26 May 2023 · Mazda Stories

Billy And The Kid

Could wave pool surfing be the panacea to post-sporting career blues? Billy Slater takes his Mazda BT-50 to Tullamarine to find out.

Junior sports must be a little different when your old man is one of Australia’s finest athletes. But there’s no pressure, says father of two/modern league GOAT fullback, Billy Slater. “When you grow up in a certain environment, that becomes you a little bit,” he reasons, sitting behind the wheel of his Rock Grey Mica BT-50.

“My kids have grown up in and around the Melbourne Storm and in and around Queensland State of Origin,” he says, “and that’s just a part of their makeup.”

Ah! So pressure. Just… incubation? Inculcation? Indoctrination?

Whichever way, beware NRL rivals: Jake Slater is coming for you. Or maybe just to watch you. It’s hard to say. Mostly because Jake Slater is, well, 12.

“He loves playing rugby league,” says Billy. “But he also enjoys AFL as well. He plays all sports. He’s pretty active, actually.”

Which is how we’ve come to be in the landlocked industrial sprawl of Tullamarine, north of Melbourne. Wedged between the area’s cavernous airport services hangars, big-box suburb-sized warehouses, and windswept Essendon training pitches, is Australia’s best (and currently, only) commercially operating wave pool.

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The Slater family popped over to Bali a year ago, where Jake had his first taste of the waves. Billy, however, is originally from far north Queensland, where inshore swell is negated by a renowned large offshore reef.

Neither has ever been your classic beach-bred grommet, but both have the surfing bug.

Slater had no choice but to be a footballer (“I grew up in a rugby league area, in a rugby league family,” he says), while his storied apprenticeship as a trackwork jockey developed organically. “Obviously I’m now involved with the racing industry,” he says, “but first and foremost the wellbeing and the uniqueness of an equine animal is what sort of drew me to horses—and that happened when I was about 10 or 11, through my grandfather.”

Billy found surfing, however, on his own terms, first upon moving to Brisbane, and then—despite its geographical, thermal, and cultural challenges—to Melbourne. Even as his on-field partnership with GOAT hooker, Cameron Smith, under arguable GOAT coach, Craig Bellamy, delivered multiple premierships.

It was a steep learning curve. Slater talks about surviving hardcore wipeouts at big Bells Beach, being pinned to the rock, and emerging spluttering to the shore, and of applying his own analytical eye to breaking down the physicality of his surfing to get better.

It’s simpler, he says, in the wave pool.

They surf the pool’s lefthander, meaning Slater is riding with his back to the wave. Jake is on his forehand. “The young fellow’s a goofy footer and he's just getting into it,” says Slater, “so I just wanted to give him his favoured side and just have a bit of fun.”

Wave pools, one regular informs us, are nothing if not egalitarian.

“The amazing thing about them,” says a URBNSURF season pass holder, a former Gold Coast semi-pro who moved to Melbourne for work, and has the tank wired, “is that they built them thinking they were maybe going to be a hypercompetitive environment. But it turns out they’re just fun. Nobody takes it too seriously.”

Billy’s backhand is more than functional. He’s a veteran of the pool, including with repeated surf visits for Channel 9 interviews with other beach-adept leaguies. (He nominates Melbourne Storm players Harry Grant and Tyrone Wishart as the best current boardriders at his old club.)

Jake’s nascent style is smooth and clean, and with today’s mercury bumping 30 degrees, he’s relishing the pool’s bath-like water temperature, which will drop to a less inviting 10-12°C in the Victorian winter

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“Surfing is probably my third sport,” says Billy, “but that’s purely because I just haven’t had the consistent opportunity to do it. I’ve always loved it. It takes me somewhere where I can just get away from anything that’s going on in my life. Whether it’s work, or whether it’s ups and downs, surfing just really levels you out. It just gets you to be where you are.”

What’s worse, then: an Origin big hit, falling off a horse, or a bad wipeout?

“Well,” Slater chuckles, “none are good. With a wipeout, any time you’re being held under, with no control of when you're coming up, it’s scary—you’re just at the mercy of the ocean. You've gotta respect that.”

When history’s most famous footballer-cum-surfer—Keanu Reeves’ Johnny Utah, in 1991’s Point Break—buys his first board, the surf shop kid tells him that that “surfing’s a source, it’ll change your life—swear to God”.

The difficulties of former top-flight sportsmen adjusting to ‘normal’ life are now well documented. Could surfing’s cliched shortcut to zen—AKA “getting you to be where you are”—be a salve to an athlete’s post-career comedown blues?

How much of a source could wave-riding really be?

“Look,” says Billy, “Nothing will replace the game that I played – nothing. I haven’t found anything that gives you an adrenaline rush like to run out into a packed stadium and performing. That ecstasy that comes with that is quite unique.”

“People ask me, do you miss the game? Of course I miss the game! I'll always miss that feeling, but I’m really content with that. So I just enjoy riding horses. I enjoy going for a surf. But I’m certainly not trying to replace what playing a game of footy gave me.”

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The Slaters pack their gear into the BT-50, a veteran of family surf days both beachwards and to Melbourne’s industrial north, and head out. “We have some good fun days with it,” says Slater, closing the tray. “And you can fit quite a few boards in the back, I can tell you.”

Then it’s back to the farm. Where, for the record, Slater Snr. says his son’s preferences lean towards league. No pressure.

“Whatever he decides to do, that’s fine,” says Slater. “And if it’s just playing some social footy, then so be it.”

So. Rather than ratcheting it up, could being brought up in a hypercompetitive environment actually take the pressure off? Especially when the various GOATs in the vicinity (Uncle Craig, Uncle Cam, Dad) are less legends in their own lifetime than they are, well, family. Albeit family with a good line on sporting advice.  

“Well, that’s it, isn’t it?” laughs Slater. “It’s not ‘Cameron Smith’ to my boy, it’s actually ‘Jasper’s dad’, because his young fella’s about the same age. The boys have got a bit of information there if they want it.

“Just as long as they’re having fun, it’s fine by me.”