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From early burnout to comeback kid

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Kelly Slater’s older brother used to turn everything into a contest, and he always made sure Kelly lost. That, coupled with their drunken father and angry mother, forged Kelly Slater into a fierce competitor and a wild man on a surfboard.

Slater won his first surf contest at age 8. He turned pro at 18 and seized his first world title two years later. But, by the time he’d won his sixth world championship, become a celebrity and pulled down a cool million a year, Slater had become bored and isolated.

He admits he was a cold-blooded robosurfer whose friends hated him. He’d win $25,000 in a day and wouldn’t even buy anybody dinner. So, he quit the tour.

Slater tried his hand at acting, music and merchandizing. But the most important thing he did was address the demons of his youth. He went home to spend time with his mother, brother and daughter.

With his family life in better shape, Slater rejoined the tour, only to have his father become gravely ill. Slater went home again and took up a friend’s challenge that he lead in his family’s emotional recovery.

Slater soon realized that he really could improve their lives. And if he could break down his problems into bits—the same way he’d break down a wave into an infinite number of intersecting surfaces—he could balance his own life, too.

By last fall, Slater had found his bearings. He went back to slicing and dicing the waves, and in November, reclaimed the world championship.

Lesson: If you hit a plateau and can’t go on, deal with the underlying cause and then make your comeback.

—Adapted from “Go Big: Make a Comeback,” Michael Roberts, Outside.

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