By PAT GRAHAM and EDDIE PELLS, AP Sports Writers
On Day 3 of the Winter Olympics, America’s greatest victory could very well have been won not on a frozen halfpipe in China, but in the hot waves of the Banzai Pipeline, thousands of miles away in Hawaii.
The victory belonged to Kelly Slater, the great surfer who turns 50 this week. Slater beat a runner less than half his age to capture one of the sport’s signature events, the Billabong Pro Pipeline near the famous reef off Oahu.
Now that he’s at the top, once again, Slater is starting to consider retirement. Nothing official, of course. Just thinking about it. For advice on the matter, Slater messaged his pal, Tom Brady, for a back and forth from an athlete dubbed the GOAT, or Greatest of All Time, to another.
“It would be interesting if it happened the same week,” Slater said in a Sunday (Saturday in Hawaii) interview with The Associated Press, about the possibility of him retiring in the wake of Brady’s announcement. “We will see how it goes. I’m wondering if I’m quitting now or if I’m really going all out this year which I think would be really for the fans and saying goodbye to everyone after all the years of support they’ve given me brought.
If he moves away, he already has his retirement plans: surfing.
“Anyone who retires from surfing is just going to surf more,” he said.
Not everyone has won that much. Slater was the youngest world champion when he won the title aged 20. He was also the oldest when he won it at 39. He just finished his last contest in his 40s with a win as well. He turns the big 5-0 on Friday.
In all, he became a household name and won a total of 11 world championships. His victory of the weekend was his eighth victory on the World Surf League Championship Tour on the Banzai. It was also his 56th victory overall.
To close out his latest win, he beat 24-year-old Hawaiian sensation Seth Moniz. Slater goes back a long way with Moniz’s father, Tony, whom he looked up to when he was coming. One of the most emotional moments of the day came when Seth Moniz hugged Slater, who was in tears the day after the win.
“A surfer’s honor against him,” Moniz said.
Just days earlier, it looked like Slater could be knocked out by 22-year-old pipeline favorite Barron Mamiya. With only a handful of seconds left on the clock, Slater caught a magic wave to steal the heat and move forward.
It was a matter of his vast experience, combined with timely good fortune, coming to light.
“I mean, I think of it kind of like a martial art — you don’t get worse as you get older, you get more experienced,” said Slater, who also happens to be a beginner golfer.
It was the surfing equivalent of winning at Pebble Beach.
“I’m 50, but I see it more like I have almost 40 years of experience on this wave and I’m able to take advantage of the times I’ve had here before and be confident in that” , Slater said.
Yet the victory was surreal, even for him.
“Indescribable, indescribable,” he says. “A lifetime of dedication to one thing and it all comes together in a moment like this, I don’t know how you compare it to anything else.”
In his years of catching waves, he’s seen the sport explode in popularity. The win comes just six months after surfing made its Olympic debut. In keeping with the ethos of a true action sports star, part of him loves exposure and another is reluctant.
Sometimes, however, it’s better to ride where the wave takes you.
“I guess we all feel kind of funny about any kind of mainstream thing with surfing,” Slater said. “We want it to be a sport, we want it to have an outlet and get paid for it and everything. But at the same time, we all feel so passionate about it that we want it to still be a bit sacred and secret and special.
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