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Kelly Slater Wins His 10th World Surfing Championship
November 7, 2010 7:03 PM   Subscribe

It's official. After 20 years on the ASP tour, humanoid Kelly Slater might be the greatest competitive athlete of all time. Some would disagree. But Jordan and Woods never had to worry about not coming back alive.
posted by En0rm0 (78 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
Daaaaayumn.
posted by Xoebe at 7:19 PM on November 7, 2010


Waves are so scary. You think waves are OK but the ocean does not fuck around. The ocean is a force. The ocean is an unstoppable juggernaut and it will not, for an instant, hesitate to destroy you.

You can be in Ocean City on vacation with your family, out in the surf on a boogie board, jetting into shore - and it's seriously fun! But then you take a wave wrong - you come at it the wrong way - and you're hit with such a brutal fist, you cannot believe, and you're underwater and you don't know which way is up and you're swallowing salt water and flailing badly, and it becomes serious, real fast.

I love the ocean. But man, when I see those waves - that's incredible, to throw yourself at that with a surf board. You're an ant! You're nothing! Wow.
posted by kbanas at 7:21 PM on November 7, 2010 [8 favorites]


sure, that's tough keeping the exact timing of a huge killer wave behind you and staying safe at the same time, did this Slater do anything in the way of gym stuff during those ten tittles or kick back living the high life between the main contests? he never lost his edge riding those waves, but surfing is a non contact sport , not like football or basketball. hats off to Slater, but he is not the greatest athlete in my book. there is 99 other tougher athletes in history,(say Lance Armstrong, example) am I ready for a spirited argument? I am!
posted by tustinrick at 7:26 PM on November 7, 2010


I once turned my back on a wave while bodyboardiing, to talk to someone (the wife of the late Turtles drummer, Don Murray, if you must know!) and got hit by it, full square, while holding my boogie board. It almost ripped my arms off and tore a muscle so badly that fifteen years later I still can't really hold one arm above my head. That same vacation we went out to Half Moon Bay when Mavericks was really kicking up. We sat there open mouthed for an hour. Someone described it as jumping off a house and having it chase you down the street. That kind of undersold it.
posted by unSane at 7:29 PM on November 7, 2010 [8 favorites]


"but surfing is a non contact sport"

You don't surf, do you.
posted by En0rm0 at 7:43 PM on November 7, 2010


Like playing chicken with Mack trucks.
posted by gomichild at 7:45 PM on November 7, 2010


I for one welcome our new biomechanical overlord, seppo though he be.
posted by Ahab at 7:53 PM on November 7, 2010


Contact sport
posted by vidur at 7:54 PM on November 7, 2010


Mavericks kicking off.
posted by unSane at 8:00 PM on November 7, 2010


If you don't think the wave is an opposing player in surfing you haven't thought about it hard enough.
posted by unSane at 8:02 PM on November 7, 2010 [3 favorites]


And sometimes it's a more traditional contact sport.

Also, awesome post En0rm0, thanks.
posted by Ahab at 8:02 PM on November 7, 2010


I've been undefeated in tic-tac-toe for over twenty years. It'd be twenty-five except for that one time I turned my back on center square. I still have flashbacks.
posted by allen.spaulding at 8:08 PM on November 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


I've never surfed in my life. I have precisely zero concept of what it would take to ride even the merest lump of a wave on a surfboard. In spite of that, however, I do believe that Laird Hamilton surfing Teahupoo is one of the sickest things I've ever seen, in any sport, ever.
posted by the painkiller at 8:16 PM on November 7, 2010 [8 favorites]


Wait till the camera pans out. I thought this guy died 3 times before the end of the video.
posted by windbox at 8:22 PM on November 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


"but surfing is a non contact sport"

Not sure if you're serious, but that statement demonstrates an unawareness of the forces involved that is positively breathtaking. While not a contact sport in the formal definition of the phrase, the physical pounding that one takes, and the very real risk of injury or death, makes surfing just about one of the most punishing sports out there. Besides, name one football or hockey player who has ever been attacked by a shark. You can't can you?
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 8:37 PM on November 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


