No surfer has made more of big waves and big moments than Kelly Slater, and on Thursday at the Banzai Pipeline in Hawaii, the 47-year-old positioned himself for another memorable combination.
Having reached the semifinals of the Billabong Pipe Masters, an event he had won seven times in his career, Slater needed to win two more heats — the semifinals and finals — to overtake John John Florence and clinch a spot at the 2020 Summer Olympics.
But Slater’s hopes were wiped out in the semifinal of Pipe Masters, the storied event on Oahu’s North Shore that, this year, marked the end of the Olympic qualifying process for the World Surf League.
Florence, 27, won the season-long world title in 2016 and 2017. “I’m excited I accomplished that goal,” he said. “I’m fired up.”
Surfing will make its Olympic debut in Tokyo next summer. The field will be limited to two men and two women per country.
Slater needed to finish at least two rounds ahead of Florence to snare the other. On a sunny day of long lulls and inconsistent waves, both men reached the quarterfinals.
Slater came back to beat Jack Freestone of Australia with two big scores late in a slow heat, the last in a tight barrel to the right in the final 40 seconds.
“I saw it coming, I was so nervous,” Slater said during an interview on the World Surf League live stream afterward. “I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe it’s happening. That’s the wave I need.’”
With that kind of good fortune, Slater figured: “It’s your day. It’s supposed to happen to you. Maybe you put in the good work or did something nice for somebody, I don’t know. Some kind of karma, maybe.”
On shore, waiting for his heat, Florence watched and turned to the two-time world champion Gabriel Medina.
“How lucky is this guy?” Florence said.
Medina knocked Florence out of the event and put Slater’s Olympic destiny in his own hands. But his good fortune did not last. Ferreira claimed a big lead in the semifinals, and time ran out on Slater, an 11-time world champion whose last title came in 2011. Unable to secure any noteworthy rides, he lost to Ferreira, 14.77 points to 2.57. Ferreira then beat Medina in the final for his first world title, preventing Medina from winning his third.
Slater had hoped that the Summer Games would cap his career.
“Surfing in the Olympics, that would mark 40 years of competing for me, next year,” Slater told The New York Times last month. “It would be my 40th year since I surfed my first contest, when I was 8 years old. To potentially surf at the Olympics when I’m 48, it would be a nice sort of bookend for me.”
After the loss, he was asked about his plans to compete in 2020. He will be 48 in February.
“I might have to do one more lap,” he said with a laugh. “We’ll see. I don’t know.”
The women’s Olympics spots were determined earlier this month in the season-ending event in Maui. The United States will be represented by Carissa Moore, who won her fourth world title, and Caroline Marks.
For the men, the stakes and the setting on Thursday made for compelling theater. Pipeline, at Sunset Beach, is the world’s most famous surf break.
Florence grew up directly in front of Pipeline and now lives a short walk down the beach. Slater, a Floridian who has made the North Shore his winter home for years, has a house at Pipeline, next door to Florence’s mother.
Slater and Florence have shared years together, on tour around the world and at home on Sunset Beach. They even shared a cat, which they buried together in the yard when it died.
In interviews last month, both Slater and Florence acknowledged their zeal to compete at the Summer Games. Slater, disappointed with his season results, called it “a weird pressure in my head all year.” Florence had not surfed in competition since June, when he ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and had reconstructive surgery.
“The reason I did this event was to be in the Olympics,” Florence said. “And I tried my best.”
Florence was so strong in the spring that he arrived at Pipe Masters still ranked eighth in the world. Slater was 10th.
Slater’s perfect 10-point ride in the round of 32 last week — when he disappeared inside a long barrel to his right and appeared in daylight with his fists pumping and the crowd cheering — reminded everyone that his capabilities had not diminished.
The contest stalled for a week as strong swells subsided. During that time, Slater knew that he had to reach the two-man final to have a chance at passing Florence in the standings.
The limited field for the Olympics made for other notable omissions. Brazil came to Pipeline with the top three surfers in the world rankings. When Filipe Toledo lost in the round of 32, he handed the Olympics spots to Ferreira and Medina.
A similar situation occurred with the women’s championship tour, dominated this season by three Americans. When Lakey Peterson lost early in the year’s final event, Moore and Marks earned the only spots in Tokyo.
Some have suggested that Slater should be granted an automatic entry to the Olympics, a nod to his fame and influence in the sport. But it appears that his only chance is if one of the two American men misses the Summer Games because of injury.
“There’s always a chance that a day before the contest you get a phone call: ‘Hey, you can surf it,’” Slater told The Times last month. “So I’m not going to be too bummed if I don’t make it. And even if I do make it, I could break another foot or something. I’ll wait until that moment comes.”