"Beer drinker" is probably not the first descriptor that comes to mind when thinking of our beloved 11-time World Champion, Kelly Slater. After all, the Greatest Surfer of All Time is synonymous with athleticism and healthy living, chia seeds and coconut water–you get the feeling the guy has never even been in the same room as refined sugar.
Yet there he is in the above Michelob ULTRA commercial, paddling toward the camera singing about his affinity for suds. The ad, which also features pro golfer Brooks Koepka, distance runner Shalane Flanagan and movie star (but mostly still "the guy from 'Parks and Rec’") Chris Pratt, is set to run during the Super Bowl in a few days.
But before that, I got a chance to get Slater on the phone to talk about surfing's flirtation with mainstream sports, this year's WSL event at his wave pool and whether or not beer actually ever enters his body/finely-tuned surfing apparatus.
So this commercial would lead one to believe that you like beer. Is this true?
[Laughs] I think everyone knows I don't drink a lot, but I don't mind a beer here and there, especially after a long day of surfing.
It is funny, though, since you've more or less epitomized healthy living in surfing for decades. What's the rule? You earn yourself a beer when you win an event?
It's kind of a philosophical debate, you know? When somebody stands for something, people expect everything to perfectly align in that direction at all times. But I once drank a beer in a barrel in Tahiti in a heat. So I think people do understand that I have a beer from time to time. It's just something culturally that goes along with the celebration of a win or competition or a long day doing something. Obviously anything done in excess is not a good thing, but I think a beer goes along with celebration.
So you're almost 46, and when you're healthy, you're completely peerless in terms of how well you're surfing at this stage of life. What do you attribute that longevity to?
I think it's everything in moderation, and an excess of being aware of health. You need to drink enough water, you need to limit the amount of food you eat–don't overeat and stuff yourself all the time. Get enough exercise, but don't burn yourself out all the time. I don't think longevity and intense training go hand-in-hand. Again, it's moderation. I've watched a lot of friends that are much more fit than me be injured much more often than I am because of that. So you've gotta find that balance. I think you need to choose your battles and choose them wisely. This foot injury has been the longest I've ever been injured. This injury itself is longer than all the other injuries I've had in my career added together, I think. I've probably been really lucky in that sense, because I haven't hurt myself more in the past.
Yeah, it seems like you never really went down that path of super intense training. You're not the CrossFit guy who just lives in the gym.
I actually did get into training pretty hard in the late '90s. Quiksilver had a trainer, Rob Rowland-Smith, who was really actively training the whole team all the time. So I kind of took advantage of that. More than anything I wanted to get my leg strength up and my cardio up. But I don't really think that pushing yourself even every other day is very good. I think consistently being active and being healthy and strong is a good thing, but you don't have to go and kill yourself trying to do that. All my friends have bad backs and knees and shoulders, especially my friends who got really into CrossFit. I mean, it's amazing what some of those athletes can do, but the pain along the way and then the injuries that have resulted from bad form or overdoing it are not worth it.
So where did you guys shoot this Super Bowl ad? It looks like you're way out to sea.
[Laughs]. Well, what happened is we went in by the surf and started filming close to the waves, but the boat and the drone were going backward, out to sea, and we were just paddling toward them. We kept singing the song over and over and over and over again. So by the time we were done with the takes, we were probably a half a mile off the beach.
Did you suggest shooting it in your pool?
To be honest, I think that was the original idea that had been thrown around, and we would have loved to have done that, but we shut down [the pool] for the winter for repairs. But yeah, if we were to shoot at Surf Ranch, there'd be no better place to have that controlled environment. We probably could have shot everything we needed in 30 or 45 minutes because it's so easy to set all the shots up. But maybe we'll do another one in the summer.
I think that's your next viral wave pool video: you drop in, crack open a beer, pull into the barrel and finish it by the time you come out the end.
That's a possibility. I think they just hired you as a writer.
But seriously, it's an interesting time for you to be in a Super Bowl ad. Competitive surfing, especially since the unveiling of your pool and the announcement that surfing would be included in the Olympics, feels closer to mainstream sports than ever before. Do you think surfing is at a tipping point?
