"something magical happened," Kelly Slater told the crowd in his moment of triumph, and he spoke not just for himself, but for the nearly 2,000 people who showed up at Ocean Beach on Wednesday to watch one of history's greatest athletes clinch his 11th world title on the pro surfing tour.
Slater was carried up the beach on the shoulders of two friends, having won his Round 3 heat in the Rip Curl Pro Search event to clinch at least ninth place in the event, which mathematically secures the world title. A constant refrain could be heard from longtime members of the Bay Area surf community: "I can't believe it happened here."
Ocean Beach will never be a popular destination among travel-minded surfers. With its punishing surf, shifting currents and utter unpredictability, it's not even on many locals' radar. But it came to life in all its autumnal glory Wednesday, with balmy weather, offshore winds and gorgeous, blue-green waves up to eight feet on the face.
"Look at this," said Slater, surveying the breadth of Ocean Beach to the south. "The whole beach is just going off."
Just two days before, Slater stood at the site in cold, gloomy conditions and pictured "a ghost town" when the contest began. "I literally wondered if anyone would show up," he said. "And I didn't know what to expect. I'd been hearing all these rumors about people (grumpy locals) messing with the event. But everybody's been so cool. The turnout was incredible. I've had kids coming up to me saying, 'I'm so stoked to have you at our home break.' It's a very special time."
Most special of all, perhaps, is Slater's place in sports history. It may startle you to realize this, but by significant measure - absolute dominance over a long period of time - he is the greatest athlete of all time.
Slater won his first world championship in 1992, and his 2011 title - at the age of 39 - marks a 20-year span. Only briefly, during that entire time, has anyone been considered even close to Slater in reputation and competitive performance. That was the late Andy Irons, a three-time world champion who died of heart failure a year ago Wednesday.
Irons won his three titles consecutively (2002 to '04), but in two of those years Slater was in semi-retirement and not a presence on tour. And it's safe to say that at no point in those 20 years, no matter what the circumstances, did Slater lose his global reputation as the world's best.
Who else can say that? Not Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Muhammad Ali or Roger Federer. Most of the great ones were immersed in rivalries: Ali-Joe Frazier, Federer-Rafael Nadal, Jack Nicklaus-Arnold Palmer, Magic Johnson-Larry Bird. And even among those who had no peers - the likes of Woods, Jordan and Gretzky - the dominance wasn't sustained for 20 years.
The subject of pure athletic ability is a matter of personal taste. Most would find it distasteful to bring a surfer into any conversation that concerns hitting a baseball, carrying a football into a den of violence, or standing up to 12 rounds of prizefight punishment. The comparisons hardly seem appropriate.
On the other hand, give me any living athlete in the pantheon of his sport, and let me unveil some Slater footage: dropping into a 20-foot Pipeline wave, winning the prestigious Eddie Aikau event at Waimea Bay, taking on the almost mythically dangerous reef break at Teahupo'o, Tahiti. I'll guarantee you that person's mind will be blown. Slater may have finessed his way to glory in front of the Ocean Beach crowd, but this is a serious, relentless competitor in life-threatening conditions as extreme as any sport can provide.
Fittingly, there was high drama to Slater's Round 3 heat against Australia's Dan Ross, who had the lead until the last four minutes. At that point, Slater needed a score of 6.88 (on a scale of 10) to win the man-on-man heat. At about the 3:45 mark, he picked off an ordinary wave and tore it apart with a sequence of strong, well-timed maneuvers. "Not a great wave," someone remarked in the press area, "until Kelly made it great."
With about a minute to go, the judges' score came through: 7.60. Ross was fully capable of taking back the lead, but with the seconds counting down and the sea gone quiet, he never got the chance.
Whisked onto a podium for interviews, Slater heard many questions about his age. "To me, it's literally just a number," he said. "You see people 100 years old and you can't believe they lived that long, but to them, it's not baffling. I don't see why at 50 I can't be in better shape than I am right now. I think I'm going to be. That's what I'd like to represent. I mean, 39 is young to half the people in this world."
As he talked, everyone took a glance back at the ocean. After hours and hours of pure conditions, the wind was changing. Just a slight hint of onshore flow.
For the fanciful at heart, it was something magical, a sign that nothing could change until Slater clinched his title, the power of which would draw those contrary winds toward shore like a magnet.
Naturally, that's not what really happened. No way, right? Of course not.
Wednesday's highlights -- Before the contest, some 40 surfers paddled out and gathered in a circle to pay tribute to Andy Irons, the three-time world champion who died a year ago Wednesday. Irons, who had taken ill during a contest in Puerto Rico, died of heart failure in a Dallas hotel room en route home to his native Kauai.
-- Dusty Payne, the 22-year-old Hawaiian surfer who claimed to have seen a shark during his first-round heat Tuesday, lost his man-on-man heat to Brazil's Raoni Monteiro and was eliminated from the contest.
-- Australia's Kieren Perrow had a huge day, knocking off former world champion Mick Fanning in the morning (Round 2) and world No. 3 Adriano de Souza in the afternoon (Round 3).
-- Legendary bodysurfer Mark Cunningham, visiting from Hawaii to witness the event, walked about a mile to the south of the contest site to join Dan Malloy, Tim Reyes, Steve Dwyer, Ryan Seelbach and local mainstay Kevin Starr, among others, in an all-star morning session.
-- Kelly Slater's triumph made it feel as if the contest had ended, but in fact, the climactic rounds are at hand. There's little chance of it resuming today, with smaller surf and contrary (northwest) winds predicted, and it may be several days before the northwesterlies subside.
Best of the best To be at the top of your sport for two decades, as Kelly Slater has been for surfing, is hard to imagine. Here are some other athletes who dominated their sports, and how long they were able to sustain that dominance (years approximate in some cases) Tiger Woods, golf: 12 years
Roger Federer, tennis: 8 years
Wayne Gretzky, hockey: 10 years
Bill Russell, NBA: 13 years
Michael Jordan, NBA: 8 years
Jerry Rice, NFL: 10 years
Edwin Moses, 400-meter hurdles: 10 years
Eddy Merckx, cycling: 12 years
Alexander Karelin, Greco-Roman wrestling heavyweight: 13 years