Champion Surfers Stephanie Gilmore and Kelly Slater on Books, Travel, and Losing Andy Irons
By Tetsuhiko Endo, reporting from Aguadilla, Puerto Rico for the Rip Curl Pro Search competition
Last week was one of the most momentous in the history of competitive surfing. In seven wild days near Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, 22-year-old Stephanie Gilmore claimed her fourth world title in as many years (a feat unequaled in the history of both the men and women’s tours), three-time world champ Andy Irons withdrew citing illness and later died of unconfirmed causes, and 38-year-old Kelly Slater cemented his reputation as one of the greatest athletes ever with a electrifying tenth world title. Your humble correspondent hopped a last minute flight to be on hand for history.
Saturday, November 6, dawned gray, rainy, and so humid that the mosquitoes were paddling more than flying. But the waves were marching in and by 10:30 a.m., the first heats were in the water with an eclectic crowd of raucous local surfers, families, girls in tiny bikinis, sharp shooting camera-men aiming telephoto lenses, piña colada vendors, journalists, industry reps, curious couples on vacation, and the occasional surfing Icon (like Tom Curren) lining the beach and packing the grand stand. If Slater won his quarterfinal match up with the light footed and unapologetically scrappy Brazilian Adriano de Souza, he would clench the title.
As the anticipation mounted for their heat, I went in search of the reigning queen of women’s surfing, Stephanie Gilmore. The two best aspects of all surfing competitions are that the front row seats are always free, as long as you don’t mind sitting on the sand, and if you walk around long enough, you can’t help but bump into some of your heroes. In most sports, getting an interview with the current female world champion involves running a gauntlet of merciless PR people. On Saturday, all it took was a bit of sunscreen and two of the press tent’s complementary bottled waters before I crossed paths with the smiley Australian.
In person, Gilmore radiates a disarming combination of warm approachability and self-possessed confidence. She’s smiley, articulate, and gracious—a rare combination in the ranks of today’s heavily managed, and often somewhat stunted young professional athletes.
“Nat Geo Adventure? Oh yea…I read about you guys in that article in Vanity Fair about those English mountaineers who had the accident on Mont Blanc.” My mind temporarily freezes up as it tries to decide which is more surprising, that Vanity Fair is writing about James Hooper and the late Rob Gauntlett, or that a pro surfer reads Vanity Fair.
“So do you, uh, read books as well?” I ask, conscious of the fact that in surfing circles, the answer is often a simple “no.”
“Yes, I really like biographies. Right now I’m reading Slash (the biography of Guns ‘n Roses lead guitarist) and before that I really enjoyed Andre Agassi’s biography, Open.”
“What is it you like about them?”
“I enjoy them because you might have a certain idea in your mind about who or what a person is because of their public image, but they could actually be quite different.” she hesitates and smiles sheepishly.
“I have to admit, I also read the Twilight series.”
“Seriously? All of them?”
“Yeaaa! Every one.” she smiles again.
“What’s the worst part about your job?”
“It’s the packing, and unpacking and repacking so you can pack again. Also, I hate carrying massive board bags through the airport. Still, I love traveling. It’s the best parts of my job.”
Her favorite destination from the last year?
“Manhattan. I love how you are constantly surrounded by so much creativity. When you are there, it feels like you can create your own reality.”
Before I have the chance to ask her if she isn’t doing just that with her own job, she is whisked away by a well-wisher and Slater’s heat is announced. After a close heat the day before with local boy Dylan Graves, and the pressure of a possible tenth world title firmly on his shoulders, no one knows quite what to expect. What we are given is a lesson on exactly why Kelly Slater is the greatest competitive surfer ever. In the first ten minutes he posts a two wave combined score (all surfers are scored on their two best waves) of 18.87 our of a possible 20.00 winning the heat before De Souza can even catch a wave. The usually fiery Brazilian simply stares out to sea looking lost.
When the horn blows, Slater is mobbed on the beach before being whisked up to a fenced-in area for interviews. Someone from Quiksilver slaps a black, KS10 hat on his head that has a list of the years in which he has won world titles. It begins with 1992.
I elbow my way through the scrum of sweating journalists waving taper recorders. Before Slater’s manager blocks my path.
“National Geographic Adventure. Three questions,” I say. He escorts me up.
“What are you reading right now, Mr. Slater?”
He smiles because this is the first and only time someone’s going to ask him this today. “I’m always getting books from friends or acquaintances so I’m actually reading this book called How to Solve All Your Money Problems Forever, which even though it doesn’t sound like it, is all about spirituality. It’s really interesting. The other one I have going is Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell.”
- Nat Geo Expeditions
The worst part of his job?
“Traveling can get tough, especially with regards to food. We are constantly on the road and eating different things so it’s hard to stay on a regular diet. But, you know, food can also be a good thing. It’s really cool to go to a lot of different places and sample the local culture.”
As if on cue, a hand shoots out of the crowd and hands him a styro-foam container that holds a grilled langoustine.
“It's for you, Kelly!” shouts the man who has grilled it on a tiny barbecue that he has set up under his beach umbrella.
At that moment, a large, bouncer on the stairs leading back to the competitors area decides that my time is up. “Okay, time to go, Kelly.” He turns to leave.
“Just one more thing, Mr. Slater…”
His head snaps back and his luminous hazel eyes fix on me. To my eternal shame, that stare makes the breath catch in my throat. “What’s it like to lose a friend and win a world title in the same week?”
He looks out to sea and the microphones stretch hungrily towards him. “It’s total opposites. If it wasn’t for Andy, I wouldn’t be here right now. I’d give this title away in a second if Andy could come back. He was one of the last people I saw in Portugal; he hugged me and said ‘I want you to win this thing.’”