Clay Marzo

Clay Marzo: Liquid Cure

Asperger’s turns social interaction into a source of suffering. “It’s like everyone else has a bucket for dealing with people,” says Clay, “and I only got a cup.”

Clay Marzo
Jonah Lehrer

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CLAY MARZO HAS BEEN WAITING ALL MORNING FOR WAVES. He’s standing with his surfboard next to a NO TRESPASSING sign on the edge of a pineapple field, looking down at a remote beach on the northwest shore of Maui. There are no tourists here, because there is no sand, just a field of jagged lava rocks and a private dirt road. The tide is still too far out, so the waves are trashy. Clay hasn’t said a word for more than an hour; he hasn’t even moved. He’s just stood in the hot tropical sun and stared silently at the sea.

The waiting ends a few hours later, shortly after 1 P.M., when the trade winds begin to blow. Clay furiously rubs his hands together, like a man trying to start a fire, and lets out a few guttural whoops. He then grabs his board and quickly descends the steep slope in his bare feet, motioning for me to follow him.

There are a few surfers in the breaks to the right, away from the rocks. Clay heads to the left, where the waves are bigger. He paddles out and starts scanning the horizon, counting the seconds between the heaving swells. After a few minutes, he abruptly turns around and points his board toward the shore. His body goes taut and he starts to push backwards. The wave is still invisible I can’t even feel the undertow but Clay is already searching for the perfect position. And then it appears: a six-foot wall of shimmering blue. The water rises until it starts to collapse, which is when Clay pops up onto his board. He accelerates ahead of the break his sudden speed makes the wave seem slow and then he snaps upward, launches his board into the air, and somehow whips it around, so that he lands backwards on the disintegrating lip. For a dramatic moment, Clay looks off balance, but then he reverses the board and calmly rides the whitewash until it can no longer carry him. The wave is over. He’s already looking for the next one.

Clay Marzo doesn’t love surfing. Love is a complicated thing sometimes people fall out of love but there is nothing complicated about Clay’s relationship to the ocean. For Clay, surfing is an elemental need, a form of sustenance, a way of being that he couldn’t be without. He just turned 20, but he can’t remember a time when he wasn’t obsessed with barrels, shortboards, and the daily swell report. When there are no waves, Clay sinks into a stupor. His face takes on a sad, frustrated expression, and strangers think that he’s constantly about to cry, although that’s just because his light-blue eyes get irritated by the sun. When I ask Clay what he would do if he couldn’t surf, he looks confused for a second, as if he’s unable to imagine such a terrifying possibility. “I don’t know,” he says. “I guess then I would just want to surf.”

In December 2007, Clay was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of “high-functioning” autism. In recent years, as parents and doctors have begun to worry about a possible autism epidemic a reported 1 in 150 children are now diagnosed with the syndrome there has been an increased focus on understanding and treating its symptoms, which include impaired social interactions, difficulty with communication, and the tendency to fixate on repetitive behaviors. While Clay has many of these deficits he’s easily overwhelmed by other people and often struggles to express himself he also demonstrates one of the distinguishing features of Asperger’s: an “encompassing preoccupation” with a narrow subject. Some children with the syndrome become obsessed with 19th-century trains or coffee makers or The Price Is Right. Others will memorize camera serial numbers, even if they show little interest in photography. Hans Asperger, the Viennese pediatrician who first identified the disorder in 1944, argued that such obsessiveness can be a prerequisite for important achievement, even if it comes at a steep social cost: “It seems that for success in science or art, a dash of autism is essential,” Asperger wrote. “The necessary ingredient may be an ability to turn away from the everyday world with all abilities canalized into the one specialty.”

What makes Clay unique is that his obsession is a sport, not an abstract intellectual category. While many children with Asperger’s are marked by their lack of coordination “motor clumsiness” is a very common trait Clay moves in the water with an uncommon grace. (His movements are much more awkward on dry land; I watched him hit his head on a car door and knock over two water glasses in the span of 15 minutes.) “Clay’s kind of a surfing freak,” nine-time Association of Surfing Professionals world champion Kelly Slater has said. “He’s like a cat. He’s got this ability to always land on his feet. Clay definitely knows things that I don’t know.” Clay’s nickname is “the Rubber-Band Man,” since he’ll consistently stick maneuvers, such as his signature aerial reversal, that aren’t supposed to be possible. He’ll be bent over backwards, his blond hair in the water, and he’ll find a way to stand up.