I've ridden waves body surfing and boogie boarding in Surf City, NC and been slammed pretty hard. My wife broke her shoulder doing this. I know even those waves can be dangerous. But this was nothing. When I first got HD channels for my big screen TV to do it's thing I found one that would show a program called "Riding Giants." It showed suffers who chased really big waves, so big the suffers had to be towed by a jetski to catch them. The camera work put you right in tube with them. I understood then why so many had died in this pursuit.
posted by Mental Wimp at 8:40 PM on November 7, 2010


Well, I find surfing to be an awesome activity to watch and I wish I could do it too. I have been on the waters quite a few times and have seen oceans in many moods. I think that looking at the vast expanse of an ocean's surface is one of the most awe-inspiring experiences a human can have. The forces involved are truly great (not to mention the dangers of shark attacks etc.), and the sport is perhaps the most dangerous sport that there is (well, leaving aside competitive Russian Roulette).

And yet, what is not a contact sport is not a contact sport. That's just how definitions work. We may disagree on whether sports should be categorized as contact vs non-contact, of course. But once that classification is done, Surfing is surely non-contact.

BTW, I don't see why a sport has to be contact sport before a sportsperson excelling at it can be claimed to be "greatest competitive athlete of all time". I wouldn't hold back that title from Kelly Slater just because surfing is not a contact sport. So, I quite disagree with tustinrick on that.

I could, of course, hold back that title from him because there are other worthy sportspersons: like this guy.
posted by vidur at 8:48 PM on November 7, 2010


The Painkiller's link is from "Riding Giants". The 3m20 point in the clip sums up what impresses me the most about big wave surfing. Unlike "contact sports", the field is never the same, you can't practice, and there's no fouls or time outs. You fuck up, you get thrown off a house, onto a coral reef, then have a bus dropped on you.
posted by anthill at 8:59 PM on November 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Waves are so scary. You think waves are OK but the ocean does not fuck around.

I grew up in Hawaii, on Oahu. When I was little, we used to go out to Sunset to watch the surfing. And all the little kids like me would be bodysurfing, and getting washing-machined and stuffed full of sand and coming up blowing water out our noses. Our parents would be up on the beach, talking to each other and not paying that much attention to us, or so it seemed to us.

And now I watch surfing movies, especially the footage taken at Sunset or Pipeline, and think, man, I wouldn't do that now.

But still. Waves are awesome.
posted by rtha at 9:01 PM on November 7, 2010


humanoid yt Kelly Slater might be the greatest competitive athlete of all time.

Maybe.

Maybe Not.

Probably not.
posted by Vibrissae at 9:01 PM on November 7, 2010


I mean, I've gone nearly 100km/h on a road bike and 80km/h on a mountain bike, but surfing the munchkin waves at Sombrio Beach scares the ever-loving shit out of me.

There are a few things (rock star, ladies man, what have you) that if I could do them, I'd drop everything else. Surfing is one of those.

Lance Armstrong notwithstanding, my hat's off to Mr. Slater.
posted by klanawa at 9:07 PM on November 7, 2010


A decathlon is a non contact sport. Neither is pro cycling (in reference to Lance Armstrong). Independent of the dubious claim that surfing is a non-contact sport, I'm pretty sure the title of greatest competitive athlete doesn't depend on whether they're touching other competitors.
posted by shen1138 at 9:13 PM on November 7, 2010


Skydiving isn't a sport either. Nor is golf. A game maybe, but not a sport.
posted by klanawa at 9:17 PM on November 7, 2010


Can we at least agree that participating in a sport (or a "sport"), contact or not, is not required in order to be an athlete?
posted by rtha at 9:21 PM on November 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


Can we at least agree that participating in a sport (or a "sport"), contact or not, is not required in order to be an athlete?

Precisely. Not sure why that criterion would suddenly be interjected. Surfing isn't a clarinet-case either, which also has no bearing on Slater's two DECADE dominance of an incredibly difficult, challenging, and dangerous sport. When your entry for contention is 25 though? Sorry, apply again in 15 years, you whippersnapper.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 9:33 PM on November 7, 2010


I don't know much about surfing, but I gather a large part of surfing is convincing people how important it is.

I mean, I understand why. I've known surfers. I get that it's harder than it looks and easy for discipline to be mistaken for laziness. I even get why surfers engage in behaviour that looks kind of asinine.

