But somehow, the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Laird achieves what can only be called a kind of cooperation with the waves he rides. His flirtation with terror, yet his ability to resolve it into grace, is why I regard him as the greatest athlete in the world. His combination of dodging agility and strength, courage yet surrender, recognition yet release, says something important about the harnessing of athletic force.
Laird delineates the line between dangerous and reckless. Reckless is when you do something you aren’t qualified for. Overcoming danger with expertise and self-command is the ultimate in performance.
“There’s nothing better in the world than a little bit of scared to get you doing the right thing,” he says. “Fear can make you faster, smarter, stronger, absolutely.”
Fear is one reason Laird hasn’t chased a fortune or given in to the temptations of bounty surfing, catching huge waves for prize money. He prefers to make his living as a model and product endorser, though he sticks to companies he feels good about, which restricts his income.
Laird’s performance ethic was seeded all those summers ago on the north shore of Kauai, a wild but magnanimous place his mother, Joann, and his father Billy, a legendary board shaper, moved to in search of a more natural existence. As a boy he was always getting caught in riptides, but surviving it.
“I’ve been so scared so many times and come back that it’s made me realize how forgiving the ocean really is,” he says.
My own parents were merely summer visitors, determined to show their pale urban children something other than the Eastern Seaboard. There was nothing there but a general store with a plank floor, and a one-lane road that traversed the cliffs, with steep climbs to shimmering beaches. There was no TV.
No one obsessed about our safety, or put sunblock on us, and somehow, we didn’t drown or kill ourselves. Laird was our guide. I remember him exploding out of the water, tearing small waves to pieces. He emitted a constant thrum of knee-jiggling energy, and continually thought up high adventures, which my mother fed with huge stacks of pancakes. We all loved him, and my parents trusted him. “Is Laird going with you?” they’d ask, when we set off, because they knew we’d be all right with him.
Laird still spends half the year on Kauai, where he teaches his own children what he taught us: that passing through danger can lead to great beauty. His wife calls the ocean Laird’s Big Blue Girlfriend.
When he first taught his daughters to swim, he put masks on them and made them look below the water. Then he dove down and smiled at them.
Which has led him to his latest brainstorm: He has an idea for building a craft that would let him actually ride inside a wave, just under the surface of the water, the way dolphins do.
“There’s nobody there, it’s pretty uncrowded,” he says. But also, “You’d be in the energy itself,” he says. “There’s a lot more power there, than on the surface.”