At the moment, Clay is one of the most celebrated surfers in the world. He already has a national surfing title and numerous Hawaiian titles; he’s been featured on the cover of Surfer magazine and is a mainstay on YouTube, where one of his clips has been watched more than 100,000 times. Although Clay has yet to qualify for the ASP World Tour a series of competitions featuring the 46 top-ranked surfers his low ranking hasn’t hindered his reputation for being world-class. Kai Barger, a fellow Maui surfer and the current ASP world junior champion, recently called Clay “the best out of all of us, and it’s all natural. He never had to work at it.”

But Kai is wrong. Although Clay’s body appears to be perfectly designed for the sport he has a long torso and short legs, which gives him a low center of gravity and the ability to crouch in tight barrels his real secret is that he’s always in the water. If Clay isn’t surfing (and the only time he’s not surfing is when there are no waves or it’s a moonless night), then he’s probably watching slow-motion videos of himself surfing, which he’s been known to study for ten hours straight. His mom, Jill Marzo, used to be his main videographer. From the time he was seven years old, she would sit on the beach in the shade and record Clay until the camcorder battery ran out. “If I ever missed a good ride, he’d get so upset,” Jill says. “He remembers every single wave. They all kind of look the same to me, but not to Clay. Those waves are what he lives for.”

Jill is used to speaking for her son, since he often struggles to speak for himself. Here on Maui, I’ve watched him flail for words during several interviews with an ESPN news crew, avoiding eye contact and staring instead at the cameras and sound equipment. Even the simplest questions lead to awkward silences and stammers, as if Clay is terrified of saying the wrong thing. And yet, if you’re able to talk to Clay when he’s comfortable and he’s always most at ease in the warm Hawaiian water he’s likely to surprise you with his eloquence as he reels off one vivid metaphor after another. He describes the feeling of surfing inside a barrel as “like being inside a throat when someone coughs and spits you out.” When I ask Clay what he loves about waves, he goes silent and looks away. I assume he’s going to ignore my question. But then he utters a line that could easily be his slogan: “Waves are like toys from God.”

CLAY WASN’T A DIFFICULT BABY, just different. He walked before he crawled: At the age of seven months and one week, he stood up and took his first steps. Jill is a warm and physical person she’s a massage therapist with an easy laugh and the crinkled, bronzed skin of someone who’s always in the sun but Clay never liked being touched. He stopped nursing after seven months. And then there was his strange relationship with water. The only way to get Clay to fall asleep as a baby was to put him in a warm bath. “We’d do four tubs a day,” Jill says. “I’d put my hand under his back and let him float with the tap running. He’d pass right out.”

Clay grew up with his mom and his dad, Gino, a construction superintendent, 20 feet from Puamana Beach, near the old whaling port of Lahaina, in West Maui. There was little to do in the town Lahaina consists mainly of chain restaurants, shaved-ice parlors, and convenience stores selling sunblock so Clay would spend all day in the surf. When he was a year old, he started to ride on the front of Gino’s board. Six months later, he was playing by himself in the shore break. “He loved to duck under the waves,” Jill says. “The tourists would look at me like I’d lost my mind, letting this little kid get knocked over, but that’s what made him happy.” At the age of two, Clay started boogie-boarding; by the time he was five, he was riding his own shortboard.

Despite this early start, Clay was never considered the best surfer in his family. His half brother, Cheyne Magnusson, 26, is the son of Jill and skateboarding legend Tony Magnusson. Clay was still learning how to surf when Cheyne, who has a mane of bright-red curly hair, signed with Quiksilver. (Jill married Gino in 1989.) “It was always Cheyne getting the attention,” Jill says. “We’d go to surf tournaments and Clay would be busy collecting seashells, because he couldn’t be out there in the water. He idolized his brother growing up.”

As Clay got older, his prodigious physical gifts started to become obvious. At age ten, he won the state 200-meter freestyle swimming championship for his age group, despite the fact that he rarely found time to practice. (“I could never get him in those Speedos,” Jill says.) When Clay was 11, he finished third at the National Scholastic Surfing Association (NSSA) competition in the “Mini-Grom” age group. Clay became known in West Maui as a fearless surfer, the little kid who found a way to emerge, somehow, from the gnarliest of barrels. Jill remembers one spring contest when the waves were 20 feet tall. “This was a junior amateur competition, so a lot of people wanted to cancel it for safety reasons,” she says. “But Clay didn’t care about any of that. He just wanted to surf, and so he grabbed his board and paddled out. His leash snapped on one big wave, but he still wouldn’t come in.” Clay ended up winning the contest.

