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Too rad to retire? Surfing GOAT Kelly Slater is looking at the bigger picture

Kelly Slater celebrates on the final day of the Billabong Pipeline Pro in Hawaii last week.
Brian Bielmann
AFP via Getty Images
Kelly Slater celebrates on the final day of the Billabong Pipeline Pro in Hawaii last week.

Kelly Slater has surfed professionally longer than many of his competition have been alive. And that experience paid off this past week when he won at the Billabong Pro Pipeline in Hawaii – less than a week before he turned 50.

Over 30 years, Slater has racked up 11 world titles and 56 career tour championships. Following his win in Hawaii, Slater said he had been contemplating retirement, but nothing is final.

"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," he told NPR.

"Look, it's not [like] everything's great and roses. There's been a lot of challenge, a lot of heartbreak. I've lost a lot of friends, you know, people who 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."

Slater is considered the GOAT of his sport, and after his eighth Pipe Master's win he's back on top.

Just as he turned 50, Slater spoke with NPR's All Things Considered about what that final wave looked like last weekend, his love for surfing and what retirement might actually look like for him.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Slater competes during the final day of the Billabong Pipeline Pro in Hawaii.
Brian Bielmann / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Slater competes during the final day of the Billabong Pipeline Pro in Hawaii.

Interview highlights

On the final wave of the 2022 Pipeline

That was my high 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 what we call the flat of the wave 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. Honestly, we have made some jokes about it, because if I had hair, I probably wouldn't have made a wave, because it just kind of grazed the edge of my head.

On why Pipeline is such a great competition

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. When you go from really, really deep to really shallow, really quick, you get a hollow wave that is super challenging, super abrupt.

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.

Most of us have lost somebody at Pipeline who has died over the years. So most surfers are really willing to risk their life for the reward. And you go out there and 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.

Second thoughts on retirement?

Surfing is my first love. It saved my life in a lot of ways. It is like a real interpersonal relationship with the ocean and with all the friends I've made.

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.

I actually said if I won this event, I was going to walk away and retire right then. And so I've had to process that the last few days, because 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 has supported me along the way. And I think that's a bigger picture for me.

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