Kelly Slater, the greatest surfer of all time, started 2019 with the intention of winning his 12th World Title and qualifying for the US Olympic team.
At the first stop of the season, he finished dead last with a 33rd place result at the Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast, something that hasn't happened in over a decade.
The surfing world, including Kelly himself, started questioning his place among the world's best surfers. The answer began with a Quarterfinal finish at stop two, the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach, followed by three straight heat wins at the Corona Bali Protected.
Is it possible that a 47-year-old is back in legitimate Title contention amongst the world's best?
It's a question that's been bantered about since his Quarterfinal performance at Bells last month and came into starker relief with the 11x World Champ's most recent antics in Bali. Two contests, two Quarterfinal appearances, and it appears as if the best is yet to come from the 47-year-old GOAT.
Going back to his return to competition at the 2018 Billabong Pipe Masters, Slater's made the Finals round three out of four times. The only other competitor on Tour to do that is reigning World Champ Gabriel Medina.
The stain on Slater's record came with an uncharacteristic showing at the Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast to start the season. For the first time in over a decade he finished with a 33rd place result. He was out of sorts in the two heats he surfed at D-Bah, later admitting that he'd been in a "dark" place.
The turnaround began with a clutch heat win for Slater over Julian Wilson in the Round of 32 at the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach.
Something clicked, the clouds parted, he laid it on rail, secured scores in the early minutes and the positive energy began to flow.
He later reckoned the heat had "World Title implications" -- a revealing glimpse into his mindset. Round by round he continued to return to form until Ryan Callinan finally got him in the Quarters.
Along with Filipe Toledo's high-flying performance, he's been the big story to come out of Bali. Armed with an exquisite quiver of Akila Aipa-shaped boards, he's been enjoying his freesurf sessions, hanging with friends in the bar in the evening, and even led the charge during a memorable late-night tube binge under the lights at Keramas.
The more apropos question might be, is this what Slater looks like when he's healthy?
Dealing with five different foot injuries since 2003, he spent much of 2016 and 2017 rehabbing a busted hoof. Multiple failed comeback attempts over those two seasons always left him with the conclusion that he'd "returned too soon."
At the inaugural Surf Ranch Pro, still struggling with the hitch in his giddy-up, he managed a 3rd place result, but then took the next two contests off to continue mending. When he finally returned to competition and confirmed he was feeling good again, he blitzed the Pipe Masters, dashing World Title hopeful Toledo's dreams in the process.
A healthy Slater is a dangerous Slater, even as he's almost half a century old.
From 2010 to 2016, Slater only missed one contest due to injury (the 2012 Billabong Rio Pro). He surfed in 73 contests, making the Quarters or better 46 times, or 63 percent of the time.
So, maybe Slater's not back. Maybe her never really went anywhere. Maybe he just had a bum foot.
Slater was his most dominant in 2011 when he made Quarters a remarkable nine out of ten times (the same year as his last World Title), but that was other worldly.
And now that he's fully healthy, he's actually out performing his historical average over the last decade.
It's now up to Toledo to try and derail the Slater train, which is delightfully rolling.
Surfing with a pace and amplitude unlike anyone else on tour, the flawless four-foot canvases at Keramas are tailor made for Toledo's explosive brand of surfing.
But, as the contest gets down to the business end of the waiting period, there's a bigger swell in the forecast and Slater always saves his most inspired performances for when it's pumping.
If the surf resembles Backdoor more than the Banzai Skatepark, all of a sudden it's Toledo that has something to prove. Should the day demand big barrels and man turns, the odds shift to Slater's favor, who is 23 years Toledo's senior.
Whether he's back or he never really went anywhere, once again Slater's taking on the new generation and now has the potential to beat one of their best and brightest. This is going to be good.