Kelly Slater: ‘Surfing is my religion’

Editor’s Note: Art of Movement is CNN’s monthly show exploring the latest innovations in art, culture, science and technology.

Story highlights

"King Kelly" Slater is the most successful pro surfer in history

At 41, Slater competes against surfers half his age, shows no sign of slowing down

Surfing is a "religion" for 11-time world champion, who finds beauty and solace in waves

Thrill comes with danger, with friends losing lives to giant waves

Rio de Janeiro CNN  — 

Among the fearless young men carving scars into the faces of towering waves, is the “King of Surfing.”

At 41, Kelly Slater is old enough to be the father of some of his competitors on the Surfing World Tour. But the 11-time world champion – dubbed “King Kelly” – is far from washed up. At a time when his friends are settled down with families, the original surfing pin-up boy is still scoring perfect 10s on the international circuit.

“Friends that were on tour with me 20 years ago, 10 years ago, are now family guys married with kids,” he said. “They say ‘I can’t believe you’re still doing it, that you’re looking for waves every day.’

“But I want to surf better tomorrow. I want to surf better in 10 years. When I’m 50 I want to be a better surfer than I am now – for me it’s a lifelong journey.”

Rise to the top

For Slater, it’s a journey that began as a child growing up in the surfing town of Cocoa Beach, in Florida.

Aged 20 he became the youngest person to win the Surfing World Championship, smashing the record books again when he also became the oldest person to win the title at 39.

Watch video: Looking for the perfect wave

Indeed, Slater is one of the few professional surfers to have transcended the niche sports magazines to the society pages, appearing in dozens of films and starring in hit 1990s TV show Baywatch.

“I wanted to be [the actor] Steve Martin when I was a kid. I wanted to be a comedian,” said Slater.

“When I was eight or 10 years old I didn’t know that I could have a career from surfing. There were pro surfers who were my heroes, but those guys weren’t rich. They were just surfing and traveling and that’s really been the goal my whole life.”

Spiritual surfing

Surfing is more than a career for Slater – it’s a spiritual experience, providing solace and filling him with a sense of wonder at nature.

“Surfing is my religion, if I have one,” he said. “The barrel [the hollow of a breaking wave] is really the ultimate ride for any surfer. It’s the eye of the storm. Some guys say it’s like being in the womb.

“For me it’s sort of like time slows down. You become hyper aware of a lot of different things – the way the wave is breaking, timing, putting yourself in the right part of the barrel. It takes all of your mental capacity to do it just right.”

Read: ‘Happy’ Gilmore defies surfing cliches

Despite being one of the oldest competitors on the international circuit, Slater has lost none of the grace, skill and fearlessness that made him the most successful surfer in the history of the sport.

He scored a perfect 10 for a jaw-dropping reverse flip at notoriously treacherous Bell’s Beach in southern Australia last year.

“This section came at me, and I just launched myself, kind of a ‘Hail Mary,’” said Slater.

“I didn’t know if I was going to land it, or if I was going to break my board, or if I was going to break an ankle.”


But along with the thrills come huge dangers, with Slater admitting that many of his friends have drowned while surfing.

“It makes you think about what it’s worth. But what’s life worth? Life’s worth experiences and it’s worth the people in your life too,” he said.

“I’m sure it’s different once you have a partner in your life or kids – maybe that one wave’s not that important any more.”

Read: Robot suits could make us superhuman

And as technology develops, the mega waves which decades ago surfers could only dream of riding, are now within reach.

Today, thrill seekers are towed by jet ski into colossal waves that would once have been out of bounds. But the dangers are just as large, with surfers risking being pushed up to 15-meters below the water.

“Big waves are a whole different ball game,” said Slater. “You’re riding a wave with an immense amount of speed and power, generally over 10 meters. On the face of the wave, obviously life and death thoughts start to happen.”

Same ball game

Slater has been chasing waves his whole life. And you get the feeling his obsession with the water has little to do with the $3.5 million in prize money he’s earned.

“The other day we were watching this dog chasing a ball, and I was like ‘God wouldn’t it be so great if you could do the same thing over and over and over again your whole life and it’s still as fun?’” he said.

“And I’m like: wait! That’s what we do. We travel around the whole world just to do that. So waves for surfers are like balls for dogs. We’re just constantly chasing them.”

He may have been playing the same ball game over more than four decades, but when it comes to surfing, Slater’s love is as deep as the ocean.