It's early summer in California, and a west wind swell is running along the cobblestone point breaks off Santa Barbara's coast. Several surfing luminaries have paddled out just before sundown, a not uncommon occurrence here on this semisecret beach just east of Ty Warner's billion-dollar Beanie Baby compound. Among them: Shaun Tomson (1977 world champ), Tom Curren (three-time world champ), and Jack Johnson (no introduction necessary). Locals gawk and grumble slightly. One 12-year-old grom looks toward shore, sees a blue-eyed man with a shaved head walking toward the point. "Dude," he says, "there is no way Kelly Slater is surfing my spot."
At 36 years old, Slater has spent the better part of 2008 simply confirming what we already knew: that no one rides a surfboard better than he does. With an unprecedented eight world titles to his name (the next highest is Australia's Mark Richards with five), he entered the 2008 contest season with little to prove.
Yet midway through the World Championship Tour, Slater clinched world title number nine, making him the Tour's oldest champion ever—a nice bookend to his first world title in 1992, when he was crowned the youngest champ. He has rung up more contest wins than any other professional surfer in history, had time for a stint on Baywatch (regrettable), and this year formed a foundation in his name that has already raised more than half a million dollars for cancer research and ocean-minded nonprofits like Surfrider and Reef Check (admirable). "My foundation gave me the opportunity to really focus on the things that matter the most to me," Slater says.
As the groms watch on, Slater paddles out toward the luminaries but doesn't join them just yet. As if on cue, a wave peaks up in front of him. The Champ paddles twice and jumps to his feet, exploding down the line of the shoulder-high wave. He turns, lightning fast, and again, leaving buckets of roiling water in his wake. The groms are in awe. Then one of them breaks the silence. "Wow," he says, "he's shorter than I thought."