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May 26 , 2002

Brevard's own Kelly Slater: Surfing Superman, regular guy

By Hillard Grossman
FLORIDA TODAY

The Slater File

 

6-time world champion Kelly Slater.

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Date of birth: Feb. 11, 1972
Homes: Cocoa Beach and Avalon Beach, Australia
Years ranked: 13
World titles: 6 (1992, 1994-'98)
Career wins: 37 (27 on WCT circuit)
Pipe Masters wins: 5
Triple Crowns: 2
Career earnings: $1,013,655
Nickname: Slats, Hell raiser, K-Fin
Status: Single
Personal: Has 7-yea
r-old daughter, Taylor
Main sponsor: Quiksilver
Main shaper: Al Merrick
Favorite waves: Pipe (Hawaii), Kirra (Australia)
Favorite music: Jeff Buckley, Powderfinger, Outkast
Other interests: Golf, fishing and music

He's modeled for Versace, played golf with Stallone and dated Playboy cover babe Pamela Anderson.

He drives a green $40,000 Mercedes, has an agent who lives in Beverly Hills and once shared the same concert billing with Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder.

"I'm a small-town person," Kelly Slater says. "Really, I am."

Yeah, right.

Surfing's Superman has indeed made a nice transition from the lazy 35-mph streets of Cocoa Beach to the fast-paced glitz and glamour of Hollywood and the exotic transcontinental professional surfing circuit.

He won a record six world titles in eight years on the World Championship Tour - before turning 27 and stepping away for three years. He even came back 12 months into semi-retirement to win his fifth Pipeline Masters, one of the gems of the world tour on Oahu's North Shore.

Now, one month after his father's death, Slater will be back in the water today, when the Quiksilver Pro opens at Tavarua in Fiji.

"He's a simple guy, but he lives life to the fullest, and he has a great imagination," says his long-time friend Matt Kechele, 39, the 1992 East Coast surfing champion. "He's an ordinary guy who has a lot of stuff going for him."

Did he say an ordinary guy? Well, not exactly.

This is someone who made straight A's in high school, was one of People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People" in 1991, traveled all the way to Australia to provide a cancer-stricken fan with one final request, and still might be the only surfer on the planet who never uses the word "dude" in a sentence.

He needs bodyguards in France, is treated like a rock star in Japan and is even recognized by autograph-seekers on golf courses in Chicago.

Kelly Slater's pro surfing titles
Career victories: 37
WCT victories: 27

2003 (4)
The Billabong Pro
in Teahupoo, Tahiti
The Billabong Pro
in South Africa
The Billabong Pro
in Mundaka, Spain
The Nova Schin Festival
in Brazil

2002 (1)
The Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau (Specialty-Hawaii)

2000 (1)
Gotcha Tahiti Pro presented by Globe (Tahiti)

1999 (1)
Mountain Dew Pipe Masters (Hawaii)

1998 (2)
Billabong Pro (Australia)
G-Shock Triple Crown of Surfing (Specialty-Hawaii)

1997 (7)
Coke Surf Classic (Australia)
Billabong Pro (Australia)
Tokushima Pro (Japan)
Marui Pro (Japan)
Kaiser Summer Surf WCT (Brazil)
Grand Slam (Specialty-Australia)
Typhoon Lagoon Surf Challenge (Specialty-USA)

1996 (9)
Coke Surf Classic (Australia)
Rip Curl Pro Saint Leu (Reunion Island)
CSI pres. Billabong Pro (South Africa)
U.S. Open (California)
Rip Curl Pro Hossegor (France)
Quiksilver Surfmasters (France)
Chiemsee Pipe Masters (Hawaii)
Sud Ouest Trophee (Specialty-France)
Da Hui Backdoor Shootout (Specialty-Hawaii)

1995 (3)
Quiksilver Pro (Indonesia)
Chiemsee Pipe Masters (Hawaii)
Triple Crown of Surfing (Specialty-Hawaii)

1994 (6)
Rip Curl Pro (Australia)
Gotcha Lacanau Pro (France)
Chiemsee Pipe Masters (Hawaii)
The Bud Surf Tour (WQS-USA)
The Bud Surf Tour (WQS-USA)
Sud Ouest Trophee (Specialty-France)

1993 (1)
Marui Pro (Japan)

1992 (2)
Rip Curl Pro Landes (France) Marui Masters (Hawaii)


"In Japan, he's literally swarmed with people," Kechele says. "I mean, when he stays at a motel and he puts his trash out, people will come by digging through it to see what he ate, like they're looking for some kind of candy bar wrapper that makes him superhuman. But to us, he's just Kelly."

