One year ago today surfer Andy Irons left this earth, but today he watched from above, as Kelly Slater paddled out to surf for his 11th World Title. This week as the surfing community remembered the great Andy Irons, Kelly Slater did what had never been done before, clinch a World Surf Title on mainland USA soil needing the very last wave of round 3 heat 6 to do it.
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 and his ego surrounding his new 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 that through sports, we tell each other who we are, then it is clear that we have lost our way. But through all of the darkness in our sports culture, Kelly Slater has consistency won World Titles while being a man of character.
On the last wave of the heat, Kelly Slater showed skills, poise and confidence to pull ahead of a hard charging Daniel Ross who clearly was not going to be a small speed bump along the way to 11. Kelly had to earn every point along the way to his 11th World Title.
How good is Slater? The ASP tour has been giving out world titles for 31 years, and he has won 11 of them. After he advanced through the third heat, Slater amassed enough points to move out of reach of contender Owen Wright, and collect the 2011 ASP World Title, culminating a 21-year effort. Do the math, that’s the equivalent to a world title every 2.8 years of his career. Winning his first title in 1992 and now his 11th in 2011 makes him both the youngest and oldest surfer ever to be crowned champion. 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 39 years old, that’s beyond retirement age for other sports figures but at 39, 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.
As special as number ten was for Slater, winning it the week of Andy Iron’s death, winning number eleven on the day of his death one year makes this win even more special. 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 a few years back, that the two finally managed to put the past behind them.
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. And like last year in Puerto Rico, the competition was doomed to be affected by weather. But today, the weather changed, the wind blew offshore and the temperature was warm. It appeared as if Kelly was once again given a gift from his friend Andy Irons from above.
There are many professional sports teams with more championship titles, there is no disputing that, but this is one man with 11 World Titles, a far superior feat than a team win. 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.