The Autistic Surfer

by Jonah Lehrer

In the latest issue of Outside Magazine, I profile Clay Marzo, a rising star on the pro surfing circuit. In December 2007, Clay was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, a mild form of autism. What's so intriguing about Clay's story is that his Asperger's isn't a hindrance or handicap. Instead, it's a crucial part of his success, allowing Clay to focus, for hours at a time, on nothing but the physics of waves and the mechanics of surfing:

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 or the daily swell report. When there are no waves – when the summer doldrums hit, and the Pacific becomes a placid, endless plane – 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. While Clay has many of the social deficits associated with autism spectrum disorders – he’s easily overwhelmed by other people and often struggles to express himself – one of the distinguishing features of Asperger’s is 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 syndrome in 1944, argued that such obsessiveness is often a prerequisite for important achievement, even if it comes with a steep social cost: “It seems that for success in science and 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 cannibalized into the one specialty.”

What makes Clay so unique is that his obsession is a sport, and not an abstract intellectual category. While many children with Asperger’s are marked by their lack of coordination – “motor clumsiness” is one of the diagnostic criteria - Clay moves in the water with an uncommon grace. (His movements are much more awkward on dry land; I watched Clay 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,” says Kelly Slater, a nine-time ASP World Champion. “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.” On Maui, 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 blonde 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 a few of his clips have been watched more than 50,000 times. Although Clay has yet to qualify for the ASP “Dream Tour” - a series of competitions featuring the 46 top ranked surfers – his low ranking hasn’t hindered his reputation. Kai Barger, a fellow Maui surfer and the current ASP World Junior champion, recently described Clay as being “The best out of all of us, and it’s all natural. He’s never had to work at it.”

But Kai is wrong: Clay’s success isn’t merely due to his raw athletic talent. Although his body appears to be perfectly designed for the sport – Clay 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. Clay copes with the unbearable stress of ordinary life by practicing aerials and snaps, by trying to make his rail turns a little smoother and his leaps a little higher. 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, 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 five 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.”