For over 20 years, 11-time ASP World Champion Kelly Slater's performance and innovation have dominated the discussion in surfing, just as he has won heats, media exposure and worldwide popularity. His first signature video, "Kelly Slater in Black and White" revolutionized traditional on-the-face surfing by introducing a loose, tailfree, above-the-lip approach mixed with elastic tube riding.
Taylor Steele, who started filming Slater for his seminal "Momentum" series videos in the early '90s and still works with him today, remembers a particularly remarkable Slater session he filmed in Barbados for his "Sipping Jetstreams" film.
"The waves were eight feet and really, really hollow," Steele recalls. "Kelly surfed for eight hours and was catching every wave he wanted. He was on fire. He said if he could live that day over and over for a year, he would."
Pat O'Connell was part of the "Momentum" crew and surfed against Slater for years on the ASP World Tour. He is keenly interested whenever Slater releases a new film or Web clip.
"The thing about Kelly is that he doesn't put out too many videos, so he always leaves you wanting more," says O'Connell. "He's also different in that he does things in heats, like that layback barrel against Bruce Irons in Tahiti in 2005 or that crazy backside snap in Fiji last year, that are as good or better than anything you see in videos."
Slater is also unique in that he is the only pro surfer of his caliber who does not have a personal cameraman documenting every session. He has shown that he doesn't need one by filming himself through an array of GoPro cameras and accessories.
"Kelly's always thinking of ways to evolve, stay excited and find new angles," says Steele. "Seeing his point of view with the GoPro in the barrel is amazing."
At first, O'Connell viewed the GoPro movies as more of a novelty. "I used to think GoPro was the Zinka of the new millennium. It would be here today and gone tomorrow," says O'Connell. "But the cameras are incredible, and guys like Kelly get them into unbelievable places that most people have never seen."
Slater's innovative approach spreads beyond the ocean to cyberspace. Some of his competitors, such as John John Florence and Gabriel Medina, weren't even born when Slater was winning his first titles, but he's taken to social media with as much enthusiasm as the youth of the sport. He has 295,000 Instagram followers and has posted nearly 8,000 tweets. Last year, Kelly tweeted that Nick Rozsa was the best unsponsored surfer in the world after watching his videos and surfing with him, which quickly helped lead to Rozsa landing a deal with Reef.
"Most guys of Kelly's stature have people doing social media for them, but he does all of it himself," says O'Connell. "He's super into it."
The 41-year-old is the Energizer Bunny of surfing -- he just keeps going and going.