The old man tames the sea

In the world of surfing, size matters. Kelly Slater was just a teenager paddling off the coast of Cocoa Beach, Fla., when he was first heralded as the next great American surfer. But in a sport where contests are routinely held in 15- to 20-ft. waves, the notion that a Floridian growing up on 3-ft. swells could dominate the sport seemed wishful thinking.

"We've always been the stepchild to the west coast," says Matt Kechele, a former professional surfer who served as a mentor to Mr. Slater when the two were growing up.

Six world titles later, Slater has little left to prove. He has helped propel the surfing industry to record profits and inspired a generation of east-coast surfers to take on big-wave hot spots with names like Jaws (Hawaii), G-Land (Bali), and Teahupoo (Tahiti). But beginning Monday in Brazil, Slater will try to slam the door on his competitors and claim an unprecedented seventh world title.

Mr. Kechele was one of the first to recognize Slater's potential in the early 1980s. "Kelly was about 9 years old when I first saw him, standing up on a body board and doing some of the same maneuvers that professional surfers tried," Kechele recalls. "By the time he was 13, I felt really strongly that he could be a world champion."

Back then, Florida had produced a number of pro surfers, but few had made it into the sport's elite ranks. The state's small, crumbling waves and gently sloping beaches were seen as a handicap. But for Slater, those slow waves provided an opportunity. Capitalizing on the development of thinner, more maneuverable surfboards, Slater became one of the key innovators of an aggressive style of surfing that seems to defy the laws of physics.

Watching Slater float over the top of a breaking wave, or pull off a 360-degree turn before a mountain of whitewater, it's hard to believe the surfboard isn't glued to his feet. When Slater first introduced some maneuvers in professional contests, judges didn't know how to score them.

"Kelly redefined high-performance surfing," says Matt Pruett, editor of Eastern Surf Magazine (easternsurf.com). "The moves he pioneered are commonplace today. If you can't do them, you won't make the world tour."

In 1992, at 20, Slater became the youngest world champion in surfing history. He followed up that victory with a string of titles from 1994 to 1998. He earned millions in endorsement fees, starred briefly on TV's "Baywatch," and had a video game named after him.

Then, just 26 years old, Slater retired from full-time competition. He started a scholarship fund for students at Cocoa Beach High School and became an advocate for SurfAid, a nonprofit that promotes health projects in developing countries. By 2002, however, Slater's competitive urges brought him back onto the world tour. This year, with four wins under his belt, Slater, now 33, is one victory shy of becoming the oldest world champion in his sport.

But win or not, Slater's legacy has been sealed. The style he introduced inspired a rash of east-coast surfers determined to prove that small-wave meccas such as Sebastian Inlet, Fla., and the Rockpile near Virginia Beach are just as good as the Pacific's traditional proving grounds.

2001 World Champion C.J. Hobgood, who grew up just south of Slater in Satellite Beach, and his brother Damien are now among the sport's elite. In August, an all-star team of east-coast surfers won their third straight X-Games title, proving that "right coasters" have depth as well as top stars. But the biggest star remains Slater.

"It's great to see someone actually recognize their potential and work to achieve it, despite all the personal problems they have to deal with," says Kechele, referring to Slater's parents' divorce and his father's battle with alcoholism. The former mentor hasn't faced Slater in competition in years, but he still remembers their last encounter. "We competed in Sebastian Inlet after he won his fifth world title," Kechele says. "I actually ended up beating him. I never rubbed it in because it wasn't a serious contest, but it sure felt great."

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