Kelly Slater will make his 2019 debut at the Vissla Sydney Surf Pro, a QS 6,000 which gets underway on March 18 at Manly Beach. Ahead of his trip to Sydney, Slater stopped off in Auckland for a round of golf where he told the New Zealand Herald that, "Olympic qualification is on my mind."
Speaking with the Herald on Sunday, Slater continued, "There is a chance I could retire at the end of this year, at least from full-time competition, but if it looks like, or if I feel like I'm going to make the Olympics, I'll probably end up trying to do that next year."
And there it is. A clear statement of Olympic intention from the world's greatest surfer.
But qualifying for the Olympics is more than just spectacular performances in heavy water, it's high-performance surfing in every type of wave.
Which may be a hurdle for Slater because he's much like a champion Formula 1 racer. He's at his absolute best on the most challenging tracks, where speed, power, precision and the ability to perform on the ultimate edge separates him from the pack. The better the venue, the better his surfing becomes.
Case in point, Slater's most recent performance at the Billabong Pipe Masters in December. After taking months off due to his nagging foot injury, the 11x World Champ got out amongst it at Pipe. And true to form, after a Round 1 bobble, the surf improved and the more engaged he grew.
By the final two days of the contest, the surf switched on and his performances were practically automatic. Had he not fallen to Julian Wilson in the semifinals, he would have had a crack at freshly minted World Champ Gabriel Medina and his eighth Pipe Masters title.
Needless to say, Manly Beach isn't Pipeline and Slater hasn't been much of a QS grinder in recent years.
The 47-year-old is inserting himself into the draw amongst a field that's largely half his age. And the QS setting requires a whole different skill set and physicality. It's unlikely that Slater is surfing the contest to pad his QS ratings, rather he's looking to get his feet in the wax and start getting into that competitive mindset that he thrives in.
It's not totally unlike golf great Tiger Wood's return to the PGA last year. After debilitating back problems that took him out of competition for years, Woods returned to golf in 2018. Starting off playing smaller, less significant tournaments, he sharpened his skills and built his confidence. By the end of the season, Woods had won the Tour Championship.
For surf fans, the Vissla Sydney Surf Pro will be the first opportunity to see how Slater is looking. His result at the event isn't nearly as important as what we can glean from his performance, especially leading up to the Championship Tour opener at Snapper Rocks in a couple weeks.
Here are a few things to keep an eye on:
Slater's physical fitness won't be an issue, it never is. After playing golf in the Pebble Beach Pro-Am, Slater reportedly spent his birthday at the Surf Ranch, celebrating with friends, but also fine-tuning his game. But what about the injury? Look for any indications he's holding back or favoring his foot when he goes to drive home finishing maneuvers and airs.
Pulling into pits at Pipe is one thing, creating scores in beachbreak conditions is something else entirely. Watch for how Slater looks linking maneuvers together in the small stuff. How's his timing? If he is in rhythm, fasten your seatbelt, the 2019 CT season is going to be interesting.
Slater was one of the pioneers that pushed aerial surfing forward, but what the "kids" are doing these days is technical and requires an inordinate amount of flexibility to recover from. Can the old man still perform above the lip and compete with surfers 20 years his junior?
Never one to share his training secrets, Slater hasn't revealed much of anything about where he's at in his preparation process for 2019. He has yet to announce if this will be his final season on tour, if he's gunning for a title, or any of that. That's why watching his post-heat interviews is going to be crucial. What's his demeanor and outlook? Does he tip his hand at all?
- Finally, what is Slater riding? He's notorious for experimenting with his equipment. If he is all over the map with what he's riding at Manly, he may still be trying to sort out his quiver for 2019. But if he has something faithful under his feet that he's committed to, it may be evidence that he is dialed in and ready for Snapper.