalities in the competitors’ area and even his opponent Taj Burrow, whom he shared a quick hug with before paddling out.
The final was lackluster. The tide ran out and the swell swung too far east, creating vicious wedges that ran into nothing. Kelly won with two fives, while Taj had an opportunity to steal victory at the death when he blew the fins out of a runner and aimed at a punt section only to meekly tap the section and finish with a floater. He fell 1.03 points short of the champ.
Following the heat, Taj walked briskly through the media area and the post-final awards ceremony had to be held up while they searched for the West Australian backstage in the competitors’ area.
Kelly’s passage to the final was easy. He destroyed Dusty Payne in the quarterfinals — though with conditions at a premium for the heat, and the women’s final the day prior providing some of the most entertaining surfing of the event, expectations were high for Slater and Dusty. When almost 13 minutes elapsed with just a single wave ridden despite a series of rippable nuggets running along the inside, Coolangatta local and commentator Bruce Lee willed the surfers to catch more waves while his co-commentator, Sean Doherty made the observation many surfers would “give their left arm” to surf the inside runners. Following the heat, Kelly bristled when asked whether, in light of the girl’s action the day earlier, the men should shelve their professionalism and catch more waves for the sake of the spectacle.
“Well, how are you gonna catch more waves when they are not coming?”
“Well, I dunno, I thought there were heaps of little grinders running down the bank,” I replied.
“Yeah, but they’re way down here you know. We can’t see those waves from where we’re sitting. I mean, it’s not like we’re sitting out there trying not to catch waves. I mean, especially Dusty, he caught four waves in a half an hour.”
“Yeah, I s’pose so. I thought it was kind of a conservative approach,” I finished, but Kelly had already begun to make his exit mid-sentence. Which was fair enough. He was yet to surf his semi-final and it wasn’t the time to be engaging in debate (and I wouldn’t have, but I feared Kelly might lose in the semi or final and not offer a post heat interview, as happens regularly on the World Tour).
Dusty’s exit was soon followed by the rest of the Quik Pro breakthrough performers: Brett Simpson, Matt Wilkinson and Brazilian rookie Alejo Muniz, were all gone by the end of the quarterfinals, with the Brazilian losing in circumstances that were too much for his girlfriend to bear.
Holding a lead of 7.57 with five seconds left, Alejo’s opponent and world No. 2 Jordy Smith grabbed a mid-sized runner, throwing a series of prog-moves to score a 7.7 for the win in near identical circumstances to his defeat of Joel Parkinson a day earlier. The scores were announced after the siren and Alejo’s girlfriend (or possibly his sister) broke down in the competitors’ area, with Brazilian World Tour surfers, Raoni Monteiro and Heitor Alves left to console her. For Jordy, it was the fourth time since the Billabong Pro J-Bay last year he’d snatched victory on his final wave (Trestles, Portugal and yesterday at the Quik Pro being the others).
“After J-Bay and that situation with Bede [where he defeated the Australian on the final wave], that turned everything around for me. Before that I was like, ‘Ah, screw this,’ [when I was behind near the finish]. Now I just go until the end,” said Jordy.
Breakthrough performer Brett Simpson, who acquired the best result of his career before losing to Taj in the quarterfinals, put his elimination down to inexperience.
“It’s our first time so we probably got a little excited already and felt like we’d had a great result and maybe let our foot off the gas pedal a bit. You can’t afford to do that against these top guys who can smell blood,” he said.
For Brett, the result answered the heavy criticism he’d received during his rookie year from some unlikely sources. Former coach Ian “Kanga” Cairns gave the Huntington Beach local a pasting in Surfline.com’s controversial Power Rankings, and Brett admitted to taking the criticism “personally.”
“I’ve worked with Ian and he says what he believes. Yeah, I took it personally. You see people getting pissed off but when you become a professional you try to balance that and show ‘em, ‘Nah, I can do it.’ We’re still friends and we talk but I haven’t worked with him [this year],” he said, adding, “I came into this event with not a lot of confidence. My back was sore and there were some other things going on. I met with [sports physio] Chris Prosser and he told me, ‘Just go and be excited. You’re worried, you’re stressed out. That will [cause back pain].’”
In what will firm Kelly’s chances of an 11th world title, Brett outlined what he believes is a further slant toward variety of repertoire by the ASP judges.
“The judges aren’t like, ‘It’s not a perfect wave, so you can’t give him the score.’ Jordy ripped the crap out of his [7.5 against Parko] and he deserved it. If the wave allows you to go carve, tail slide, air and you do four cutties, you could get a six but you could get a nine if you mix it up. It’s definitely a new criteria.”
With the World Tour headed into the unchartered and dubious terrain of Rio De Janeiro and Long Beach, New York, a cryptic statement by Kelly revealed that the promise of an 11th world title might not be enough to keep him here.
“I love the wave here and it’s special to make it that far and surf that many heats with only two guys out, really. That sort of means more to me now,” he said, but changed tack before finishing the sentence.
“I mean, when I look back on it when I’m older, I will probably be stoked and just happy to, you know, have a finish and surf in the final. At that point, I didn’t really care if it was a second. I was just going to give it what I got.” —Jed Smith