Thank You, Kelly

10 Feb
February 10, 2022
Photo: Brent Bielmann for WSL

On Saturday afternoon in pumping 10- to 12-foot surf at one of the world’s most dangerous breaks, Kelly Slater made history … again. The 11x world champ won the Billabong Pipe Masters just six days shy of his 50th birthday. He took the final against 24-year-old Seth Moniz, a world-class talent, North Shore local and Pipeline specialist.

 It was Kelly’s 8th Pipe Masters title and 56th event win of his illustrious career, one that spans 30 years, 832 heat victories and 31 perfect 10-point rides. He is the youngest world champ ever (age 20 in 1992) and the oldest ever (age 39 in 2011). He won 5-straight world titles from 1994 to 1998 and holds nearly every record of significance in professional surfing.

 As word spread around the net about Kelly’s most recent – and possibly, greatest and maybe even last professional milestone (he referenced the “R” word) – images of his incredible rides and emotional post-heat interview began popping up on social media. If you are connected to surfing at all, you likely came across a few of them on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.

 On Sunday morning, I even saw a post about it on LinkedIn. It garnered a handful of likes and made me feel good to see it there. But it also gave me pause to consider all those people for whom the post might have seemed trivial on the professional careers network, as well as others who might have noticed it only briefly on various other platforms while quickly scrolling through the news of the day. 

 For many, Kelly’s historic accomplishment may have been nothing more than a passing headline in their newsfeed, a novel tidbit about a vague personality in a sport that is too often associated with frivolous immaturity. But for those of us who surf, who through some serendipitous fortune have had the opportunity to witness the entirety of Kelly’s incredible decades-long career, it was and is something far more meaningful and consequential.

 There is a poem by Samuel Ullman titled, “Youth”. General Douglas MacArthur used to keep a framed copy of it on his wall and often referenced it in speeches. In it, Ullman reflects:

“Youth is not a time of life; it is a state of mind; it is not a matter of rosy cheeks, red lips and supple knees; it is a matter of the will, a quality of the imagination, a vigor of the emotions; it is the freshness of the deep springs of life … Nobody grows old merely by a number of years. We grow old by deserting our ideals. Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul.

Whether sixty or sixteen, there is in every human being’s heart the lure of wonder, the unfailing child-like appetite of what’s next, and the joy of the game of living. In the center of your heart and my heart there is a wireless station; so long as it receives messages of beauty, hope, cheer, courage, and power from men and from the infinite, so long are you young.”                              

 I am not big on celebrity culture and I have never been one for hero-worship. But what are heroes? In their simplest form, they are people who do something more. They work harder, persevere longer, take more risks, and make greater sacrifices. They inspire us to change and to do more, ourselves.

 As a 50-something who still surfs regularly (your average free-surfer, but I’m out there), who remains professionally and creatively inspired, and has never been willing to forsake my physical health, stop chasing my dreams or setting my personal goals one inch lower because that’s the expectation of culture for people my age; that’s what Kelly’s victory in the powerful surf at Pipe, his current World #1 ranking days before his 50th birthday (February 11th), and the entirety of his career, mean to me.

 It is about optimism and the challenge of remaining true to one’s ideals.

For the greater part of my adult life, Kelly has been one who has inspired these things in myself and so many others– to pursue life with vigor and passion; set goals based not on what others think, but on terms you set for yourself, and to believe anything is possible, something more – far more – than most others might even be able to imagine. Yes, there will always be wins and losses, but why burden yourself with pre-conceived notions and limitations?

 To Kelly, on behalf of myself and millions like me who have followed every step of your remarkable career, I say, Happy 50th Birthday. Thank you for your unyielding optimism and countless messages of beauty, hope, cheer, courage and power played out across so many waves and oceans, and for so many years.

 Thank you for your enthusiasm, your unfailing childlike appetite for what’s next, and joy for the game of living. Thank you most of all for a lifetime of inspiration and for holding fast to that wonder that lives in the center of your own heart, and in ours.

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