Life outside of the water, however, was getting increasingly difficult. Asperger’s is a pervasive developmental disorder, which means that Clay’s mind was different from a very early age. Several brain-scanning experiments have found that people with Asperger’s process emotional facial expressions differently from other people. As a result, Clay must consciously decipher every smile and grimace; a face is a code to be cracked. Other studies have found links between an obscure genetic mutation in the serotonin pathway and the tendency to exhibit obsessive-compulsive and Aspergian traits. Despite these tantalizing clues, the anatomy of the disorder remains mostly a mystery. There are only theories on why people with Asperger’s tend to avoid eye contact, find banal interactions so stressful, and seek solace in repetitive activities. Humans are a social species; Asperger’s turns social interaction into a source of suffering.

While most treatments for Asperger’s and other autism spectrum disorders focus on early diagnosis and intervention it’s becoming more common for a kid to be diagnosed before the age of three Clay spent his childhood getting routinely misdiagnosed. In first grade, a school psychologist blamed his struggles in the classroom on attention-deficit disorder; the Ritalin only made things worse. Jill and Gino moved him from school to school, searching for a teacher who could “unlock” their son. After several frustrating years, Jill decided to homeschool Clay, if only to keep him away from the bullies who teased him for his seashell collection. “He was always such a good kid,” Jill says. “I’d give him his vitamins, and the pill wouldn’t even be down his throat and he’d say, ‘Mom, it’s working, I can feel it working. I’m going to get better.’ He wanted to be like everybody else so bad.” When I ask Clay about his school years, he winces and starts to mumble and swallow his words. “I always knew that I was real different,” he says. “It’s like everyone else has a bucket for dealing with people and I only got a cup. When my cup gets too full, then I shut down.”

But Clay was lucky: When life got difficult, he could always escape to the ocean. As a ten-year-old, he started surfing for eight hours straight, only coming in for fresh water or food, although he was hospitalized twice for dehydration. “It got to the point where he’d only come in to eat,” Jill says. “He’d scarf the food down and then go right back out.” Late at night, Jill would often hear a commotion coming from Clay’s room. She’d find him standing up in his sleep, his arms extended as if he were riding a barrel.

WHEN CLAY WAS 14, in 2003, he sent Quiksilver a video of himself surfing. The 30-second tape is charmingly amateur. The camcorder footage is shaky; the video is set to classical music, because Clay thought it made the promo seem more sophisticated. “Usually you can’t see real talent until a surfer is 16 or 17,” says Strider Wasilewski, the surf-team manager at Quiksilver. “It’s really hard to get all the skills down if a kid isn’t done growing yet. Clay, though, was a natural phenom. He had this deep connection with the water, like he knew what the wave was going to do before it happened.”

Quiksilver immediately signed Clay to a small endorsement deal, and at first everything went according to plan: In 2005, he won the NSSA Nationals Open Men’s with an unprecedented score of all perfect tens. While the tournament introduced the 15-year-old to the professional surfing community “That’s when people began to notice me,” he says it also presented new challenges. “After the Open, life started to get so hectic,” Clay says. “I had to go on all these video trips and stuff. They were fun but also so tiring.”

On one surfing trip, Clay got stranded at an Indonesian airport due to bad weather. He spent five days alone, waiting for a flight home and racking up a $1,000 cell-phone bill as he frantically called Jill for reassurance. Jamie Tierney, the director of numerous Quiksilver surfing documentaries including Just Add Water, a 2008 profile of Clay and his struggles with Asperger’s remembers meeting him for the first time at a restaurant, with ten other company employees. “Clay ate his food without ever looking up or saying a word,” he says. “Then he went over to a nearby bench and laid down with his eyes closed, silently rapping as if he was trying to block it all out. I assumed that he was just another moody teenager.”

Clay also struggled with the commercial aspects of professional surfing, from signing autographs to supporting his sponsors. When Quiksilver asked him to do a short promotional video for a new line of boardshorts, he delivered a characteristically blunt assessment on camera. “They should be a little longer. Maybe with better material, too,” he said of the neon-pink trunks. “And I don’t like the color.” It’s only at this point that Clay realized he might have said the wrong thing. “Why, do you want me to like them?”

