Kelly taking a nostalgic photo of pipeline last winter.
"The beach roared in a cadence that was a combination of enthusiasm & befuddlement. No one had seen this maneuver before. No one even knew what it was called." -Jamie Brisick
It’s been 25 years since Kelly Slater won his first Pipeline Masters. I happened to be on the beach for that one. It coincided with a Surfing magazine cover shot of Kelly that had punch and urgency; it was in-your-face in a way that backside bottom turns had never been. The graphics were different; his board was thinner and narrower. It ushered in a new era—the New School era.
In the 1992 Pipeline Masters, a 20-year-old Kelly did all sorts of beautiful things to the meaty tubes. That year would mark his first world title. In the trials of that event, in streaky, thumping waves at Backdoor, I watched a regular foot with a smooth style pull into barrel after barrel. The whole beach seemed to be rooting for him. They shouted, “Jack!”
Kelly Slater would go on to win 11 world titles. Jack Johnson would dash his pro surfing dreams and become a world-renowned musician and environmentalist.
Kelly has won seven Pipeline Masters. They’ve all been well documented: there was 1995 when he got throated repeatedly at Backdoor and when he and Rob Machado did their famous high five; there was 1999 and the long disappearing act and emergence with the spit at Backdoor; there was 2008 on the much-smaller and curvier board that made it seem like he’d found space to play amid serious competition; there was 2013 and the impossibly late drops and the triumph of experience over youth against John John. There was, in all seven of these victories, a whole lot of time spent in the barrel. But the moment that is seared in my memory was not a barrel, not a final, not even technically a “make.”
In the 1999 Masters, he whipped around on an overhead left, popped to his feet, zagged down the face, and laid into a hard bottom turn, not unlike the one on the cover of that 1992 issue of Surfing. His gaze and momentum were fixed high above the lip, and he flung himself there. At that time, airs were commonplace, though they were still pretty minimalist, and we never saw them at Pipe. Kelly did a part 540, part backflip, a sort of corkscrewing. He landed perfectly atop the lip. He fell, but only after holding it there a second—it was more a stumble. The beach roared in a cadence that was a combination of enthusiasm and befuddlement. No one had seen this maneuver before. No one even knew what it was called. At the time, Kelly was doing a lot of surfing and hanging out with his buddy Jack Johnson. Jack’s breakaway song was called “Rodeo Clowns.” Kelly adapted that name for his new trick.
The Rodeo Clown was a harbinger of what we see today. It was the beginning of bringing tech game to the air. Says Kelly, “I literally discovered a maneuver on that wave. I’d never done that rotation before, and I remember just going, ‘Ah, that’s how you do it.’”