Slater's agent, Bryan Taylor, describes him simply as "milk and cookies - with an occasional beer."

"Hey, I try to stay away from the dairy stuff," Slater says with a laugh.

Third Street North

So how did a snot-nosed kid who grew up paddling out in 3-foot waves off Cocoa Beach turn into the greatest surfer of all-time, surviving Pipe's 20-foot tubes and Maverick's 40-foot roller-coasters?

"He had guts," his mother, Judy, says. "And, he had a killer instinct."


The beach at Third Street North was Robert Kelly Slater's playground as the '70s were quickly turning into the '80s. Behind the business offices in the towering Apollo Building and behind Desperado's Mexican restaurant was where Kelly, and his older brother Sean and younger brother Stephen, hung out.

"I was probably at that beach 12 hours a day," says Slater, now 30. "It was sort of the scene when I was a little kid."

His father, Steve, a tackle shop owner who later dabbled in real estate, wasn't a professional surfer.

But he knew how to surf. He first put Kelly on a Styrofoam board when he was 5, then quickly progressed to a Boogie board. When he was 8, Richard and Phil Salick of Salick Surfboards - also on Third Street North - built Slater's first custom board with a menacing open-mouth "Jaws" logo on the board's underside ("He loved that movie," Judy says).

"We recognized his talent when he first got on a Boogie board," said Richard, an old-school surfer who despite three kidney transplants still organizes the annual National Kidney Foundation Labor Day Surf Festival at Cocoa Beach Pier. "Now he's the best thing that's happened to surfing.

Everyone wants to be like Kelly."

When he wasn't in the water, Slater spent much of his time inside The Islander Hut, a little beachfront snack bar that provided relief from the Atlantic Ocean's ripples and warmth from the chilly November winds.

As Foreigner and Bad Company rocked a steady beat on the juke box, Kelly chowed down on fries and burgers, and played video games. "Asteroids," he says. "I couldn't live without that."

His mom even started a tab for Kelly and his friends.

"The tab got so high, I ended up working there as a cook for four years," says Judy, a transplant from Bethesda, Md., who at the time was struggling to keep her marriage from falling apart. "My kids loved it there. It was important for me to work, and I needed to be near my kids."

She ended up working from 10 in the morning until 10 at night. Often seven days a week.

"If I never prepare another hamburger, it won't be soon enough," she says with a laugh.
Surfing provided an outlet for Slater, whose parents parted ways in 1983 and divorced three years later. Slater once told Outside magazine that he feared for his life when his father lost his temper.

"The divorce wasn't something that came on suddenly," Judy says. "I think my kids were ready for him to leave."

Third Street North was the hangout for surfers. Good ones, too. Guys like Charlie Kuhn, Tim Briers, Randy Caldwell, Bill McMillen, Richie Rudolph, Bill Johnson, Todd Holland, David Speir, Sean O'Hare, Mike Tabeling and Kechele.

"You know, at age 9, I saw Kelly do three backside 360s - on one wave," says Kechele, a Satellite Beach resident who now makes his own surfboards and sells them around the world. "He was exposed to good surfing at a young age before there were surfing videos. I mean, he had the top action right in front of him. If we wanted to see surfers on film, we'd have to wait until the Surfside Playhouse released a new movie. We were hungry for that stuff."

Slater learned all the tricks, from hard-snapping cutbacks to small tube rides, which he perfected at the north end of Sebastian Inlet, about 30 minutes south of Third Street North.

