Kelly Slater is the undisputed greatest surfer of all time, particularly when it comes to competitive surfing. But even the GOAT gets old eventually, and at 46 Slater’s career is nearing it’s end. He still amazes us now and then, and is still a contender in big, barreling waves, but he’s starting to struggle to keep up with the youngsters on tour—which is understandable, since he’s now competed against four separate generations of world tour surfers.
The 2019 world tour kicked off last week on the Gold Coast, with Slater coming up short in his round one heat. He was eliminated in round2, which means that his first event of what will likely be his last season on tour just got a little bit harder. But even if he hangs up his jersey at the end of the 2019 season, Slater’s competitive run might not quite be over. That’s because he still has a chance of making the US Olympic team. In fact, he has a very good chance.
The way the Olympic surfers will be selected is pretty complicated, but in the simplest terms, 10 men will be selected based on world tour rankings at the end of 2019, with only two men per country allowed. Then the other 10 men in the Olympics will be selected based on their ranking in the ISA championships (again, with the caveat that only two men are allowed in from any one country, which means that countries heavily represented on the world tour will not likely have surfers qualify through the ISA, since they will already have their spots filled from the WSL).
The women’s Olympic participants will have a similar selection process, with eight being selected from their world tour ranking, and 12 from the ISA.
Now the world tour currently has 34 full-time surfers on it, and the majority are from either Brazil, Australia, or the US. Outside of those, there are six other nations represented—one of which is Kanoa Igarashi, who has claimed his Japanese citizenship for Olympic purposes, and has already been granted a spot on the Japanese team, since Japan is guaranteed a few spots as the host country. Based on pure numbers and the competitive history of the men on tour, Brazil will surely see their top two ranked surfers on tour go to the Olympics, as will Australia and the US. The other four spots will then be fought over by the remaining five international surfers, including Jordy Smith, Michel Bourez, Jeremy Flores, and Leo Fioravanti.
This is where things get interesting. The US only has eight surfers on tour this year (if you include Hawaiian’s John John Florence, Sebastian Zeitz, Ezekiel Lau, and Seth Moniz). Slater, Connor Coffin, Kolohe Andino, and Griffin Colapinto are the other four from the Mainland. Now since two American’s are pretty much guaranteed to get spots in the Olympics based on world tour rankings, all Slater has to do to qualify for the Olympics—as likely one of the oldest competitors in any sport at the Olympics in 2020—is to beat six of his seven fellow American competitors. Seth Moniz is a rookie, Seabass and Zeke Lau haven’t been super consistent in their years on tour, Griffin Colapinto is a much-hyped talent but hasn’t really delivered on his promise yet, and Kolohe continues to struggle to surf to his potential in a jersey. While all of these guys rip, the only American to make the top 10 last season was Connor Coffin. Remember, Slater was out with injury the past two seasons—and the year before that he ranked somewhere in the top 10.
What is the point of all this? If we take historical rankings of the current Americans on tour this year, it probably isn’t going to take much more than a top 10 finish on tour to clinch a spot on the US Olympic team in 2020—and you’d have to say that Slater has as good a chance as any of his fellow compatriots of cracking the top 10, particularly if the tour is blessed with good swell this year, and a lot of the events cater to power surfing and barrel riding.
On top of that, due to the fact that each country can only have two competitors make the Olympics—and the added fact that the majority of the top 20 each year are from Brazil and Australia—there will likely only be six or seven men who qualify for the Olympics that will be top-20 talents. So whoever goes for the US will actually have a pretty good chance of medaling. And since the Olympic event will likely be held in waist-high, sloppy beach break (based on historical forecast for Japan that time of year), it could really be won by just about any of those guys.
The long and short of all of this? For one thing, the world tour rankings just got a lot more consequential, which means the world tour in general just got a lot more interesting to watch. And secondly, who knows—a year from now we just might see Kelly Slater win gold, a short year or two before he hits his golden anniversary of life. Wouldn’t that be something?!