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50 and fabulous: Kelly Slater beat out a surfer less than 1/2 his age to win Pipeline


Last weekend, surfing great Kelly Slater beat out a competitor less than half his age to win one of surfing's biggest competitions.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: And just like that, the greatest of all time is back on top. Kelly Slater - a huge victory at the Billabong Pro Pipeline 2022.

FLORIDO: Slater's 56th career title in more than three decades as a pro surfer - and he turns 50 today. Kelly Slater joins me now from Oahu's North Shore. Welcome.

KELLY SLATER: Hi, guys. How are you?

FLORIDO: First of all, happy birthday and congratulations. I want you to describe dropping into the final wave of the competition. You dropped in late. You barely found your way into the barrel. Take us into that moment.

SLATER: I had a pretty good lead going into the final exchange of the contest, but that was my highest scoring wave of the contest and the best wave I rode all week. I took off super late, barely made it to my feet, kind of barely made the drop, and then luckily, the lip of the wave pitched out far enough for me to sneak my head under it because my momentum was pushing me down out into the - what we call the flat (ph) to the wave, like in front of the wave, the trough. I really kind of had to get all my weight on my toes and my back foot and dip my head into the lip. And it just kind of - honestly, we have made some jokes about it because if I had hair, I probably wouldn't have made the wave because it just kind of...

FLORIDO: (Laughter).

SLATER: ...Grazed the edge of my head. And one of my friends in the contest, Carlos Munoz from Costa Rica, has really big hair. And I told him, man, if I had your hair, I wouldn't have made that wave.

FLORIDO: (Laughter).

SLATER: So we were laughing about it.

FLORIDO: What do you like so much about the wave at pipeline?

SLATER: Pipeline is really the ultimate challenge. It's super dangerous. It's not a long wave. It's a quick payoff. The wave comes out of sort of deep water into shallow water onto what we call a ledge. You know, when you go from really deep to really shallow really quick, you get a hollow wave that is super challenging, super abrupt. It gets very steep.

You know, some of the waves, you look from the side, they're beyond vertical when people are dropping in on them. It's really kind of the ultimate tube close to the beach. Everyone can see. There's so much energy out there. There's so many people on the beach and in the water, and everyone wants each wave. And, you know, most of us have lost somebody at pipeline who has died over the years.


SLATER: So most surfers are really willing to risk their life for the reward. And you go out there and you get - you get in this energy. There's just an energy there that you can't get many other places in the world. And you can get the wave of your life any day you paddle out there that has good swell.

FLORIDO: I want to play back something you said right after you won.


SLATER: I committed my life to this, you know - to all of this, all the heartbreak and all the winning and all this crap. It's - you know, I've hated lots of it, but I just savor this. And this is the best one in my life.

FLORIDO: What made this one the best one in your life? What made it so special?

SLATER: Gosh, when you do something your whole life - you know, for me, surfing is my first love. It's the thing that really I feel like sort of saved my life in a lot of ways. For me, it's - it is like a real personal, interpersonal relationship with the ocean and with all the friends I've made. And, you know, I learned this thing as a little child with my dad and my brother, and my mom hung out on the beach. It's just - surfing's been everything to me.

And pipeline was always the focus of my challenge as a surfer. And to be almost 50 when I won this, to surf against all the new generation of guys, everything that went into it, it's - when you dedicate everything to something, other things suffer. And if you don't get the results in the end, it can be a little bit painful, you know, all the discipline, all the time you've put into one thing. And I think the reward of that is the success when it does come, but it doesn't come all the time.

I actually said if I won this event, I was going to walk away and retire right then. And so I had to - I've had to process that for the last few days because I - part of me thought that I was going to do that. But I also told myself I was going to go surf this last year on tour and go say thank you and goodbye to everyone who supported me along the way. And I think that's a bigger picture for me.

FLORIDO: It is your 50th birthday. A lot of people have been talking about retirement, but it sounds like you are giving it second thoughts. You haven't quite made up your mind yet.

SLATER: It's that never-ending question for an athlete, because if you're able to win, you're still at a top level or high level. And if you love it so much, like I do, that soundbite you just had, the way I talk about it is - look, it's not all everything's great and roses, you know?

There's been a lot of challenge, a lot of heartbreak. I've lost a lot of friends, you know, people who have passed away that I've met along the way. All the good and bad, everything put together has come from surfing for me. And it's not always easy, it's not always fun, but I think it's the best life I could ever choose.

FLORIDO: Is there a possibility that even if you do choose to retire soon, you could still pop into competition from time to time?

SLATER: Absolutely, yeah. When I retire, I'll probably say from full-time competition, but if I were to be offered a wildcard entry into pipeline or someplace like Teahupo'o (ph) in Tahiti or maybe Jeffreys Bay in South Africa - certain events that I would still love to surf for many years if given the opportunity.

FLORIDO: Well, thanks so much for joining us. It's been an honor talking with you. Pro surfer Kelly Slater, thanks a lot.

SLATER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE VENTURES' "PIPELINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.