Despite the challenges of dealing with Clay, Wasilewski and Tierney became endeared to the other side of his personality, which emerged whenever he was in the water. These dramatic swings in temperament were what first led Tierney, whose parents were both psychologists, to suspect Asperger’s. “I knew it wasn’t a learning disability, because I’d talked to Clay about the ocean and I could see how smart he was,” he says. “He could vividly remember every wave he ever surfed, but couldn’t recall where he left his cell phone or credit card.” After Tierney made the connection, he realized that it neatly explained the contradictions of Clay, how the same person could be rigid and difficult on land but so freewheeling in the surf. “For the first time, I felt like I understood Clay,” Tierney says. “This is why he needed to surf.”

But it wasn’t easy convincing Jill to have Clay tested for Asperger’s. She was worried that if he was diagnosed, Quiksilver would drop him. “Clay had been tested for so many different things that I told myself I was done trying to put a label on him,” she says. “But when I learned about Asperger’s, I knew it was worth one more try.” When she described the myriad symptoms to Clay, such as extremely sensitive hearing and poor sleep habits, his response was simple recognition: “Yeah, that’s me,” he said. And then he left to surf.

A few months later, at a clinic in California, Clay was evaluated by a psychologist using a test based on a series of clinical symptoms. The waiting room was full of four-year-olds and anxious mothers; Clay was the only teenager there. Jill starts to choke up when she remembers the testing day. “I realized this must be so hard for him,” she says. “He must be thinking, What’s wrong with me? Why am I here with all these little kids? What did I do wrong?”

THE FIRST TIME I MET UP with Clay, he was parked on the side of a winding Maui highway in his red Toyota Matrix, which he won in a surfing competition several years ago but only recently learned to drive. The windows were vibrating with the drumbeat of underground rap Clay finds the intense rhythms soothing and he was waiting, along with his girlfriend, Alicia Yamada, a petite and pretty 22-year-old, for the morning lull to pass. Clay and Alicia have been together for three years; according to Jill, she’s the only person outside the family who can give Clay a “full body hug” and not make him wince. “Our life is pretty much about surfing,” says Alicia, who moved from New Hampshire to Maui at 15 and surfs as a hobby. “Sometimes we go get food, but mostly what we do is surf.” I asked Clay if he knew where he was going to surf that afternoon. He looked away and explained that he was going to a nearby beach with nice waves the mere mention of waves makes him smile but it was only for locals. There was a fence and no tourists, so he said I shouldn’t come. Clay is protective of his secret spots; people ruin everything.

The next time I saw him, it was another windless day and he was absorbed in a computer screen, staring at recent footage of himself from Lanai. We were in a small, windowless room at his parents’ house; the air-conditioning was blowing full blast, but Clay was dressed for the beach, in a tank top and boardshorts. This was the house where Clay lives with his parents and his 11-year-old sister, Gina, in a gated development just north of the big Kaanapali resorts. He also has a small condo of his own, although he still depends on Jill to handle the bills and manage his calendar; he likes being home, where he can raid the fridge and edit his videos. I quickly learned that it’s impossible to watch surfing footage alongside Clay, since he likes to replay the same five-second snippet of wave over and over again, as if in a repetitive trance. Once he’s satisfied that there’s nothing left to learn, he fast-forwards to the next swell.

While the diagnosis of Asperger’s was a tremendous relief to Jill and the Quiksilver team, it didn’t help Clay compete in the water as he struggled to live up to his early hype. Although he’d displayed flashes of brilliance at various surf contests, he couldn’t figure out how to put together a winning performance. A big part of the problem was the need to compete for waves in the lineup what surfers refer to as “hassling.” Not surprisingly, Clay finds these negotiations tiresome and frustrating. “A lot of the stuff you have to do [to win contests] is bullshit,” he says. “If the waves aren’t good, then it’s just a paddle battle. It’s not about real surfing.” Chad Wells, Clay’s competition manager, is trying to teach him a few basic strategies to help him perform better in contests, especially when there are mediocre waves and crowded waters.

