On the day following the Trestles surf contest, I logged onto my Yahoo account where a picture of Kelly Slater was featured boldly on the homepage. The article read, “The Best Athlete You’ve Barely Heard Of.” Barely heard of?? In the week following the contest, the general sports media buzzed about surfing. Variations of an article by Chris Mauro provocatively titled, “Could Kelly Slater Be the Best Athlete Ever? No Seriously?” spread like a stomach virus across ESPN, NBC sports, Fox sports, and Sports Illustrated.
Sports bloggers did not appreciate the insult. One bellyacher quipped, “To be the greatest athlete ever you need to play a sport. Surfing is a hobby like driving a car or playing chess. If you want to include Slater into the conversation then I vote for either my middle school bus driver (who always got us there on time) or the super computer that plays chess.” Slater again, as so many times in his career, briefly surfed his way onto the world stage of sport.
Mythic characters transcend coastlines. Whether Slater is the best athlete ever is open to debate. Whether Slater is a mythic character is not. The recent Trestles win marked entry into his latest, if not final, epoch.
A discussion of this mythic character may be enlightened by the works of Carl Jung, an influential thinker and theoretical psychologist of the early 20th century. Examples of Jung’s work include concepts such as introvert, extrovert, the complex, and the “mid-life crisis.” Through extended studies of myths and religions of the world, Jung discovered common trends which he believed were part of a shared unconscious. Within this collective unconscious are different archetypes or character blue prints that humans attach to a story or saga. An archetype can be understood as the unlearned tendency to experience things (like history, dreams, or myths) in a certain way. Various Jungian archetypes include God (example the Force), The Hero (the Jedi Knight), The Wise Old Man (Obi-wan or Yoda), The Shadow (Darth Vader), The Anima (Princess Leia), etc.
Jung described numerous archetypes that we unconsciously apply to the world around us. In the last two decades of professional surfing, Slater has occupied several of them.
The Child-hero: Slater’s early amateur surfing days.
Even as a menehune (in the 12 and under division), crowds lined the beach to watch the child spectacle. His childhood was marked by repeated victories, fame, and bewilderment within the amateur surfing community. The crowds grew proportionately along with Slater’s abilities. He was widely expected to one day take the mantle of professional surfing.
The Trickster: Slater’s late amateur and early professional career.
Slater brought many tricks to the table and began revolutionizing surfing even before his first world title. What began as “tricks” soon became common contest maneuvers. He displayed them during his first pro win at Trestles 20 years ago, and before long, he had slain all the surfing heroes of the era: Curren, Occy, Potter.
The Hero: Slater’s first seven (or so) world titles.
This phase began even before the time of Slater’s first World Title at age 20, which in itself was a record-setting accomplishment. Slater won fourteen Surfer Poll Awards beginning in 1993. His dominance seemingly led to disillusionment and he retired from the World Tour for a few years. His Hero status only intensified after leaving. Upon return, Andy Irons presented a formidable anti-hero. With a few immature antics and negative comments, A.I. filled the role well, enhancing Slater’s likeability and style.
Puer aeternus (Eternal Boy): Slater’s 9th through current World Title runs.
At over 35 years old, Slater became the oldest competitor on tour while still managing to win his 9th title. This year, he continues to reinvent himself by placing more airs and versatility back into his contest performance. His willingness for experimentation with surfboard design is unmatched. He’s unbelievably still vibrant, young, and winning. We are all drawn in by the archetype. Can he do it again?
And now, a first round defeat in France. It’s just one loss, but it invokes an idea Jung once communicated: “the wine of youth does not always clear with advancing years; sometimes it grows turbid.” The potential pitfall of the Puer aeternus is a sort of Peter Pan Syndrome in which the eternal boy, unwilling to relinquish to age, eventually becomes a shadow figure. Think of figures that tarnished their brand in their final seasons – Jordan, Armstrong, Favre. This year Slater appears to have already cleared a worthy path, but what happens next? Or the next?
Perhaps Slater’s most endearing quality along the way has been his presentation of self while at the same time displaying so little of his shadow. We have seen glimpses though. The most interesting aspect of professional surfing today is not how this season turns out; it is how Slater does