Monday, September 28, 2009

USA Today profiles surfer Clay Marzo

From USA Today:

Clay Marzo (pictured) rides the big waves off Maui like no other surfer, carving turns like a skateboarder on a liquid vert ramp or a snowboarder in a moving turquoise halfpipe.

Marzo glides through the barrel, a transparent tube of water, and dips his mop of golden hair into the wave's cascading wall, then shakes hundreds of shiny droplets into the air in the film Just Add Water. His barks of joy can be heard through the roar.

Marzo, 20, may be the world's most creative surfer. He also has Asperger's Syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism.

Asperger's has given Marzo the burden of honesty that leaves little room for empathy. It also has given him a special focus for gifts of athletic skill to go with his 6-1, 175 pound body.

He is most comfortable in the ocean on his six-foot Super board, where the headache-inducing buzz and grind of life on land is replaced by the simple Zen of gliding through sun-dappled water. Even his long eyelashes are sunbleached.

"Waves are toys from God," he says.

Mitch Varnes, a former editor of Surfing magazine and now principal of Board Sports Management, which represents Marzo and several other riders and surf industry companies, says "he's so innovative, it defies traditional surfing terms. There aren't even names for some of the stuff he does."

His surfing peers marvel at his skills, but also are baffled by his many quirks and mannerisms, which include lots of hand-rubbing, hair-twisting and voracious eating habits.

Nine-time world surfing champion Kelly Slater says, "He knows things I don't know. He knows things that all the guys I'm surfing with don't know."

Laird Hamilton, king of the 50-foot wave genre and one of the biggest names in the sport, calls Marzo "an artist who can't be pigeon-holed. He's something all together different that should be cherished."

Marzo's impact on the sport has been so significant that major sponsors and contest directors now are changing the structure and judging of new surfing competitions to focus on the creative and expressive aspects that the goofy-footed (surf lingo for right-foot forward) surfer is bringing to the sport.

Along with Slater and other top pros, ESPN is in the process of developing such an independent tour with a $1 million prize pool that may be introduced soon.

"ESPN is speaking with a group trying to develop a new tour," says Chris Stiepock, vice president and general manager of ESPN X Games Franchise. "Conversations have been positive and more information should be available soon."

Marzo isn't waiting for the change. On Aug. 19 he won the Association of Surfing Professionals Pro Tour men's qualifier event in Puerto Escondido, Mexico, with flashy barrel-riding and his brand of tail-drifting turns.

Marzo always has had a deep connection to water.

His mother, Jill Marzo, says Clay swam when he was just 1 month old but didn't walk until six months later.

"I liked to take baths with my kids when they were little," she says. "Clay loved to feel water trickle through his fingers. When he was 9 months old, we moved from San Diego to Hawaii, where we lived only 30 feet from the ocean. He was in the water all the time, spending hours at the shore break. He was part fish and was becoming part of the ocean."

When he was 2, Clay got his first boogie board — a short board that is used for bodysurfing — and began riding four-foot waves on his stomach.

"He was so natural, I never worried about it," Jill Marzo says.

He first stood on a surfboard at 4 and entered a 7-and-under surfing contest when he was 5. He placed fifth.

His half-brother Cheyne Magnusson, who is six years older, won the Hawaiian surf championship in 2000 and signed his first pro contract with the Quiksilver pro team at 13. He later appeared on the MTV reality series Maui Fever.

"People were interested in Cheyne, and then Clay came along," their mother says.

When Clay was 9, he already was attracting attention for his unique style of surfing that used lots of spin moves and showed a penchant for "backside" surfing, a more difficult style in which the rider performs turns with his back to the beach.

Clay was signed to a pro contract with the Quiksilver team at 11 after winning the Hawaiian boys state swimming championships and several other surfing contests.

"Clay doesn't try to surf like anyone else," says Adam Klevin, a long-time friend and surf cinematographer. "He seems to be double-jointed, almost leaning back in the water. He also surfs more than anyone I know. Other surfers will ride two sessions (roughly two-hour periods spent in the water) during a day, but Clay wants to do three and he gets better as the day goes on while everyone else gets tired. He puts a tremendous amount of energy into what he loves."

When he was just an 11th-grader in Maui, he won a national surfing championship with two perfect 10-point rides.

Much of Marzo's behavior didn't play well in other aspects of his life. He had difficulty adapting to school and dropped out after the 11th grade.

His pro surfing career suffered away from the waves because he could not connect with fans and abhorred meet-and-greets with sponsors.

Outside of his mom, younger sister Gina and a few close friends, most people didn't understand Marzo. Cheyne is not on speaking terms with him. His dad, Gino Marzo, doesn't live with the family.