"Matt might have bummed fries off me, but at the same time I was bumming rides off him to Sebastian," Slater says. "I think I got the better of that deal."

Two new high-rise condominiums encase Third Street North today. The beach access is neatly paved and parking meters have been installed. But the memories linger.

In November of 1999, Cocoa Beach city commissioners named the east end of Third Street North "Kelly Slater Way." The only other "celebrity" street in Cocoa Beach is "I Dream of Jeannie Lane," named for the '60s Barbara Eden sitcom which was based there.

"You look at what 'I Dream of Jeannie' did for Cocoa Beach, and you look at what Kelly has done, and I'd say it's an appropriate honor at the perfect location," Richard Salick says.

"It means a lot to me," Slater says. "It's the place where my surf life started. There's a lot of good memories there."

Turning some heads

It was guys like Gary Propper and Claude Codgen and Jeff Crawford who had set the surfing trend on Florida's East Coast in the late '60s.

But it was Slater who started to revolutionize the sport in the '80s.

After winning his first event as an 8-year-old at Cocoa Beach Pier ("I still have the trophy," he says), Slater began gaining experience in big waves.

First, he and Sean traveled up the coast with their coach, Dick Catri, the first East Coast surfer to conquer the mighty waves at Waimea and who later became an adviser for the 1963 surf classic, "Ride the Wild Surf." Catri had put together an all-star team for Sundek. Every weekend, at 7 a.m., Kelly's father loaded him and his brother into the car and Catri would be at the beach waiting.

"It paid off," Sean says. "Getting us all together as friends and having us try to outdo each other. ... He gave us the opportunity, and helped us get a few sponsors, too."

"They won everything in sight," says Catri, who still promotes surf contests in Cocoa Beach. "Kelly was amazing. He was one in a million."

For Slater, it was just the start. He traveled to California, where he won his first national amateur title by beating Shane Beschen in the 1982 U.S. Junior Championships.

But it was Kechele who first took Slater, then 12, and Sean to Hawaii. Kechele, 21 at that time, had been the team manager for Sundek, which supplied the Slaters with their boards.

They stayed across Waimea Bay on the North Shore at the bed and breakfast owned by Mark Foo, a legendary big wave surfer who originally was from Pensacola Beach.

"I cooked nachos every night for them," Kechele says.

"He tried to get me to eat avocado but, oh my god, that's the worst thing I ever tasted in my life," Kelly says.

The first place they surfed was Alligator Rock.

"I saw those waves," says Sean, who was 14 at the time, "and I paddled out .¤.¤. and then paddled straight in through the channel. I was little, I was scared."

"When my brother finally went out at Rocky Point," Kelly says, "I was all over him when he came back, asking him, 'How was it? What was it like?' I wanted to know everything."

"Kelly's first session, he might have freaked," Kechele says, "but after a few days he was turning some heads."

And he still is.

Despite stepping away from the grind of the world tour on a full-time basis after clinching his sixth world crown in 1998, he still had enough desire to claim his fifth Pipe Masters crown in December of 1999, as well as his 23rd WCT victory on May 16, 2000, when he defeated Shane Dorian in the Gotcha Pro in Tahiti.

After announcing last December he would be coming back to the tour full-time, he did the unthinkable, conquering 30-foot waves and a 24-man field in January to win The Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational at Waimea Bay, Hawaii. The $55,000 first prize was his biggest payday.

"Kelly's unbelievable," says C.J. Hobgood, 22, the defending world champion who grew up 15 minutes south of Slater's pad in Satellite Beach. "You're always asking yourself, 'How can someone control the ocean like he can?'"

Sean points out that Kelly has an unbeatable combination of desire, talent and luck.
Did he say luck?

"Hey, a lot of people aren't that lucky," Sean says. "I mean, he can be in a heat, needing a 9.2 to win and the waves are totally flat. But then, out of nowhere, a whale will swim by and pop a perfect tube, and he scores a perfect 10. That's the way it's always been with Kelly. Then again, it takes no mistakes. But it's crazy, and he does it all pretty calmly."

