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Back on Board He doesn't need the celebrity, he doesn't need the cash. So why is Kelly Slater, the world's most famous surfer, back on the pro tour after three years away? To see if he's still the king, of course

Kelly Slater is out there somewhere. That's the word on the
beach. The six-time world champion is among the dozen or so
bodies bobbing in the lineup at Banzai Pipeline, the storied
break on Oahu's North Shore. Pipe is a bit wind-whipped and
inconsistent on this Sunday afternoon in early February, but
it's still serving up waves with 10-foot faces. Were it not for
the Super Bowl being played today, there would be more people
out than this collection: a handful of locals (including a
towheaded nine-year-old phenom named Jon-Jon Florence), the odd
body-boarder and a few pros, the best of whom happens to be the
best surfer ever.

Which of them is Slater? Hard to tell from the shore. During
lulls, body-boarders poach the junk at which the surfers turn up
their noses. Jon-Jon the wunderkind drops into a fast-moving
eight-footer, links a couple turns, then rides it all the way
in. He's probably jonesing for a juice box.

A nice set finally rolls in, and a muscular, skinheaded guy pops
up. There's no question who this is. He may be coming off a
three-year retirement, but Slater on a board remains his sport's
equivalent of Tiger on the tee box, Gretzky in front of the
goalmouth. Something special is about to happen. With a violent
snap turn he throws up a corona of spray. Now, gathering speed,
he works his way onto the whitewater lip. There, for an
astounding 40 yards, beholden to the physics of some other
universe, he hovers along the lip, the fins of his board finding
purchase where there can't possibly be any. Slater then
air-drops four feet to the base of the wave, sticks the landing
and milks a few more seconds out of the ride. Up and down the
beach, onlookers utter the same two words: "Holy s---!"

Slater has had many such surreal rides over the last three
years; most of us just haven't seen them. After clinching his
record sixth world title on the Association of Surfing
Professionals tour in 1998, he retired at age 26. "I'd
accomplished more than I expected to," says Slater, who turned
30 on Monday. "But at that point I didn't know really what to do
with myself. I didn't have any goals beyond that. Surfing didn't
excite me the way it had when I started."

So he walked away, taking a three-year sabbatical from the tour.
He remained as much a celebrity as ever, winning a fair amount
of scratch in "speciality events" and cashing the generous
checks of his primary sponsor, Quiksilver, which in 1998 had
signed him to a lucrative five-year endorsement deal. He played
a lot of golf, whittling his handicap to 5 and showing up,
seemingly, in as many golf publications as surfing magazines. He
surfed his favorite breaks all over the world with partners
ranging from Sylvester Stallone to Eddie Vedder. Choosing to
disregard his mother's advice to travel to the heartland to find
a soul mate --"Go to one of the Dakotas," Judy Slater advised
him, "where they don't even know we have an ocean"--he began a
relationship with actress-model Lisa Ann Cabasa that is now a
year and a half old.

He also had a gradual revelation. The guy who played Jimmy Slade
in Baywatch, who played guitar in a band called The Surfers, saw
more clearly than ever that he was put on this planet not to make
bad television or mediocre music, but to ride waves.

Which is why, when the ASP's 2002 World Championship Tour begins
next month on Australia's Gold Coast, Slater will be there. He
returns a few pounds heavier--he's been hitting the weights--and
with a different 'do. (When his hair started thinning, a few
years ago, he began shaving it close.) He also comes back with a
newfound serenity. "I can honestly say now that even if I lose,
I'm still enjoying myself," he claims, "whereas when I lost
before, I'd bang my head against the board, I was so angry."

This Zen-like attitude didn't stop him from snatching up the heat
sheets after the 2002 Quiksilver In Memory of Eddie Aikau, a
big-wave competition held in monstrous surf at Oahu's Waimea Bay
last month. Informed that he had come in second, Slater decided
to double-check the judges' math. Perusing the sheets, he found a
mistake. Totaled correctly, his score turned out to be the day's
best. For all his talk of equanimity in the face of defeat,
losing will always gnaw at him. "Kelly's a competitive animal.
It's in his blood," says Judy. "I mean, he and his brothers used
to have contests to see who could eat the fastest."

