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10 Titles 2 Decades – One Lesson

The New York Yankees, Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan and the Bulls, Tiger Woods, Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer, Jimmie Johnson…….Kelly Slater?

What is it about sports that keeps us glued to our seats? Is it the chance to see your team rally together and win it all?

Henry Luce, the founder of Sports Illustrated, created the iconic magazine under the premise that, through sports, we tell each other stories, and within those stories we tell each other who we are.

Over the past fifteen years, the athlete as an inspiration, has been overshadowed by the athlete as an egotistical representation of our time. There have been some exceptions, but one only has to look at a few of the greatest athletes of this generation to see how far we have fallen from the mythical idea of a sports hero as an idealistic representation of our era.

A direct line can be drawn from Wall Street corruption and selfishness, political ambition, cheating and malfeasance in big business to the behavior of sports icons: Lebron James’ indignant dismissal of his Cleveland home, Tiger Woods’ casual disregard of morals and fans, Alex Rodriguez stepping outside the lines and cheating the history of America’s pastime.

If Luce believed through sports, we tell each other who we are, then it is clear that we have lost our way.

Which brings me to the remarkable achievement of an athlete few have ever watched, and who most have likely only heard of because of a brief cameo on Baywatch next to Pamela Anderson.

At the age of 38, Kelly Slater earned his 10th surfing world title this past weekend (5 Nov 2010) with a dominating performance in Puerto Rico against fellow surfers half his age.

How good is Slater? The ASP tour has been giving out world titles for 30 years, and he has won 10 of them. After he advanced through the quarterfinals, Slater amassed enough points to move out of reach of contender Jordy Smith, and collect the 2010 ASP World Title, culminating a 20-year effort. Do the math, that’s the equivalent to a world title every two years of his career. Winning his first title in 1992 and now his 10th in 2010 makes him both the youngest and oldest surfer ever to be crowned champion. His win on Saturday was the 45th in his career. His world titles cover three generations of professional surfing greats; From Tom Curren in the ’90’s, Andy Irons in the ’00’s, and now Jordy Smith and Dane Reynolds in the ’10’s. The man is 38 years old, that’s beyond retirement age for other sports figures but at 38, Kelly looks as sharp as ever and he brings an element to surfing that nobody can duplicate. He changes the sport every time he lifts his body and rides a wave.

So why was this one so special?

It was an emotional week for the world surfing community. As the tour was getting ready for this weekend’s event in Puerto Rico, word spread that one of the aforementioned greats, Andy Irons, died suddenly. Irons was found dead in his bed last Tuesday morning in his hotel room in Dallas-Fort Worth. He had been gravely ill with dengue fever, according to his family. Too ill to board his connecting flight in Dallas, Irons checked into a Hyatt, and died in the night.  It was Irons who came the closest to challenging Slater’s domination on the sport of surfing, capturing the world title three times from 2002-2004. Their rivalry was an intense one, with the two barely on speaking terms for years. It wasn’t until shooting a movie last year, that the two finally managed to put the past behind them.

In a tribute to Andy, the Puerto Rico Rip Curl Pro was delayed for two days so that the surfers could ‘paddle-out’ in his honor. The paddle-out is a surfing ritual that commemorates the fallen by having the community join together in the ocean, before catching a wave, one last time. It defines the purity of a sport where the athletes travel together, spend time at each other’s family homes, and participate in sponsor-driven video shoots at remote locations across the globe.

Surfing is, at its core, a solitary exercise between an individual and the waves produced by potential energy generated thousands of miles away. One can be a good technical surfer, but without understanding the rhythms of Mother Nature, one can never be a great surfer. Before the competition Saturday, it didn’t look like Mother Nature was going to cooperate. Heavy rains were forecast for most of the day making conditions too choppy for the best in the world to showcase their stuff.

When Kelly took to the water for his quarter-final heat — the one that would clinch his tenth world title — he paddled alone towards the horizon, and as he did, as if scripted by Slater’s old rival himself, the skies cleared up and the waves broke to perfection.

Then, before the final heat and following a moment of silence in Andy’s honor, as Kelly positioned himself in the lineup to clinch the win, a rainbow appeared right where the ocean drops off into to sky.

For a brief moment on a Saturday afternoon in November, it appears Kelly Slater was given one last gift from a friend. When it was all over and the horn sounded to end the final heat, a rain squall moved in.

Immediately after joining thousands celebrating on the beach, Slater — visibly fighting back tears — dedicated the win to his fallen comrade:

At a time when athletes across many professional sports are looking out only for their next contract, we should take a minute to celebrate the remarkable achievement of one athlete, in one sport, that reminds us all, the best way to ensure a lasting legacy in the sporting arena is by having fun and honoring those that helped you get there.

There’s a lesson in that for all of us, I’m sure Henry Luce would agree.

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