But what people miss is that the one thing about surfing which will always lead to this kind of thing is that you *can't do it* in many, many places. This is okay. In return, I forgive you for not caring about canoeing. The canoe is the mythic cross-cultural narrative of the Americas, and paddling one is participating in an epic, but you don't have closely connected lakes and rivers, you probably don't give a shit, y'know?
posted by mobunited at 10:09 PM on November 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


Surfing is incredibly difficult. People who've never tried it don't understand the amount of endurance required just to get from the beach out to where the waves are breaking. The only way I've ever had anyone else really appreciate the difficulty of surfing is to take them out and give them a go at it. Highly athletic people who figured it'd be easy tend to tire to the point that they really can't try any longer after half an hour or less, and this is in 2-3 foot waves.

Just learning the basics is hard. If you fall, you don't just stand up and try again like on a skateboard, you have to turn around, paddle back out through the waves again, and wait for another one. To compare it to skiing or snowboarding, imagine there's no chairlift and every time you fall you have to walk back up and start over from the top of the mountain. Also, trying to catch a wave is essentially a swim sprint, and you'll tire yourself out pretty quickly doing that over and over when you keeping missing waves due to lack of experience.

It irks me when people think surfing must be easy, like these photos are the equivalent of a basketball player making a 3-point shot. I got this photo of myself the other day, and I'm *proud* of it. I've put 15 years into surfing, and this is the best photo I've ever gotten of myself. It takes a lot of practice to build the skills necessary to do this. There are only a few days a year when the waves really get this big. It's hard to get someone to sit around on the beach with a camera and wait for you, because you might spend half an hour waiting between waves (and having some of them break on your head) until the right one comes (at which point the lighting might be horrible). There are so many challenging things that go into being able to do this, and this is nowhere near the level that you see Kelly Slater at in the original post.

Kelly Slater may or may not be the greatest athlete ever, but he's definitely a great athlete.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 10:27 PM on November 7, 2010 [12 favorites]


"I gather a large part of surfing is convincing people how important it is."

That's not it at all. We don't care if you think it's important. We just don't want you to trivialize it as the sort of thing that Bill and Ted do for fun, and make "duuudddeee!!!! SOOOOO Pittedd!" jokes about it every time it comes up.

When you mention your canoeing to other people, they may not have any experience with it, but they probably respond with something like "oh, that sounds like fun" or "how far do you normally go on a typical canoe trip?" or some other non-asinine comment that isn't anything along the lines of "Dude, totally tubular!" which is the sort of things surfers tend to get when they mention it to people who aren't familiar with it.

Think of it along the same lines as sea kayaking, or mountain climbing, or some other sport you're not interested in if you like, but at least respect as a challenge and not a joke. That's all I'm asking.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 10:37 PM on November 7, 2010 [6 favorites]


The greatest competitive athlete of all time is Jim Thorpe and it is by such a wide margin that it's silly to even debate this.

- He won the collegiate football championship at Carlisle while playing as RB, DB, kicker, and punter. He single-handedly scored the majority of his team's points.
- He won two Olympic gold medals - in sports that combined a total of FIFTEEN different events! In the process of earning gold medals in the pentathalon and decathalon, he won a total of eight of those fifteen events and never finished lower than fourth in any of them.
- He went on to play professional football, baseball, and basketball, and piled up several more championships.

You know those people who are just really good all-around athletes, and they can pick up almost any sport and probably be pretty proficient at it after like a day or two of practice? Jim Thorpe was that guy, only Jim Thorpe became the best in the world after only a day or two of practice. The decathalon gold medal he won? It was the first decathalon he ever competed in.
posted by ChasFile at 11:08 PM on November 7, 2010 [23 favorites]


So, in several of these videos, there are folk with cameras hanging out in the water. Also in the waves. Seemingly right in the path of the surfers.

What the heck? That would freak me out, on either end. Last thing you need with that house of water you're standing on is a human obstacle course at the bottom!

And if you're the photographer-- combine the real fear of injury, the fact that you're taking these photos in the damn water, with the fear that you might screw up and get in the way of a competitor... gah!
posted by nat at 11:10 PM on November 7, 2010


am I ready for a spirited argument? I am!

Apparently not, based on the fact that it's 25+ comments and 4 hours since the gauntlet was thrown down, yet nary a peep from tustinruck. Guess he really doesn't surf.

