Sally Jenkins
Sally Jenkins
Columnist

Laird Hamilton: World’s greatest athlete

Elise Amendola/AP - In this photo taken Tuesday, June 28, 2011, members of the PUMA Ocean Racing team watch from aboard the "Mar Mostro" racing yacht as surfing guru, Laird Hamilton, is pulled on his standup paddleboard in Newport, R.I.

For a handful of Hawaiian summers, I got to watch the greatest athlete in the world for free. He was my kid brother’s good friend, a shock-haired, elastic-limbed surfer boy with a croaky voice and a way of seizing attention despite my haughty big-sisterly attempt to ignore him.

One afternoon as we were driving home from the beach, he said in a 13-year-old caw, “Hey, can we pull over at that bridge?” We thought he wanted to look at the view.

No sooner had we stopped than he lightly vaulted over the guardrail and plunged 30 feet into a tropical-black river, feet first. That was the first time I wrenched my neck gaping at Laird Hamilton.

More than 30 years later, Laird appeared on the cover of Surfer Magazine under the caption “Oh My God,” riding the heaviest wave anybody had ever seen, a huge ledge of blue that hung over his head. Few will argue that he’s the bravest big-wave rider ever, a physical genius who has found all kinds of terrifying crossover techniques for surfing giants, most recently stand-up paddle surfing. Surfer Mag calls him the sport’s “test pilot.”

But I call him the guy who introduced me to real awe. Next to him, more contrived forms of athleticism seem feeble, never more so than recently, as the NBA and NFL lockouts have made Laird’s lifelong refusal to turn sport into labor seem especially meaningful.

Laird’s latest thing is yachts: He’s working with the Puma-sponsored Mar Mostro racing crew, which is preparing for the perilous Volvo Ocean Race, the 39,000-mile Everest of sailing. On the voyage, the navigators will share information on wave patterns with Laird so that when a swell hits, he can fly in and ride the world’s most gigantic rogues. Two areas he’s looking at hard are Cape Horn and a strait between Japan and North Korea, both notoriously treacherous.

I think of Laird every summer, but the news that he intends to storm-track in the most treacherous, remote oceans on earth made me pick up the phone. It had been a few years since we talked — the last time was a lunch in New York to which he wore flip-flops. I caught him at the Malibu summer home he shares with his wife, the former volleyball champion Gabby Reece, and their daughters. Why, I asked, is he still doing things like this? Hasn’t he had enough peril? His answer was, “It’s a never-ending pursuit. There’s always bigger, further, faster.

“So many people are voyeurs, and not participators,” he said.

That’s true, of course, but it hardly explains why Laird, 47, is always in search of the ultimate water colossus. The rumor is that he wants to ride a 100-footer, though he says people are wrong to emphasize size.

“Waves are like dogs,” he says. “Would you rather be chased by a tall skinny dog, or a pit bull?”

It’s not the wave height Laird seeks; it’s the power. That was the case with the wave he caught on the Tahitian reef of Teahupoo in 2000 that made the cover of Surfer, a rearing, snarling sea dragon that all but spit him out in a cloud of vapor.

“It’s not so much the vastness of the wave,” he said. “It’s more about the insignificance of us. When you become insignificant is when you truly begin to participate. That’s when it becomes a harmonious act.”

Not that it’s a peaceful enterprise. He’s taken more than a hundred stitches in his head. He once separated his ribs from his spinal column. He had surgery to replace an anterior cruciate ligament. A couple of years ago he was struck in the face by the sharp point of a board, puncturing the skin. He was afraid he wouldn’t be able to hold his breath, because air bubbles would come out of the side of his cheek.

“Bones heal,” he says. “But there can be emotional wounds. A lot of it is the psychological aspect of being held down. You’re down in the dark kind of wondering if you’re going to get back to the top.”

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.”

 
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