A Day With The Planet’s Two Most Famous Surfers Can Teach Us A Lot About Chasing Excellence

Let’s get one thing straight: I didn’t actually catch any waves when I went surfing with Kelly Slater and Bethany Hamilton.

That would have made for a better story. When a person gets the chance to paddle out with the winningest surfer ever and a woman who embodies the sport’s requisite combo of toughness and fluidity, it would be cool to actually score some nice rides and then finish the day joking around on shore like three best friends. Maybe a campfire and some Jack Johnson music?

But it didn’t go down like that. Not even close.


The day I got invited to surf with Kelly Slater and Bethany Hamilton was the first day of the biggest swell Southern California saw all summer. Plus it was the day before the start of the World Surf League’s pro tour event at Lower Trestles — the same break we were surfing — so there would be plenty of competition for waves.

John John Florence was there. Gabriel Medina. Glenn Hall. So were about 100 local chargers — men and women who were more than willing to jostle the pros for position.

One of the most interesting, engaging things about professional surfing is the “stars are just like us!” factor. If you surf relatively often, you will have surfed with a pro surfer. It’s not a question of if, but when. On the other hand, unless you live near Rucker Park, you can play basketball your whole life without going up against an NBA star. I think it’s one of the reasons why surfing fans so often call their heroes by their first names — they feel like they know them to some degree (first name basis is reserved for a select few in other sports).

Hurley Pro at Trestles
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Slater and Hamilton are both highly prominent and highly recognizable, so they both had a lot of eyes on them — but once we got into the lineup there were no gimmes. They had to scrap for waves just like everyone else.

I’m not afraid to admit that I was outmatched. (And did I mention how big the waves were?)

About twenty minutes after we paddled out, Slater called over to me, “Drop in on me!”

What?” I yelled back. I’d heard him, but I was a little frazzled by this point and it didn’t really compute.

“Do it!” he urged.

Which was pretty cool, if you think about it. The best surfer in the history of time inviting you to steal one of his waves. But the invitation came with more than a little self doubt. What if I dropped in on him and didn’t make the drop? What if I crashed? What if the Surf God’s career came to an end because of some writer landing on his head?

I gave him one of these:

Then decided, “No, I am not going to do that. I am not going to drop in on Kelly Slater. I am going to paddle closer to Bethany Hamilton now and see how she’s doing.”

Bethany, I discovered, was doing fine. Because she’s missing an arm, and therefore a good amount of her paddling potential, she takes off from deep. Which also means she has a high potential of getting trapped inside and pounded by the waves if a big set comes in. This is one of a million adjustments that she’s made to her surfing since the shark attack that took her arm. After all this time, she might not even remember “the other way.” But as someone surfing with her, you notice it. It would be a lie to pretend otherwise.

Here is the way in which I noticed it:

“My god, she’s surfing with one arm and I hardly notice it, and she’s still just flat out better than 99% of the people out here, which is wonderful and insanely amazing.”

After a few minutes, I realized something else. I couldn’t take off as deep as Hamilton did, and I didn’t have the nerve to risk getting smashed by waves that broke further out. So… no waves for me there either.

Trestles Women's Pro
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Which was, ultimately, fine. I get to surf plenty and wave-count wasn’t the reason I was in the water. I was there to be around two people I really admire — for more than just their surfing skill. Once I gave up on the idea of impressing anyone, I was able to settle in and really enjoy the experience.

One of the most interesting things about surfing, a phrase that people love to tease, is the idea of “stoke.” Stoke is what you feel when your energy bubbles up, surging over the walls of “decorum.” Stoke is that giddy happiness that is far too rare in the oft-jaded adult world. Both Slater and Hamilton have loads of the stuff.

They truly love surfing, it thrills them

When I spoke with Slater earlier in the year about his historic semifinal heat in Teahupo’o against John John Florence, I realized just how technically he interprets his own surfing. As he’d tell me later:

“When I’m practicing I really try to analyze every little thing — from equipment to technique — so that when I’m competing I can just let all that go and trust that I’m prepared.”

On the day we surfed together, he spoke to me about individual waves from his junior league competitions. Spend any amount of time with the man and you realize, he might be blessed with loads of talent, but  talent doesn’t carry anyone to 11 world titles. The extra work he puts in — the magnitude of his drive — is what makes Kelly Slater so damn good.


Hamilton comes off as equally driven, though in a much different way. While Slater’s brand is built primarily on his skill and history, part of Hamilton’s appeal is driven by her relatability. Out in the lineup, people approached her with stories to share.

“I really admire your…”

“I met your friend…”

“You did an event with a non-profit…”

People were eager to tell Hamilton all the ways in which she was tangentially connected to their lives. Part of that is from fame, sure, but another part is because Bethany Hamilton has this (excuse my use of another surf culture buzzword) vibe that people just love. She’s positive and kind hearted and you can feel it.

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There are people on this planet whose energy is electric and when you’re lucky enough to be around them, your senses feel heightened. Slater and Hamilton both have that (in different ways).

I will never be a pro surfer. Hell, I might never even qualify as a “good” surfer. But I got something more from our time together in the water:

Here are two people who know how to commit to something they love. Two people who take joy in the never-ending quest to maximize one’s potential. Two people whose sense of stoke and love of the ocean hasn’t been dimmed by decades of professional competition or a life-altering shark attack.

Two people who had plenty to teach me about surfing, but taught me even more about life.

Which makes it the best surf session I’ve ever had… even without catching a single wave.

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