You know who else doesn't surf?
posted by KingEdRa at 11:34 PM on November 7, 2010


This OP is human-centric. The greatest athlete in a competitive sport was Secretariat.
posted by Bonzai at 12:02 AM on November 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


Plenty haole surfers, but we'll blow them away brah.
posted by mullingitover at 12:16 AM on November 8, 2010


If he's the best, then what of the athlete who can beat him? Don't forget Slater's rival Andy Irons who just died of dengue fever (previously).
posted by eye of newt at 12:43 AM on November 8, 2010


Honestly, I think the discussion here misses the point. Surfing is a very hard physical activity. Kelly Slater is very good at this physical activity. There are other athletes, who are good (maybe better) at their also hard (maybe harder) physical activities. There are many people who are very talented at physical activities.

What I think people are overlooking is the mental side of competition. I think that most athletes would agree that physical preparedness, while important, is no where near as important as getting your head in the right place. And what makes this guy special is he's stayed focused for years. That kind of focus, to be that dominant for that long is unreal. This is what puts him in consideration for the greatest athlete of all time, not the relative difficulty of surfing compared to other sports.
posted by yeahwhatever at 1:46 AM on November 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


Am I wrong to assume that this sport involves ingesting insanely large amounts of ocean water, up your nose and into your lungs occasionally? It looks like the majority of the time, even with great waves and skill, involve a serious amount of unpleasantness. Do you just not care about all that salt water because you're used to it and also having the time of your life? What about water up the nose? Do you get used to it? Does it stop feeling like utter shit? Or do you just grin and bear it?

(I'm asking seriously. Just a little bit of a) wind knocked out, b) tasting salt water in general and having that horrible dry/salty mouth that comes with it, and c) water up the nose has ALWAYS been insanely unpleasant for me and I'm trying to gauge if I'm a bit sensitive, or if people just force themselves not to care?)
posted by disillusioned at 1:57 AM on November 8, 2010


greatest athelete? I thought that was (statistically speaking) Sir Donald Bradman?
posted by namewithoutwords at 3:05 AM on November 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


Am I wrong to assume that this sport involves ingesting insanely large amounts of ocean water, up your nose and into your lungs occasionally?

You get a lot of water in your sinuses. Not much in your lungs unless something is going wrong.
posted by rdr at 3:06 AM on November 8, 2010


disilllusion, I'm not sure it's about getting used to it, or forcing yourself not to care. It's more that..

..the smell of salt and sage in the air, the rumble of seriously big surf through the soles of your bare feet as you run down a bush track towards the beach, dawn just beginning to light up the sky behind you, the first sight of clean crisp lines of swell marching off to the horizon, waves feathering into perfectly formed barrels and walls of empty goodness, throwing yourself into the shorebreak, fighting to get through it, sitting on a perfect peak all your own, first man in the universe and owner of it all, and then spinning around and stroking forwards to launch yourself into the first lazy one of the morning..

..that (and a lot more besides) all feels so good and natural and totally whole that you don't even notice the cold, or the water up your nose, or the icecream headaches, or the heat, or the occasional hold down that really really knocks the shit out of you.

In fact, when your away from it for a while, you miss that stuff too. It's all part of a package that.. just.. completes a man.

I can't say it any better than that, mate. Except maybe to add that I get this stuck in my head when I've been away from the surf too long.
posted by Ahab at 4:01 AM on November 8, 2010 [4 favorites]


En0rm0, wow, thank you, and thanks everyone else who posted AMAZING links. This is a truly great FPP.
posted by thinkpiece at 4:38 AM on November 8, 2010


I remember the first time I finally got up on a surfboard (nothing exciting, Mission Beach outside San Diego, CA). I was SO ecstatic until... Some jerk lost it close enough to me I ended up with his surfboard bouncing off my ribs. I lurched back to shore then walked up to my best friend, dragging the board behind me on the leash and said "Okay. Fuck this."

