Every sport has its dominant athlete—Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Usain Bolt—but few athletes can claim to have achieved perfection. After all, what exactly is a perfect basketball game?
On Tuesday, for a breathtaking 30 minutes, Kelly Slater showed the world that he is a perfect surfer, scoring 20 out of 20 possible points in a quarterfinal heat at the Volcom Fiji Pro. A perfect heat, surfed in pristine blue water and pumping barrels. A perfect heat, which has only happened four times before in the history of the sport.
On your commute home, you probably didn't realize that perfection was happening in the ocean on the other side of the world. Most people don't surf and have little concern for the world of professional surfing. Maybe they've heard of Kelly Slater—he did date Pamela Anderson in the ’90s, after all—but whatever, bro.
But those who were tuned into the live webcast of the Volcom Fiji Pro got to glimpse an elite athlete perform at his finest. Slater's perfect heat in Fiji was a continuation upon a theme, one surfers have grown used to hearing: Kelly Slater is the greatest surfer of all time. He has won 11 world titles over his 20-year career. The next closest is four world titles. A vocal contingent of surf writers consider Slater the greatest athlete of all time. Nonbelievers say that Kelly Slater is the Michael Jordan of surfing; surfers insist that it's Michael Jordan who is the Kelly Slater of basketball.
On Wednesday afternoon Fijian time, Slater was poised to surf against Hawaiian Sebastian Zietz in a quarterfinal heat. To understand surf contests, think of a blend of March Madness and gymnastics. Surfers are arranged in head-to-head matchups in a bracket system, and advance with each heat win. Heats last 30 minutes, and surfers can catch as many waves as they want, but only the top two scores count. There are five contest judges who score every wave ridden, with the top and bottom scores dropped and an average given from the remaining three. It's surprisingly complicated for surfing.
With all these factors at play, a perfect 10 in surfing is pretty rare. Not unheard of, but rare, like a sober week for Lindsay Lohan. But to get two 10s in the same heat, to have five professional judges all agree that you performed perfectly on not one, but two waves, is damn near unfathomable.
Three minutes into his quarterfinal heat, Slater dropped into a set wave at the famed Cloudbreak, a wave known for its hollow barrels and shallow, sharp reef. Slater pulled in and out of the barrel twice, and he had his first 10 of the heat.
Ten minutes later, still less than halfway through the heat, he found his second 10. For fear of sounding like the stereotypically dopey surfer, it was an insane barrel. Just ... insane. Slater had a perfect 20, and it took only 14 minutes.
He rode the momentum of his perfect heat into the semis, which he won handily, and in the finals he flirted with perfection once again, with a 10 and a 9.8. His 19.8 secured Slater the contest victory, his 53rd over his career.
I understand that not everyone cares about surfing—or any sport for that matter. But there's no denying the magical quality of an athlete finding his or her sync, when all the training and focus and desire and sacrifice blossom into a graceful unity of mind and body. It’s a beautiful spectacle, especially when it happens for an elite athlete.
For Kelly Slater, it’s perfect.