“Few are those who see with their own eyes and feel with their own hearts.”
In many ways, the above quote epitomizes Asperger’s Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder characterized by some social difficulties and an intense interest in limited specific tasks. Many modern psychologists theorize that a number of history’s great thinkers may have had Asperger’s including Einstein, who worked so hard on his theory of relativity that his hair turned white and his marriage collapsed. Leonardo da Vinci spent 12 years obsessively shaping the ambiguous smile on his masterpiece the Mona Lisa. More recently, a young man named Bill Gates stayed awake for hours on end writing his first software program, and later dropped out of Harvard in the same pursuit.
For Maui’s Clay Marzo, diagnosed with Asperger’s in December of 2007, the obsession is waves, and more specifically tucking underneath them and throwing himself into the most absurd positions ever witnessed in professional surfing.
“I’ve never seen someone surf so much,” says three-time world champion surfer Andy Irons in a new documentary produced by Quicksilver about Marzo, titled Just Add Water. “As far as 18-year-olds go, he’s the best one in the world by far; he blows everyone away.”
Marzo’s entire life has been defined by an almost physical addiction to the water. Clay’s mother Jill, also the mother of professional surfer Cheyne Magnusson, raised her children in the water. “When Clay was little, in order to put him to sleep or stop him from crying, I had to float him in the tub,” says Jill. “I would put his head in the back of my hands, and he would just float and relax and let go. Often Clay would fall into this strange trance where he would just start humming.”
As the waters around Marzo grew larger, so did the buzz surrounding him. At age 10, he won the Hawaii state 200 meter freestyle. Tom Pomdan, coach of the Lahaina swim club and the Lahainaluna swim team, remembers the race: “Clay was seated second in the race. The kid seated first was an unbelievable swimmer, he had won just about every event that day. But Clay had gone out so fast at the gun, with such speed and determination, that the other kid couldn’t keep up. The race belonged to Clay.”
But Clay’s focus in life has always been surfing. Jill jokingly says she would have loved for Clay to focus more on swimming, but that he had real problems with the Speedos. And although school was inevitably difficult for Clay, all of his childhood assignments highlighted an intense affinity for surfing. Several of his short stories from elementary school had teachers commenting, “Great work Clay, but you need to stop thinking about surfing all the time.”
Marzo ignored his teachers’ suggestions and his surfing career began to take hold at age 11, when he placed third in his age bracket at the National Scholastic Surfing Association (NSSA) national championships in Huntington Beach, California. Jill sent Quicksilver a home video of Marzo surfing, which Clay himself obsessively edited and set to the background music of classical composers. After seeing the video, the world’s largest surfing company slapped the young prodigy with a corporate contract before he had even hit puberty.
At age 15, Marzo went on to make history at the NSSA championships, when he became the first ever to earn two perfect scores in a final. From there, he was asked to be part of Quicksilver’s Young Guns, the first of three movies in which eight-time world champion Kelly Slater leads a select group of up and coming amateurs to surf perfect waves in distant locales. At 17, Marzo was nominated for maneuver of the year at the Surfer Magazine Reader’s Poll Awards for a trick he performed in Young Guns 3.
Despite all his accomplishments in the ocean, it became clear that on land Marzo was a fish out of water—flailing in school from the pressures of traveling and fulfilling contractual obligations.
Asperger’s is ultimately an imbalance in the brain, with acute areas of hyper-focus coupled with extreme inattention. And although Marzo was not yet diagnosed with the syndrome, it was already evident that he needed something beyond traditional education. Jill pulled him out for home schooling. “Clay needs everything in sequence and surfing. In order to teach him, I had to lay out the scheduled routine each day, with the goal of going surfing when our work was done,” remembers Jill. “I tried to relate every lesson I taught him to surfing, and that’s how we got him through.”
Marzo’s sponsors began to notice that even in the water, Clay remained in his own world. He surfs with an intuitive style reflected in his unique maneuverability and intense focus under even the heaviest conditions. But his contest results can sometimes be a poor reflection of his natural ability because he is more concerned with catching waves than winning heats.
The growing amount of promotional work required to be a professional surfer can be daunting for Clay. In Just Add Water, pro surfer Dane Reynolds explains, “At the latest Young Guns tour, I noticed Clay wasn’t hanging around a lot when we were doing signings, he was mostly hanging around in the van.” More people close to Marzo began to notice his pronounced idiosyncrasies or “tics,” like constantly rubbing his sunburnt hands together, as if he had just removed a pair of gloves in the freezing snow.
In December of 2007, Marzo’s sponsors decided to have him tested by the world’s leading autism experts, who diagnosed Clay with Asperger’s. In Just Add Water, Dr. Tony Attwood explains the uniqueness of Clay’s condition: “The best description is that the brain is wired differently, and some things are processed so superbly that the person has areas of excellence.” Attwood feels Marzo’s condition is responsible for his unique talent. “What he’ll do is have a schema of many waves that he had before, and then be able to predict what to do in that situation, so that his brain disconnects from everyday functions and just becomes one with the waves.”
On August 29th, surfers from Hana to Lahaina packed into the Maui Arts and Cultural Center’s Castle Theatre for the premiere of Just Add Water. Throughout the viewing, surfers of every age screamed like groms as they watched Marzo make the impossible look effortless, from landing aerials that would break most necks to maintaining a deeply wired sense of control in the cavernous barrels of Tahiti’s Teahupoo. “If it weren’t for barrels, I probably wouldn’t even surf,” says Marzo. Softly intoning his most emotional line in the film.
The only silence in the theater came at the closing credits, when Marzo is seen surfing tandem with an autistic child, while volunteering for an organization called Surfers Healing. Surfers Healing was founded by Israel and Danielle Paskowitz when their son, Isaiah, was diagnosed with autism at age three. They had noticed a significant difference in Isaiah’s overall consciousness while floating on a surfboard.
Surfers Healing has brought joy to thousands of autistic children across the country by introducing them to surfing, something so therapeutic the results are too transformative to be measured through cognitive testing. Israel calls Clay a miracle. “He is one of the most beautiful human beings and is an inspiration to all these children, and to myself, and to our organization,” he says.
Although it has not yet hit shelves, Marzo recently won best male performer of the year at the Surfer Magazine Reader’s Poll Awards for his surfing in Just Add Water. The premiere has generated so much hype that producers are taking the film to the upcoming Sundance Film Festival. Jill has been contacted by producers from Hollywood who are interested in writing a screenplay based on Marzo’s story.
The next chapter of Marzo’s career as a professional surfer remains uncertain. He can focus on being a free surfer, earning money exclusively through videos and photographs. Marzo may also follow the World Qualifying Series (WQS) and attempt to land a place on the World Championship Tour (WCT), where he can battle it out in contests with the top 44 competitive surfers in the world, chasing the dream of a world title.
”There is just so much going on right now. After the Maui premiere, I’ve received 58 e-mails from people I don’t even know telling me how much hope my son’s story has given them,” says Jill. “And right now, Clay is at such an important point in his career. Will he be a competitive surfer? Will he be a free surfer? I just don’t know where he’ll go from here.”
Despite the diagnoses, the intricacies of Marzo’s mind ultimately remain a mystery. Perhaps the only thing we know for certain is that his impact on the sport is already something far beyond videos, advertisements and contest results.
And through it all, Marzo just wants to go surfing. MTW
Photos by: DoomaPhotos