And that was the day I learned that ham/pineapple pizza tastes AMAZING when you are trying to clear the taste of seawater out of your mouth.
posted by Samizdata at 4:50 AM on November 8, 2010


Cool story, bro.
posted by the cuban at 5:08 AM on November 8, 2010


If you're talking about perennial domination of a sport combined with continual personal danger, I'll see your Kelly Slater and raise you Reinhold Messner. People talk about the danger of drowning; Messner simply seems not to need oxygen in the same way that most people do.
posted by Halloween Jack at 5:21 AM on November 8, 2010


That's not it at all. We don't care if you think it's important. We just don't want you to trivialize it as the sort of thing that Bill and Ted do for fun, and make "duuudddeee!!!! SOOOOO Pittedd!" jokes about it every time it comes up.

Well, you can blame the likes of Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Point Break for that. We've only had a few decades of pop culture portraying surfers as blond California Adonises who hit the waves for a few hours and then get baked, every day. On the plus side, you're the only sport that has its own subgenre of pop music...
posted by Halloween Jack at 5:29 AM on November 8, 2010


"I play real sports, not trying to be the best at exercising" — Kenny Powers
posted by caek at 5:30 AM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


I love all surfing (body, boogie and board-), and all surfers, especially the good ones, are amazing to me. Even more amazing than the jetski-powered big wave surfers are these hardy souls who suffered mightily off the coast of Oregon last weekend. They had to paddle their longboards through 20-30-foot waves, then catch them, without the assistance of jetskis. One participant "wiped out and took five waves on the head, threw up underwater and blew out his eardrum." I won't say anything about Mr. Slater here, other than it looked like he wasn't participating.
posted by dylanjames at 5:42 AM on November 8, 2010


The people touting Lance Armstrong as a counter-argument should know that Lance Armstrong is not even the greatest cyclist of all time, never mind the greatest athlete.
posted by afx237vi at 5:44 AM on November 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


If Chewbacca lives on Endor how can this not be a sport?
posted by blue_beetle at 5:47 AM on November 8, 2010


Besides, name one football or hockey player who has ever been attacked by a shark. You can't can you?

One? I don't know how many people Shelley and Staubitz attacked during their tenures with the San Jose Sharks, but it was a pretty high number.

No biting, though. That's a game misconduct.
posted by eriko at 5:47 AM on November 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


I am freaked out by water and waves, so I'm utterly humbled by watching these people OWN IT against these gigantic waves.

But one thing I really, truly don't understand - how is competitive surfing scored? It's a combination of grace, power, balance, fearlessness, and sheer luck (I assume you have to be on the right wave at the right time), but I don't really understand how the "winner" is decided.

To me, anyone who's balancing on a sheet of wood on the surface of the undulating sea is pretty amazing. I have trouble not slipping in the shower.
posted by elmer benson at 5:48 AM on November 8, 2010


I thought Kelly married Zack.
posted by Eideteker at 6:10 AM on November 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


...I do believe that Laird Hamilton surfing Teahupoo is one of the sickest things I've ever seen, in any sport, ever.

That video is amazing, but I never really appreciated it until I saw a wider view of that wave.
posted by procrastination at 6:36 AM on November 8, 2010 [7 favorites]


Forgive me, but I'm still puzzling over the word "humanoid" in the FPP. Is this some surf jargon I'm not getting?
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:05 AM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


These are stunning links and a great discussion, but if you want to surgically remove the last bits of my self-esteem, you need to link to someone who is 45, doing amazing, amazing stuff.
posted by mecran01 at 7:26 AM on November 8, 2010


dude. i was at the contest.
Kelly's ability is something that has to be appreciated. The best athlete, the most paid? I don't know.

I would bet: top 3 of living athletes.
posted by octomato at 7:29 AM on November 8, 2010


You're all wrong. The greatest competitive athlete of all time was Secretariat.
posted by rocket88 at 7:32 AM on November 8, 2010


Forgive me, but I'm still puzzling over the word "humanoid" in the FPP. Is this some surf jargon I'm not getting?

He's the terminator, dude.
posted by Ahab at 7:33 AM on November 8, 2010


Ok, Slater is 38. I'll shut up now.
posted by mecran01 at 7:40 AM on November 8, 2010


Waves are so scary. You think waves are OK but the ocean does not fuck around. The ocean is a force. The ocean is an unstoppable juggernaut and it will not, for an instant, hesitate to destroy you.