"I had people coming up to me asking, 'Is he smoking dope? Is he high?' " says Quiksilver co-founder and CEO Bob McKnight, who has known Marzo since the surfer was 11.

"He seemed like he was stoned all the time. Some of the parents said they didn't want him hanging around their kids."

Through all of his early difficulties, no one had considered that his problem was more than just a bad attitude. The word "Asperger's" had not been spoken but in hindsight the connection is apparent.

Asperger's Syndrome is a neurological condition and is one of five diagnoses that are considered part of "the autism spectrum."

According to Johanna Sorrentino, author of Understanding Asperger's Syndrome, elements of Asperger's can include:

•Intense or obsessive focus on a physical act or field of interest.

•Inability to read non-verbal cues, such as facial expressions, posture and vocal tones.

•Total honesty, which includes saying whatever comes to mind regardless of the consequences.

His usual way of dealing with the world is to put on headphones. Says Klevin: "He'd rather listen to music than hear people talking."

"He has a huge seashell collection," his mother says. "They're all organized by size and type. I think it helps him find structure in the world."

He's also obsessed with watching himself on video. After contests or riding sessions, he'll dominate the editing table, watching his rides over and over, oblivious to the other riders waiting to see their performances.

"He doesn't read, doesn't like computers, doesn't watch TV or most movies," says his mother. "He just likes to watch himself surf and videos of when he was a baby. He learns from seeing himself."

Quiksilver believed in Marzo enough to finance the 2007 film about him, a standard practice in a sport that doesn't receive a lot of mainstream television coverage.

Jamie Tierney was picked by Quiksilver to direct the film, which was to be titled "Misunderstood."

During the course of shooting, Tierney noticed something familiar about Marzo's behavior.

"My parents are both psychologists," he says. "I could tell he was more than a typical teenager."

It took Tierney several months before Jill Marzo would agree to have Clay diagnosed.

"I didn't want him to be seen as different, to be treated like a label or something," she says.

Tierney wanted to "see the positives and beauty in it, I wanted to make something more than just another cool surf movie."

The title was changed to Just Add Water and the theme fell into place.

"Almost everyone has had to deal with something like this," Tierney says. "Let's talk about Asperger's but not as disease or a disability. Clay is so good because he has Asperger's, not in spite of it. His level of focus in the wave is incredible, he makes instant natural connections with the water, something very few people have."

Quiksilver now is embracing Marzo and the proposed ESPN tour as an alternative to traditional surfing contests. The action sports apparel company also plans more films, online videos and surf adventure projects for Marzo.

"There are plenty of areas where he can excel," says McKnight. "Our goal is to let our fans see the world through different eyes."

While Marzo's style is dazzling, his personality can be abrasive or come off as self-centered.

The structure of traditional surfing contests does not make sense to him. Most competitive surfers wait for waves that will allow them to show their style and skill and will often battle for position on those select waves.

Marzo believes that there's merit in every wave and he likes to wait for them apart from the aggressive pack.

As a result, he may not get good scores from judges because he doesn't play the game by their rules.

"Some riders are great at playing the system," says Hamilton, 45, who left the contest scene in 1981 at 17 to concentrate on finding and filming the world's biggest waves.

"But that's like having an art contest. In the end, this is all about expression. Surfers are not good at being told what to do. They should be allowed the freedom to express themselves all the time and not just at 12 o'clock on Sunday."

For Marzo, the answer is simple: "I'd rather not be judged."

Marzo can speak for himself, but his Asperger's makes face-to-face interviews difficult and uncomfortable.

In a phone conversation, he discussed his difficulties with the amount of travel he must do and dealing with a world that can be scary and boring at the same time.

"When I am traveling and get upset, I keep one good thought about it: how great it is going to be when I see my girlfriend again," he says. "I know her brothers from north Maui. I know they had a sister, but I told them I didn't like her. But I do like her. She's a good friend and she makes me happy."

Clay and Alicia Yamada also share a love for the traditional Hawaiian plate lunch, Sambazon Superfood Acai berry bowls, cheesy scrambled eggs and pizza.

He likes to listen to rap music and has an uncanny ability to memorize a song after listening to it once or twice. He also has memorized all the dialogue from the films Harry and the Hendersons and Elf.

When asked if he identified with the title characters in those films — a gentle Bigfoot who is being hunted by humans and an adult-sized elf who has lost his ties to the North Pole — he pauses for a long minute, then agrees that he has some things in common with them.

"But I don't think I'm misunderstood," he says. "I think I'm very easy to understand."