Sunday, November 14, 2010

Surfing, Kelly Slater and Respect for the Sea

While looking for some newspaper to capture cooking splats, I grabbed today's New York Times sports section, something I was surely not going to read. Until I opened it to the back page and was captivated by a story about the undisputed surfing champion of all time, Kelly Slater.

Ten-time surfing world champ Kelly Slater
The piece described Slater's snagging his 10th world championship at the Rip Curl Pro Search, in Porta del Sol, Puerto Rico--and the somber mood cast upon the victory by the death, just four days earlier, of three-time-champ Andy Irons, 32.  Irons was found in a Dallas hotel room, there on a layover on his way home to his wife, expecting their baby in December, after falling too ill, ostensibly from Dengue fever, to make it to the Puerto Rico event.  Pill bottles were found near his body, leading officers to suspect a drug overdose, though cause of death won't be announced for weeks.

As one who has actually stood up while riding a surfboard maybe three times (other attempts left me too terrified and insecure), I have a profound respect for surfers, and have observed from afar the community they have forged.  Kelly Slater, like many kama'aina (Hawaii locals) who innately take to the waves in toddlerhood, mastered the surf so smoothly, he seems an organic part of it.

And yet, surfing doesn't command the respect given most sports, and despite Slater's record career, in which he won his first championship at age 20 in 1992, and his tenth now at age 38, fans have had to band together to urge recognition in a Sports Illustrated cover.  Slater's typically Hawaiian attitude is akin to a shrug, but his Puerto Rico prize of a 3% share of the Quicksilver surfwear company, said to be worth about $22 million, would make up for an awful lot.

The "Duke statue" on Waikiki
Why hasn't the surfing star received international acclaim?  The sport seems stuck to the romantic image of Duke Paoa Kahanamoku (August 24, 1890-January 22, 1968), who popularized surfing, was an Olympic swimming multi-medalist and sheriff of Honolulu for 29 years.  Tourists to Waikiki linger at the beachside restaurant honoring him, and pose next to the bronze statue that is usually festooned with leis. Surfing reminds people of their vacations, of impossibly clear, warm aqua water, and not real life.  Few Americans can watch surfing matches, other than on YouTube, where it seems unreal, like a travelogue.

Surfing is also a solitary sport, where an individual isn't playing on a team, and where the foe isn't other human beings.  Surfers don't represent a city or municipality, but, more often, market a product.

The sport's not like figure skating, where the setting remains still, and the athlete can hone a skill in solitary concentration.  Surfers contend with an unpredictable (and poorly viewable) "field," waves that can be treacherous or straightforward, powerful or meek, and the goal is not just form but conquering and yet adapting to circumstances that can shift instantly.  Beyond that, there's innovation and technique, a type of dance and originality that requires unity of surfer, surfboard and water--but not spectator.  Plus, there's a selfish side, a thrill, a sense of purpose and well-being that the sport provides its adherent, that can't be communicated to an audience on the shore.

Take a look at this illuminating video featuring the late Andy Irons explaining why he surfed. You'll see a confused though endearing person who seems to make surfing his great escape from reality. Eerily, the first background song opens with the lyric, "killed myself when I was young..."

I'm looking forward to a Hawaiian vacation in a few weeks, when the surf is at its peak on the North Shore of Oahu. There's something fierce about the crashing waves, rising up like some foaming dragon to ensnarl its prey.  The risk makes watching tense, but also provides a thrill, a roller-coaster-like breath-snatching fear that only resolves when the head of the downed rider emerges from the swirling froth.

In a sense, surfing is a reminder of our insignificance, our lack of control in the face of nature's dominance.  We as humans hope to tame and manipulate our environment, but unlike other sports, surfing is a constant reminder of God's power as superior to our own.

It's that aspect that makes surfing alien to mainline sports, and appropriately personal for those who live with the sea.  Surfers rely on nature for the basis of their sport, and mortality and awe might be concepts too heavy for sports fans when they're out for a nice afternoon's fun.

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