The ocean is a mammal.
The purpose of the ocean is to flip out and kill people.
posted by LiteOpera at 7:44 AM on November 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


Forgive me, but I'm still puzzling over the word "humanoid" in the FPP. Is this some surf jargon I'm not getting?

No. Not surf jargon. He looks like a human and he sounds like a human but in the water he does things that humans shouldn't be able to do.

Jordan is a great qualitative comparison to Slater. The body control those two have/had is an order of magnitude above the rest of the field. Same goes for competitive will and strategic/tactical savvy.

In the discussion of "best competitive athlete ever" everyone has their own horse to back . What's undeniable is that Kelly Slater deserves a spot in the race.
posted by En0rm0 at 8:49 AM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


If you dive through a wave a bit late, you can feel the mass of water breaking on your feet. Even smaller waves can deliver a powerful, stinging blow, a reminder of the sheer mass and weight of water. The monsters these guys are riding=crazy time. I can't begin to imagine. I'm simultaneously humbled, frightened, exhilarated and plain blown away.
posted by kinnakeet at 8:52 AM on November 8, 2010


These are stunning links and a great discussion, but if you want to surgically remove the last bits of my self-esteem, you need to link to someone who is 45, doing amazing, amazing stuff.

Laird Hamilton is 46.
posted by jimmythefish at 8:56 AM on November 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


Surfing is a non-contact sport, because players do not come in physical contact between players as part of normal play..

Get over this silly ego game, and let's discuss athletic abilities instead.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:51 AM on November 8, 2010


Thumbwars, however, is a contact sport.
posted by dazed_one at 10:41 AM on November 8, 2010


Also Twister.
posted by unSane at 11:02 AM on November 8, 2010


And Slater's also a bit of a nice guy, too.
posted by dzaz at 11:23 AM on November 8, 2010


Jordon was great, but Kobe Bryant is hands down the greatest basketball player evah.
posted by Brocktoon at 11:30 AM on November 8, 2010


Jim Thorpe and it is by such a wide margin that it's silly to even debate this

Yes. Whomever wins the absurd title of "greatest athlete" (as if such a thing were honestly measurable) I would think as a minimum would have to had played in at least two different professional sports and won at least one Olympic medal. That's already a very short list. In no-particular-order, and probably missing a couple:If you remove the Olympic requirement, I'd add Jim Brown, Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:31 AM on November 8, 2010


greatest athelete? I thought that was (statistically speaking) Sir Donald Bradman?

Yeah, but cricket is lame... I keed.I keed.
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:52 AM on November 8, 2010


Lottie Dod

Plus, look at the clothes she had to wear while she did it!
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:53 AM on November 8, 2010


Yeah, I think to be the "greatest competitive athlete of all time" you have to factor in a number of things like: This incidentally weights any comparison towards more modern players, and players in sports that have a wide amount of exposure. Being the greatest archer in the world would be impressive... but you'd have to be SO many standard deviations beyond the norm to be considered the greatest athlete alive, given the minimal depth of the competitive field. Alternately, since a pretty significant percentage of the human race kick around a soccer ball regularly even from an early age, if someone were the Michael Jordan or Babe Ruth of soccer, they'd certainly be in the running far more so than Kelly Slater; only a small percentage of people even surf, much less surf regularly, much less have the infrastructure of development and talent cultivation to develop an elite class of professionals. This is what makes Michael Jordan a good candidate: he absolutely dominated through skill and force of will and drive for pretty much an entire decade, in a sport populated by ridiculously gifted and trained athletes which was played regularly for fun by much of the American population and a reasonable percentage of the world population (although international NBA scouting and development weren't nearly as mature in the 1990's as they are today).

I'm not dismissing the sheer difficulty of what Kelly Slater's doing, or his dominance, but the question can't help but be asked "What if the best all-around athletes in more established sports- baseball, basketball, football, hockey, soccer, etc- had spent all their time surfing?" We can recognize his exceptional athleticism while also noting that he's in a niche sport that's not engaged in by many people (few kids in America didn't play at least one of baseball, basketball, football, or soccer as a child; how many ever surfed?). That suggests therefore that the level of athleticism, focus, and skill are the product of years of surfing where we can surmise that many exceptional athletes would also excel if they had put their energies there instead of in their chosen sports. If Kelly Slater had to compete with all the best athletes in the world on equal footing, would he be as dominant? Isn't it generally true that there are elite athletes who gravitate towards (and like Michael Phelps, have a physical advantage specific to) certain sports, put decades of effort and training in, and at the end are dominant... but if they'd put their efforts into a different sport, they'd likely be similarly dominant?