The power dinner

When Kelly turned pro in November of 1990, just eight months before his graduation day at Cocoa Beach High School, Bryan Taylor became his agent.

Taylor had seen Kelly and Sean some seven years earlier modeling in an ad for Sundek surfwear and thought with their handsome beach boy looks, they had a future on the big screen. He requested a meeting.

"He used to call me every single week," Judy says. "He was 21, and working for the William Morris Agency. I had known him as a friend, but I didn't really know if he was some kind of kook or not. It worried me a little. But, after a few years, I finally gave in and arranged it."

In February of 1986, Kelly, then 14, and Sean met Bryan and his cousin at The Sizzler in Huntington Beach, Calif.

"I guess I was really wondering why this guy was taking me out to dinner," Kelly says. "I mean, I wasn't making any money back then."

"It was funny, because when I first saw him, I thought he was going to need a booster seat," Taylor says. "He was so small."

"Bryan called it their power dinner," Judy says, "and all Kelly wanted to know was, 'Do you want your cheese toast?'"

"Here I was trying to talk business," Bryan says. "I had no idea he could surf."

The combination of Taylor's entertainment savvy and Slater's athletic talents clicked.

"I became his worst nuisance," Taylor says.

Today, Taylor, 38, owns Taylorvision Entertainment. He has provided the stars for many TV shows and even produced "American Gladiators." He drives a $100,000 "talking" Mercedes, works out in the same gym as Tom Cruise and Shaquille O'Neal, and lives in a house once owned by Keith Moon, Peter Strauss and Jacqueline Bisset in Coldwater Canyon, where he is a neighbor of actress Stella Stevens.

Kelly has his own room there where he can crash when he's in town.

"It's a cage, let's get it straight," Taylor says with a laugh. "And right now, he's not keeping it very clean.

"You know, I've never viewed him as a client, just as an annoying little brother."

It was Taylor who "prodded" Slater into a role on "Baywatch" in 1992 and '93. Slater appeared on seven episodes as James "Jimmy" Slade, showing off his buff body, surfing abilities and acting skills, including a memorable scene with a "tipsy" Elizabeth Berkley in a show entitled, "Pier Pressure."

"Then I discontinued it, basically because it wasn't what I wanted to do in life," Slater says. "But I had a good experience."

It was where he first met Pamela Anderson, lifeguard C.J. Parker on the show. They first dated in '94 and hooked up again nearly five years later when Slater took her to Hawaii, Fiji and Cocoa Beach, where she enjoyed her anonymity as her marriage to Tommy Lee began to show its dark side.

Slater and Anderson - three years older - made headlines on TV gossip shows and in tabloids throughout the world. But two summers ago, they broke off their relationship for the second time as Pamela began drifting back to Tommy.

Kelly and Pam continued to stay in touch until last spring. But he asked her not to call him again.
Was it a wasted two years?

"It's interesting," Slater says. "That it was a wasted two years? I don't feel that way. I could feel that way, I suppose, but I don't. It taught me something about one of life's situations. I learned a lot. I don't have any ill feelings toward her. I wish her well. Hey, we had an amazing time together."

"I think they'll always be friends," says Judy, who received a New Year's card last year from Anderson with a photo that she had taken of her two kids. "Kelly is a stable person, probably the only stable person in her life. He's like her rock, he brings her back to the real world."

Rock star fantasies

Music, like surfing, has become a big part of Slater's real world. On the eve of his fifth Pipe Masters title in Hawaii in 1999, he spent hours carving his own full-sized guitar. A year earlier, his band, The Surfers, released a CD, "Songs From the Pipe," which has sold between 70,000 and 100,000 copies around the world.

His love of music dates back to the days he and Sean shared a room at their house on the corner of Minutemen Causeway and Aucila Road, where a surfboard swayed from a large sea grape tree in the yard.

Kelly loved listening to early INXS, Men at Work, Devo and the Surf Punks. Sean, meanwhile, liked his AC/DC 8-track, and was more into hard rock.

