Friday, March 29, 2013

Clay Marzo: Dichotomy of the Surfing Savant

The amazing weather we've been having here in Portland (and a tip from the lovely Ann Fullerton) prompted me to write this week's blog about accomplished surfer Clay Marzo. Marzo, a 23-year-old from Maui, has always felt more comfortable in water than on land. He entered his first surf contest when he was only five years old, and by the time he reached 14, Marzo signed on with Quiksilver after sending in a video of his surfing skills to the company's team manager, Strider Wasilewski. He has been described as a prodigy, a genius on the water. However, for most of his life, Marzo has struggled to shine on land in the way he does on water. He is uncomfortable in social situations, fidgety and unfocused, and often comes across as rude and awkward. Clay Marzo, world-class surfer, has Asperger's syndrome.

Marzo, called "The Surfing Savant" by Rolling Stone, wasn't diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome until he was 18 years old. Before then, everyday tasks and basic interactions, like sitting through a family dinner, were an unexplained struggle. When his parents allowed him to be tested for Asperger's at Wasilewski's request, Marzo and his family were actually relieved by the diagnosis. Now they had an explanation. Knowing why he could be wholly focused on surfing while not being able to focus on anything else allowed Marzo to embrace both aspects of his life. He, along with various autism specialists, attribute his talents to Asperger's, noting that his ability to hyper-focus on surfing enables him to excel at it. Wasilewski calls Marzo's Asperger's his challenge and his gift.

While Asperger's is what gives Marzo his unique, all-out, go-for-broke surfing style, it has also kept him from doing what many other professional surfers do, like entering and winning contests. Traveling is often a nightmarish experience for him, and, of course, there are all the social obligations with fans, sponsors, and the press. Marzo often copes with these stresses by pulling out clumps of his hair or by getting high to calm his nerves. When he does compete, though, he amazes onlookers, often scoring perfect tens. His inclination to be in the moment allows Marzo to risk big moves that others wouldn't dare. However, this way of living is also a hinderance, not only to his safety, but also to his ability to win competitions. Although his skills and tricks far surpass many of his competitors', Marzo can get trapped in risking too much and paying the price for it. In one competition, for example, all he needed to score was a six in order to win. This is something he could have easily managed with a few well-executed twists, but always thinking one moment at a time, he went all-out and fell, losing the winning seat.

Since his diagnoses, Marzo has gone to therapy sessions and has made considerable progress in learning how to manage life on land. Still, he is happiest and most comfortable in the water, where he thrives and never fails to push himself and awe spectators.

Had any of you ever heard of Clay Marzo? Can anyone relate? Is anyone else as amazed as I am by this man's surfing? Let's hear your comments!

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