Babe Ruth was a great player- but he didn't have the level of competition a modern player would have, never facing dark-skinned players, never competing with Albert Pujols for a HR title, or Ichiro for a batting crown, or facing Pedro Martinez on the mound. There wasn't the level of scouting and development, of international exposure, of the cultural and childhood footprint of long-established Little League systems, that developed far more competent baseball players than the farm hands, rubes, and ne'er-do-wells that populated Ruth's era. Where Babe Ruth might have been like being the smartest kid in your high school, the modern athletic landscape for the major, established sports is like going MIT and finding an elite collection where every kid was the smartest kid in their high school.

Jim Thorpe is still a good candidate since as ChasFile notes he seemed to be one of those people who could just compete at a world-class level immediately. Then again, this like Ruth is also reflective of the level of competition: a dabbler like Thorpe would be forced to choose in today's world. Some of the best athletes do in fact excel at several sports, but the money and focus required make them specialize; baseball players who would excel at football but can't really do both and be good (even Bo Jackson was "decent" at his two sports but not "legendary" in any sense). Hell, some of the best baseball players could be either pitchers or hitters, but the specialization means they are forced to choose roles within their sport (Josh Hamilton being an example).

I was having brunch with a friend and this topic came up, after a fashion: we were talking about whether we'd see another Goethe, another true polymath, since unlike 100-200 years ago you couldn't pick up the world's collected knowledge on optics, or architecture, or law, or chemistry over an intensive summer. Now, to be "decent" you have to spend years specializing in a given field just to catch up with the current state of understanding. I can't help but feel that athletics is the same way: you can't just jump in and be a gifted athlete and competitive; the finesse, training, and physicality for each sport is so great that being an athletic polymath would be nearly impossible today.

So we could either go for someone like Jim Thorpe, while acknowledging that objectively much, much better athletes exist today who couldn't get the level of success Thorpe enjoyed because of how specialized the sports are... or go for someone who is so utterly dominant in a major sport in the modern era (Lance Armstrong, Phelps, Jordan, whoever the fuck is the Jordan/Ruth of soccer) that they get recognition for being the best of the best by a wide margin in an area where much of the human population tried- and failed- to succeed.

I don't think either of those tactics add up to Kelly Slater being in the mix.
posted by hincandenza at 12:09 PM on November 8, 2010 [4 favorites]


Yeah, I think to be the "greatest competitive athlete of all time" you have to factor in a number of things like:

...tens of thousands of years of competition about which we have zero data.

The concept is foolish on its face, and becomes more foolish when we start comparing the "greatness" of people in wildly unrelated sports.

Only surfed once; it was difficult and awesome. I respect anyone who can do it well.
posted by coolguymichael at 12:50 PM on November 8, 2010


I'd hit it.
posted by keli at 2:02 PM on November 8, 2010


Haile Gebrselassie has broken his own world record nine times and he just retired while still being the marathon world record holder. at age thirty-seven. (2:03:59!) go ahead, tell me how great a surfer is. lord it all over me. he's got nothing on the little big man from ethiopia.
posted by krautland at 2:17 PM on November 8, 2010


oh yeah, a video from the ironman you should really see: Sian Welch & Wendy Ingraham
posted by krautland at 2:19 PM on November 8, 2010


Forgive me, but I'm still puzzling over the word "humanoid" in the FPP. Is this some surf jargon I'm not getting?

The bit where he drops in, nearly falls off the board backwards then recovers? That's not actually humanly possible. Stands to reason he's some kind of robot.
posted by fshgrl at 9:06 PM on November 8, 2010


Man, this thread is full of TL;DR. However, all these surf videos are amazing. Thanks for posting.

As an aside, who is the greatest athlete/is this a contact sport discussions are absolutely irrelevant to me when it comes to watching people do amazing things.
posted by josher71 at 7:27 AM on November 9, 2010


And what makes this guy special is he's stayed focused for years.

Henry Aaron
posted by Vibrissae at 6:13 PM on November 10, 2010


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