It probably is. But I don't think that's too reliant on the Olympics. You look at a sport like golf, and they have their different tours around the world and world rankings. I think there were actually four of the top ten golfers in the world that chose not to go to the Olympics for various reasons. They felt pretty strongly that their tours were as valid or more so than the Olympics.
But we all grow up watching different kinds of sports, and I was really into the Olympics when I was a kid. Having us included in the Olympic Games does validate us in some way; as athletes, as sportsmen. It also sort of lifts the veil of what surfing is, culturally, to a lot of people who know what surfing is, but don't really know much about it. I know Fernando [Aguerre, International Surfing Association President] really wants to curate a whole lot of great stuff about the film and music and lifestyle and travel and all those things that go along with surfing for the Games. So it's a way for us to show more than just our sport.
Also, sports that get tested their first year don't always last in the Games. That's part of the reason I brought up golf, because I believe in the early or mid 1900s, they had golf in the Olympics once, but it didn't stick at first. So I don't think we need to rely too heavily on what it means for surfing. We have our World Tour, and that definitely determines the best guy over the course of a year, and usually the cream rises to the top. I think it would be a very rare year if it didn't. In fact, you could probably argue that is never the case. But it's an interesting time for sure.
Like you said, it's a much more mainstream thing. I think the chance of being in a Super Bowl ad for me was a really cool opportunity. I don't know if I've ever even been in a commercial. Maybe I have, but I don't know which [laughs]. So to kind of start at the top and be in a Super Bowl ad is pretty rad. It's a cool opportunity and one of those things you probably look back on when you're older and say, "wow, I was actually in an ad during the Super Bowl."
Your wave pool is also obviously a big part of why the mainstream is paying so much attention to surfing as of late. Now that it's going to serve as a venue on the World Tour this year, what can you tell us about how that event will work? Is it still going to be man-on-man heats or will it shift toward individual runs? The wave really lets you kind of reexamine the traditional competitive format, right?
Yeah, I totally agree with you. I don't think man-on-man heats make any sense, because you're all dealing with the same platform over and over again, besides the wind blowing. But for the most part everyone is dealing with the same exact ride, or close enough to it that it comes down to the surfing and not the wave you catch. Funny enough, even though the role that luck plays has been a big critique of surfing competition over the years, now I'm seeing the opposite where people are saying, "Well, it's the same thing over and over again. It's going to be boring."
But that's not the case. Having been there and being injured at the time and only having the opportunity to sit and watch everyone surf the wave, you see everyone's different approach–you see the subtleties in surfing much more clearly. You see how the whole length of the ride gets used properly or improperly. It's much easier to distinguish between what somebody is doing right or wrong. And the opportunity to carry over scores or have an accumulated score through rounds is a possibility. I don't think anything is locked in for sure, but I'm not in on all those conversations. [The WSL] will ask my opinion because I know the technology really well and I've been on Tour for so long, but I don't know that all those details have been completely agreed upon yet.
Speaking of the Tour this year, we're not far from the season opener now. How are you feeling about competing? How's the foot healing up?
My foot is…I would put it at about 70 percent right now. So I guess you could say that I've improved about 10 percent per month [laughs]. I've been saying for a little while now that I don't think it's going to be 100 percent until a year since the injury happened. But we'll see. I can surf enough to have fun and push myself a little bit, but I'm definitely aware that injuring myself at this point would be really silly and ruin my year before I get it started. So I'm not in a rush for anything. I'm starting to jump back into some rehab here, and I'm getting some of the hardware taken out shortly. I'm really thinking about the year ahead and my body as a whole, my mind. No big announcements at this point. I've been offered and accepted the wildcard, but the first contest hasn't started yet so we'll see how we feel in a month.
When you look back on the entirety of your career 20 years from now, do you think you'll be more proud to have been the guy who won all those world titles, or the guy who created a perfect wave?
That’s a good question. I dunno. My first thought is the titles, because I just worked so hard for those. I worked a long time and very intently for at least ten years or more to create the wave, but I worked my whole life for those titles. And without the titles, none of this other stuff happens, I don't think. The reality of the situation is that the titles helped me to make all the connections to be able to create this wave. But the Surf Ranch has been such a huge thing in my life, and to be perfectly honest, it creates a lot more interest when talking to people every day than my 11 titles. There's so much interest from so many different people–I've never experienced anything even close to that.
More stories from SURFER