Kelly Slater turns 51 tomorrow, but the 11-time world champion is by no means slowing down. Most athletes would have called it quits about two decades ago, but Slater isn’t like most athletes. Rather than easing into retirement with the slow but inevitable decline in performance that sports fans are accustomed to seeing, Slater has decided he has one more goal to accomplish: securing an Olympic gold medal.
It’s been 12 years since Slater’s last world title, but the half-centenarian still remains a fixture on the World Surfing League’s tour, despite battling through a number of serious injuries. Slater finished third at the Pipeline Masters in Oahu to open the 2021 season, but then missed an extensive period of the tour. With dual ankle injuries and trouble with his hip forcing him out of action. Proof that father time catches up to everyone – even if Slater was caught much later than most.
With nagging injuries, detractors claiming he’d long passed his prime and fans everywhere counting the days until he announced his retirement, Slater returned to Oahu to open the 2022 season. And despite it all, he walked away with his eighth Pipeline Masters Title. He did it 30 years after his first victory there and just a week out from his 50th birthday. Well and truly proving he still has what it takes to compete (and win) against the best and providing the spark Slater needed to make one last push for Olympic glory.
Kelly Slater winning Pipeline 30 years after his first Pipeline win is one of the most impressive achievements in sports, let alone surfing ????????????♂️????♂️ pic.twitter.com/1g6qbfxzUG— Noah Pitcher (@NoahAPitcher) February 6, 2022
Without his insatiable drive for greatness, Slater might have given up on his Olympic dream years ago. While he still fancies his chances of taking home gold, Slater recognises that his time as a pro surfer is running out. “This will be my one chance at the Olympics,” Slater said while promoting the latest season of ‘Make or Break’, which he features in. “The next Olympics I’ll be 55 years old. I’m not going to be on tour by then. I did say that at 40 though, when I was talking about being 50.”
Slater’s impending retirement has been on the cards for a long time, but the 50-year-old has put it off to this point. “I feel that candle kind of burning out for me,” he said. “I think I’m just going to surf until it’s totally done and I don’t really care at all about surfing a heat and want to be somewhere else.” Slater still believes he can win gold and says that would finally prompt his retirement. “If I can get on that team, I feel like I have a good shot at potentially winning a medal or gold medal,” he said. “If that were the case, I will drop the mic and quit right then.”
The first obstacle on Slater’s path to the Olympics is qualifying. Each nation can only send four surfers to the Olympics, two men and two women. But the USA can add a third male competitor if they win the 2024 World Surfing Games team competition. As Slater finished last year as the third ranked American surfer, an extra qualifying spot would be crucial to improving his Olympic chances.
Slater narrowly missed out on a trip to Tokyo for the 2020 Olympics after he finished one place short in qualification. Kolohe Andino and John John Florence qualified instead. With Florence climbing above Slater into a qualifying place in the last event of the year. Both American surfers missed out on medals in Tokyo, leaving many to wonder if Slater could have claimed gold.
With a storied career, certified GOAT status and a trophy cabinet filled to the brim with silverware, how has Slater not won an Olympic medal before? Surfing only became an Olympic sport in 2021, when it made its debut at the Tokyo Games. Slater was already 49 at the time, so while Olympic gold is the only accolade missing from his illustrious career, that’s not because Slater wasn’t good enough. Had surfing been an Olympic sport when Slater was in his prime, he doubtlessly would have mustered a substantial medal haul by now.
The 2024 Olympics will take place in Paris, France. But Paris is a landlocked city. And France’s coast doesn’t typically have pumping swell. With Games organisers deeming the nation unsuitable to host Olympic surfing events. Instead, surfers will battle it out almost 16,000 kilometres away in Tahiti, an overseas territory of France.
Surfing events will take place at a reef break called Teahupo’o, a spot Slater knows well. “It’s one of the truly great challenging waves in the world,” he said. If Slater qualifies, he has a solid chance of winning gold, having won five championship tour events in Tahiti. Teahupo’o has the nickname “The End of the Road”, a fitting location for Slater’s final send-off.