"Kelly doesn't know it yet, but I've been getting into rap - he loves rap," Sean says.

At age 19, Kelly got interested in playing music, thanks to Pearl Jam and Nirvana.

"I had fleeting fantasies of being a rock star, I guess," Slater says.

Then it happened. After years of playing air guitar and singing in the shower, he and surfing buds Rob Machado -the 2000 Pipe Masters champ - and MTV host Peter King put together a band.

As King explains on the CD's video, he took $1,000 of Slater's earnings and invested in some speakers, acoustics and recording equipment. Slater made the CD while on the surfing tour.

So who came up with the name, The Surfers?

"I have no idea," Slater says. "I didn't want it to be that. Peter convinced me it sounds all right, that people eventually would associate us with surf music. He told me to think of The Beatles. I mean how stupid did that sound originally? That's not to say there is any comparison whatsoever between us and The Beatles. Ha-ha."

They have played concerts in Germany, Japan and up the East Coast, which included a gig in Asbury Park, N.J.

But perhaps the most memorable concert date came in West Palm Beach, when they played a side stage as Rancid opened for Eddie Vedder, who himself is a surfer.

"There's none better than him," says Slater, a close friend of Vedder's.

"Songs from the Pipe" includes an array of mellow, organic songs, sort of a cross between Nirvana and Chicago-based Tortoise. The song "Hawaii," for example, puts listeners in the mood to open a cool one under the shadow of a palm tree.

Slater has become good friends with other recording artists like Chris Isaak and Sarah McLaughlin, who also surf. Once, Slater e-mailed McLaughlin requesting a couple of verses to give to one of his best friends who was getting married.

"She ended up writing a whole song, and they used it as their wedding song," Slater says. "She was so great in doing that."

Fame and fortune

Thanks in part to Taylor, Slater has branched out from his celebrity status as a surfer.

He had a small role in the movie "One Night at McCool's" with Liv Tyler and Matt Dillon, filmed an opening scene for HBO's "Arli$$," has a personalized remote-controlled toy surfboard (www.hammacher.com, $129.95), and this week will unveil ActiVision's "Kelly Slater, Pro Surfer" PlayStation 2 video game.

Last summer, he celebrated the first anniversary of his own Kelly Slater Quiksilver Boardriders Club store at Universal CityWalk in California.

Currently in the middle of a five-year contract with Quiksilver, he has helped make the Huntington Beach-based company the largest clothing manufacturer in the surf industry with projected gross earnings this year of $500 to $600 million.

He also has helped make his Channel Island K-board one of the most sought-after surfboards in the world. Although he and shaper Al Merrick constantly tinker with the shape and weight of his custom board at the plant in Santa Barbara, Calif., replicas sell for more than $500.

Surfer magazine named Slater the 20th Most Influential Person in Surfing and Golf Digest honored him (and his 5-handicap) as one of the best non-touring golfers in all of sports.

He's been nominated for the Florida Sports Hall of Fame, and there is a 30-foot-high permanent sand sculpture in front of Ron Jon Surf Shop in Cocoa Beach portraying his surfing ability.
Last spring in Australia, Kelly and Stephen spent time with "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin, following him into a cage that included a 24-foot python.

He still has the Kelly Slater Scholarship Fund at Cocoa Beach High for students with single parents, and he often delivers anti-drug messages to youngsters and helps the less fortunate around the world.
"Kelly has changed the way people look at surfing, the way he's so cool," said Propper, the 1966 East Coast surfing champion who today is the manager for comedian Carrot Top. "Even if he wasn't a surfer, he'd still be looked upon like he's Steve McQueen."

Slater's official earnings are more than $800,000 but with promotions and appearance fees he's worth a few million, perhaps not enough to buy a ride on the next shuttle launch, but enough to live comfortably for the rest of his life.

He owns condos in Avalon Beach, Australia, and Cocoa Beach. He also bought his mother a condo and gave her his first car.

He hasn't forgotten his brothers, either. Two years ago, he surfed with them at the Labor Day Festival in Cocoa Beach and spent time with them in Tahiti.

