Slater re-engaged, went back on tour, and their rivalry began.
Slater’s and Irons’s biggest clash of 2003 came at the Pipeline Masters on Oahu, where Slater hogged the warm-ups and Irons reportedly screamed at him, prompting the older Slater to advise him to calm down and get a grip.
Later, after Irons had charged ahead, the veteran threw an arm around him and whispered, “I love you, man.” Irons responded by becoming the first surfer ever to beat Slater outright for the world title.
In 2004, Irons was bumped from a key competition and demolished his surfboard in a white fury. But that didn’t keep him from winning the championship again that year, giving him a rare third title.
Then, Slater got back on the beam. About to compete in Tahiti in the most dangerous waves on earth, he saw an old friend.
“You going to win today?” the friend inquired. “Or have you forgotten what it feels like?”
“Thank you,” Slater thought. He drew perfect scores that day, seesawed with Irons over the next few months and wound up with his seventh world championship.
“Anything to get me motivated,” Slater says.
Lesson: A little competition never hurts.
—Adapted from “When a Man Loves a Rival,” Daniel Duane, Play.