Kelly Slater held no illusions about his performance at the Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast. Disappointed after getting knocked out in Round 2, it plainly wasn't the return to competition that the 11-time World Champ was after.
"Something came over me the last three days and I've been really struggling, all the pressure and the build-up and stuff has really kind of thrown me off…maybe that's what I needed, but I'd rather cry than laugh right now," said Slater after being dispatched by Owen Wright and Peterson Crisanto.
Slater's problem on the Gold Coast was not his physical preparation -- his boards and body appeared to be ready to go. His issues were uncharacteristically mental.
For the 27 years he's been on Tour, Slater is notorious for the head games he's perpetrated against his competitors. Whether it was the famous high-five with Rob Machado during the '95 Pipe Masters, or, a few years later, whispering, "I love you," in Andy Irons' ear right before a World Title showdown, Slater's always had a knack for getting under his rival's skin. Now it's his turn to try and get his psyche into the competitive space.
"You have to get rid of expectations," Slater said.
In Round 2 of the Quiksilver Pro, Slater opted to sit away from his competitors and surf his way into a groove on a sand bank down the beach. He surfed well and even laid down a striking, under-the-hook hack that saw almost all of his board submerged. He didn't get the score he was after, and because he was so far away from his competitors, he wasn't able to apply any of the heat strategies that have made him so successful for nearly three decades.
Sources close to Slater have indicated that going into the season he had his sights set on a World Title run, but now it's back to the drawing board.
"I got a couple weeks now to think about it," Slater explained. "If there are some waves at Bells this week I might be able to sneak down there and get my free surfs out of the way without people, without battling all of the guys on Tour."
The idea that he's already eager to get to Bells and get some practice laps in before the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach speaks to how serious Slater is taking this season. More often than not, he's one of the last competitors to show up on site at a contest, preferring to monitor the forecasts and arrive just in time for his Round 1 heat. From Tahiti to J-Bay, he's done it around the world. The fact that he wants to get to Bells early is an indication that he knows he needs to put in the work.
Bells is a spot where Slater clearly feels comfortable. For starters, Torquay is not Coolangatta. It's more of a core, roots surf scene without the high rises and overbearing fan fair. There aren't nearly the distractions that there are on the Gold Coast, and there's a ton of other great waves in the area where he can go test out boards and surf himself into a rhythm before the contest starts.
Slater's first Bells title came in 2006. He followed that up with wins in 2008 and 2010. And during one of the best Bells Finals ever, a back-and-forth affair with Mick Fanning in 2012, he punted a memorable air to this day. Plainly put, he knows how to win on the Bells Bowl.
If he can get a result and build some momentum at Bells, he could set himself up for much bigger successes throughout the 2019 season. At 47 years old, Slater may not have the prowess or air game to grovel in small, shifty beachbreak conditions, but he still thrives in high-quality surf. He's more of a Formula 1 racer than a drag strip junkie. The better the track, the better he performs.
Spots like Bali, Teahupo'o, J-Bay, the Surf Ranch and Pipe play perfectly to his strengths. Look no further than the pair of third-place results he logged at the Surf Ranch Pro and the Pipe Masters in 2018 to see how dominant he can be at these world-class venues. Besides Bali, which has only been a Tour stop for a couple of years, the only location on the 2019 CT schedule that Slater hasn't won at is Margaret River. But should the contest site move from Main Break to The Box or North Point, all of a sudden Slater's outlook gets a lot better.
With all of his World Titles and records, at his age and after so many years on Tour, the only thing Slater really has left to prove is to himself, which might be the only motivation he needs to get back on the horse and make a serious run this season. We may be looking at a different Slater in 2019, but that doesn't make him any less dangerous when the swell starts pumping and wind starts whipping offshore.
Watch the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach live April 17-27 on Worldsurfleague.com, App and Facebook.