The Slater boys--Sean is three years older than Kelly, Stephen
six years younger--grew up in Cocoa Beach, Fla. Their father,
Steve, separated from Judy when Kelly was 13. Judy, who had been
a firefighter, was forced to quit that job once she became a
single mom. One of the many jobs she worked thereafter was as a
short-order cook at the Islander Hut on Cocoa Beach. How did she
land that gig? Well, the manager used to let the Slater boys run
a tab, so they could eat after they'd surfed. "It finally got to
the point where I couldn't pay the tab," says Judy. "So I
started working there."

Through the back window of the Hut she watched Kelly--who, as a
five-year-old, Judy recalls, would "sit on the beach, studying
the wind and wave patterns"--do things on his surfboard that no
one else could. He would carve waves and catch air in the so-so
surf off Florida's Atlantic coast, a nascent Van Gogh forced to
express himself with sidewalk chalk. He pioneered the acrobatic,
airborne style that caught the fancy of Generation X Games. Yet,
in Slater's early days on the tour, it was assumed that this
pretty boy from the land of thigh-high waves would be clueless
in big surf. He never forgot who bad-mouthed him and took silent
pleasure in crushing them. In 1992, at age 20, he became the
youngest surfer to win a world title. PEOPLE magazine dubbed him
one of the world's 50 Most Beautiful People. He dated Pamela
Anderson. He went on to win the world championship in '94, '95,
'96, '97 and '98. Then he bailed.

By the time he was 26, Slater says, he had been working at
surfing, to some degree or another, for 21 years. By proceeding
from high school to the pro tour, Slater says, he missed out on
some aspects of normal life. "For a lot of years my sole focus
was on surfing," he says. "It was positive in a lot of ways but
also kind of limiting."

He has spent the last three years playing catch-up, spanning the
globe in order to broaden his experience. He surfed in the
Tasman Sea, off the southern coast of Australia, with Vedder
last spring. Asked if Vedder is a better surfer than Slater is a
guitarist, Slater replies, "I've been playing music longer than
he's been surfing."

In his absence the Tour has changed. Even as thirtysomethings
Mark Occhilupo and Sunny Garcia won world titles in 1999 and
2000, respectively, a formidable group of young guns began to hit
their stride, foremost among them Andy Irons of Hawaii, Taj
Burrow of Australia and goofy-footed Floridian C.J. Hobgood, who
won last year's world title. Behind them are brilliant youngsters
Mick Fanning and Joel Parkinson. The hope among the young bloods
is that Slater will no longer have the stomach for the grind of
the tour's grueling international travel and advancing through
heats in crappy, four-foot waves.

Don't count on it. In his previous tour of duty on the ASP, says
Slater, "I knew exactly who surfed heats in what way. I knew
their strengths and weaknesses. This time I'm going in not really
knowing that." Still, he says, "I don't foresee it taking any
more than five or six events for me to shake the rust off."

The ASP wins whether Slater is victorious in a single event or
not. "Little girls aren't going down to the beach to see Mick
Fanning and Joel Parkinson," says Sam George, editor of Surfer.
"You've seen him--the guy is a rock star. He transcends the sport
and dramatically raises its profile."

On this February afternoon the rock star's presence is required
downstairs. Slater and fellow surfers Kalani Robb, Rob Machado,
Tom Curren and Donovan Frankenreiter are sharing a house on the
North Shore for a week. They are the subjects of a reality TV
show that will air on ESPN this summer, in conjunction with the
release of Slater's upcoming new video game, Kelly Slater's Pro
Surfer. Now the occupants of the house--all of whom are featured
in the video game--will surf as themselves in a virtual
tournament. As the competition begins, the air in the room is
charged. Kelly Slater is back in the game.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROB KEITH SWELL OF ANTICIPATION For fans of the sport, there's still no sight in surfing quite like Slater (here off Hossegar, France) attacking a wave.

COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT AICHNER/SURFER MAG Can they knock him off? The balance of power has changed since Slater's 1998 "retirement," with many young guns aiming for the six-time champ.

Slater on a board remains his sport's equivalent of Tiger on the
tee box, Gretzky in front of the goalmouth.