Sean, 33, lives in Cocoa Beach and represents Volcom apparel, writes for three magazines and is a surfboard shaper for Slater Boards International, Inc. Stephen, 24, lives in Solana Beach, Calif., traveling around the world competing and doing photo surfing layouts while representing Quiksilver.
Slater also tries to spend as much time as possible visiting his 5-year-old daughter, Taylor, who lives in Fort Lauderdale with her mother, a model-turned-paramedic who had struck up a relationship with Kelly while he was in high school.

Death hits home

But he also has persevered through several deaths of people who have touched his life.

First, there were the three surfing tragedies that claimed the lives of friends Donny Solomon, Mark Foo and Todd Chesser. Then, there was his grandmother's funeral in Dallas.

And on April 25, his father died at the age of 62 after battling throat cancer for nearly two years.

Kelly had tried to provide his father with the best treatment possible, letting him stay at his Cocoa Beach condo and even offering to pay the $140,000 fee from one of the country's finest surgeons who could remove the infected larynx. But his dad said it was way too much money. He did undergo a series of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, but earlier this year his condition deteriorated.

Judy alerted her son in Australia, and he quickly flew home, missing the second contest of this year's world tour. He spent three weeks with his brothers in Cocoa Beach trying to cheer up their now-frail father.

"You should have seen them,'' Judy says. "Kelly was doing wheelies with Steve in his wheelchair. It made a big difference for Kelly to be here. Plus, he got to know his dad better.''

Four days after being placed in a nursing home, Steve passed away.

"I had to call Kelly in California to tell him,'' Judy says. "He cried, and then told me a little boy from Israel who had bone cancer was coming to meet him as part of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. I told him, 'Kelly, you give him the best day of your life.' And he did. He spent the entire day with him at his store and took him to the Hard Rock Café. I think that really helped Kelly.''

His father had wanted his ashes spread into the ocean in front of the Beach Shack, one of the places he used to hang out on the end of Minutemen Causeway. More than 150 people attended the ceremonial paddle-out as Stephen scattered the ashes. Well, most of them, anyway.

But Kelly decided to take some of the ashes with him to Tahiti, and sprinkled them into the ocean there before his first heat at the next world contest.

"He did that because his father had always wanted to go there and never got the chance,'' Judy says.

"Kelly's got a great head on his shoulders," Quiksilver team manager Todd Kline says. "No doubt about it."

Just an ordinary guy


When Slater arrives back at Orlando International Airport, there are never any limousines waiting to pick him up.

"Are you kidding?" his mom says. "He sometimes calls me to pick him up."

When he's back in Cocoa Beach not doing promotional work, he likes to relax. His typical day begins at 8 a.m.

"Oh, I wake up and basically look for surf," he says. "If I see a spot, I surf it, or I'll check the Internet for some good surf sites, or make some phone calls and maybe work out or play golf."

He'll cruise A1A, past Kelly Slater Way, and occasionally will eat dinner at Rusty's seafood restaurant, a stone's throw from the Atlantic Ocean - if he doesn't pull into the Wendy's drive-thru lane first.

"Is this the ultimate job?" he asks. "Yes, I'm absolutely, positively, this is it."

So, has Slater ever done anything bad?

Well, maybe a couple of things.

He once bowled a 28, recently got three speeding tickets in Australia and once got "caught" sneaking into a country club golf course after hours when he was 21.

"I guess he and a couple of friends would sneak onto the course late in the day to try to get in a few free holes," said Slater's former physical education coach, Mike Gaudy. "This particular night was the homecoming dance, and it started pouring buckets. It was about 8:30, I guess, and all the girls were coming into the country club with their nice, long dresses.

"And over in the distance was Kelly and his friends, soaking wet in baggies, with their golf clubs in hand. I could only think, 'Man, this guy's the world's greatest surfer?' He was a trip."

"OK, I confess," Slater says. "But, hey, I pay for all my golf now."

An ordinary guy? Think about it.

Maybe Kelly Slater is human after all.

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