It’s not that he doesn’t want to win “Don’t let Clay fool you, he’d love to be number one,” Jill says it’s that he’d rather score a perfect barrel than focus on the points standings. Clay is most interested in the pure experience of the wave, the visceral pleasure of playing with physics and water. Quiksilver’s Wasilewski worries that any attempt to make Clay more competitive will end up interfering with the very qualities that make him such a unique talent. “He’s the purest surfer I’ve ever met,” Wasilewski says. “Once he’s on a wave, he’s not thinking about anything but the wave. He’s letting go, and you can feel that release when you watch him. I don’t want to do anything that takes away from that, because that purity is damn rare.”

But if Clay can’t win contests, how can he sustain a career? One alternative mentioned by Wasilewski and others at Quiksilver is freesurfing, which eschews competition in favor of the perpetual quest to achieve the most astonishing ride. In recent years, a number of surfers, from Dane Reynolds to the Malloy brothers, have gotten lucrative endorsement contracts without winning major competitions. (Bruce Irons, one of Clay’s favorite surfers, announced last year that he was quitting the ASP tour to focus on freesurfing.)

Few doubt that Clay has the ability to become an elite freesurfer. In fact, he’s already amassed a collection of stunning clips from his performances in Young Guns 3 and other films. “Clay is absolutely one of the best surfers in the world,” Wasilewski says. “He’s more than talented enough to win contests. But at what cost? I don’t want him to freak out or be miserable because he’s got to conform. The most important thing is for Clay to be happy.”

Needless to say, Clay prefers freesurfing. While he’s not quite ready to give up on competitions at the recent Tahiti trials, he earned the highest scores in the early rounds, before he got too frustrated and gave up in the quarterfinals he realizes that he probably lacks the guile and stamina to consistently win on the tour. He’d rather wake up at dawn, check the surf report on, and pick a local beach based on the direction of the swells. “If I had my way, I’d be a freesurfer,” Clay says. “I’d spend all my time chasing perfect waves. That’s it. No people, just waves.”

NOBODY KNOWS WHY CLAY feels so different in the water. Some speculate that it’s the negative ions or the predictable rhythms of the waves or the way liquid wraps around the body. Clay himself describes being alone in the ocean as a kind of psychological escape, the only place where he can embrace the splendor of experience: “When I’m there, I don’t need to think so much,” he says. “I don’t need to worry. I’m just there, you know?”

According to Jill and Clay, the only downside of getting the diagnosis has been the family tension. Gino and Cheyne have both been dismissive of Asperger’s “Not everybody gets that Clay really is different and can’t help it,” Jill says. Gino remains a supportive parent but still believes Clay’s biggest problem is a lack of discipline. Nevertheless, the diagnosis has helped others understand that Clay’s need to surf isn’t simply a childish obsession or an exaggeration of the Quiksilver marketing team, which describes him as “packing in more water time than most ocean mammals.” Clay has been working with a behavioral therapist, who has helped him become more aware of the conditions that trigger his “meltdowns,” which typically involve too much time away from the sea. He now relies on a color-coded system to describe his moods yellow represents calm and comfort; brown signifies unease, which for him means that it’s time to surf; red is what happens when there are no waves. He’s also learned to be more considerate of others. After a recent surf trip to Peru, he returned home to Maui with a gift for his mom. “It was the sweetest thing,” Jill says. “He wanted to buy us matching magnets with our names on them. Unfortunately, they didn’t have our names, so he brought back the closest match. He’s got a ‘Calvin’ magnet, and I’m ‘Julie.’ But it’s the thought that counts.”

Other changes have been more mundane but no less important. Clay has had to cut back on his favorite junk foods, such as pizza with ranch dressing and beef burritos with extra sour cream. He now drinks lots of açai-berry smoothies so that he doesn’t “crash and get all tired” after a long day in the waves.

While Clay was once regarded as a difficult teenager, and a real problem child on the road, he’s since become an inspiration to many of those around him. Larry Haynes, a surf cinematographer who recently filmed Clay on Maui, said he came away inspired by Clay’s unconditional dedication to doing what he loves.”Clay lives out my motto better than anybody,” says Haynes. “‘In life you’ve got to take the crap with the cream. Enjoy the cream.’ That’s what Clay does naturally. He’s got a lot to teach the rest of us.”

Perhaps the biggest shift, however, has been Clay’s new appreciation for the benefits of Asperger’s. He used to resent his symptoms, those social handicaps that got him teased and ridiculed in school. But now he sees that his burden is also a blessing. “If I didn’t have Asperger’s, then I wouldn’t be out there as much,” he says. “Because I love surfing, I can completely focus on it. And so I do things in the water that maybe others can’t.”

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