Updated: September 21, 2009, 6:33 PM ET

In his element

Clay Marzo is a prodigy in the water, but on land he struggles to keep up

Roenigk By Alyssa Roenigk
ESPN The Magazine
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This article appears in the September 7 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

It's been less than 48 hours since Clay Marzo was in the water, but that feels like a lifetime. Two days ago, while surfing near his home on the northwest shore of Maui, Marzo wiped out and was dragged across the razor-sharp reef. The cuts on his stomach are deep, the pain intense. Today, a warm October Wednesday, he can't even lie on his board.

Injury days are rare for Marzo, which is fortunate because time out of the water is debilitating. Not because of the physical pain -- that he can handle. But because on land Marzo struggles to communicate, to fit in, to breathe. All his life, he has struggled in social situations, and two years ago he finally found out why. Marzo, 20, suffers from Asperger's syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. "I always knew something was different about me," says Marzo, his aqua eyes avoiding contact, the movements of his long, lean body visibly less fluid on land.

Different like this: The wiring in Marzo's brain makes it difficult for him to perform certain normal functions, such as reading facial expressions or recognizing social cues. As a result, simple acts of meeting people, attending parties and doing media interviews -- all requirements for a professional surfer -- are painful in a way that the cuts on his abdomen are not. In crowds, Marzo feels overwhelmed and exhausted. At group dinners, the stress of trying to follow multiple conversations causes headaches and nausea. Because he has difficulty coping with others, he's had a hard time making friends. People have called him strange and weird and, often, much worse.

But there's a flip side to his AS, a "benefit" of the condition that many with Asperger's have used to their advantage. The condition allows Marzo to laser-focus on a single activity, turning his greatest challenge into his greatest asset. Most people get bored after an hour or two of the same activity. Not Marzo. When he surfs, he goes into a zone, focused and lost at the same time. He calls an eight-hour surf session, with no breaks for food or water, "the perfect day." He'll then spend eight more hours watching video of his session, replaying each wave, over and over.

Sean DaveyMarzo has learned that the very thing holding back is also what makes him great.

Long before his Asperger's was diagnosed, Marzo and his parents recognized the paradox of his personality. In school he had trouble sitting still, comprehending directions or understanding what he read. "I could connect, could focus, if I really liked something," Marzo says. "But if I didn't, I couldn't focus at all." He'd flap his arms when he was anxious and rub his hands together when he was excited -- called stimming by autism specialists. He'd spend hours alone, obsessing over seashells or baseball cards. He was hypersensitive to sound and touch and would leave the table midway through family dinners or disappear to his room during the excitement of Christmas morning. When his routine was altered, especially if it kept him out of the ocean, he turned moody.

"Now I know those were all typical behaviors of someone with Asperger's," says Marzo's mom, Jill, a massage therapist. But for years, all the Marzos knew was that Clay best understood the world through the prism of surfing. They knew that's where he thrived, so Jill and husband Gino, who works in construction, nurtured his talent. "Clay is alive in the water," Jill says. "When he's not in the ocean, he is uncomfortable in his own skin."

In water, Marzo was a prodigy. He won a state swimming title at 10, and at 14 he caught the eye of execs at Quiksilver with his board skills. Marzo's older half-brother, Cheyne Magnusson, had a Quik sponsorship and recommended his kid brother, saying, "He's the real talent. He's the real deal." Marzo sealed the deal by sending a self-edited video of himself surfing local Maui spots to Strider Wasilewski, the company's team manager.

Wasilewski was instantly impressed. While most teen surfers are mastering bottom turns and cutbacks, Marzo was doing tailslides, reverses and controlled boardslides on the lip. "I'd never seen a kid at that age do those things," Wasilewski says. "Some of what he did was mind-blowing at any age. It was like someone had sent me the instructions to create the first nuclear bomb. I knew I'd received a package that would change the face of surfing."

A few months later, Wasilewski invited Marzo on a trip to the Mentawais to film Young Guns II, a surf video featuring hot up-and-comers Dane Reynolds, Fred Patacchia and Ry Craike, as well as nine-time world champ Kelly Slater. Marzo left quite an impression. "Clay is a freak on a surfboard," Slater says. "He does things people don't even think of. He just sees the wave his own way." In the water, he was relaxed and talkative. But on the boat, he'd walk away from people in midconversation, disappear at important moments and take others' cell phones and towels without asking, then lose them without apology. On the junior contest circuit, the story was the same; Marzo amazed with his flashy skills and offended with odd behavior. He has a catlike ability to stay up on his board, bending and contorting his body into seemingly impossible positions, and he was not shy about taking huge risks, often with disastrous results. Even when he just needed to ride out a wave to advance through a heat, Marzo would throw big tail-first snaps, land backward, or fly off the lip and spin a 360.

Sean DaveyThough he struggles on land, Marzo often surfs nonstop for as long as eight hours.

"It was hard to watch," Gino says. "Other kids played it safe, but Clay went big on every wave." That in-the-moment attitude is another characteristic of people with Asperger's, who are so "in the now" that they seldom consider the consequences of their actions. When Marzo rode well, he was tough to beat. At 15, he won the men's open division at the 2005 NSSA championships, where he scored two 10s in the final. But his risk-taking almost upended his career.

As word of Marzo's free-surfing and tube-riding skills spread, requests for appearances, signings and group trips increased. But the more he was pushed into public situations, the more erratic his behavior became. He blew off many events and acted standoffish when he did show up. Marzo's quirks, previously overlooked because of his ability, began to make him a liability, especially when contest results slipped. At the 2005 world juniors, Marzo needed a 6. He could have won the contest by simply standing on a wave and doing a couple of turns. "Instead, he went for a crazy air and fell," says Quiksilver marketing director Jamie Tierney. "He lost."

To the outside world, Marzo looked like he didn't care -- about winning, about participating, about playing the game. "He was becoming a problem, and people wanted to let him go," Wasilewski says. "But I knew this kid wasn't stoned or stupid. He wasn't a spoiled teenager who didn't want to be there. I could see him freaking out inside. He was in pain." Wasilewski suspected Marzo might have some type of neurological disorder and found a self-test for Asperger's on the Internet. "It defined Clay to a T," he says. "I said, 'This is it. This is Clay's challenge. This is his gift.'"

Wasilewski and Tierney called Jill to ask if they could take Marzo for a formal evaluation and film the process. At first, she said no. But Wasilewski persisted, telling Jill: "Clay has a gift. He can be a surfing prophet. Or he can live in Honolua Bay surfing secret spots by himself." The Marzos finally said okay. "You want to protect your son, keep him safe," says Gino. "But we trusted that this was bigger than surfing. They wanted to affect peoples' lives."

In December 2007, during three days of exams with specialists Michael Linden and Chitra Bhakta in Southern California, Marzo underwent written tests, interviews, a family-history review and a QEEG test, which maps brain activity, showing where Marzo's brain was overaroused and underactive. Linden's conclusion: "Clay has Asperger's and symptoms of ADD and OCD."

Far from being upset, Marzo and his parents were relieved by the diagnosis. For Marzo, identifying his condition was a release that allowed him to embrace the two sides of his life. He now understands why social situations remain a daily challenge yet he can surf like few others in the world. The diagnosis has also brought a measure of respect from the surf world, an understanding of his genius. For example, because Marzo has spent so much time in the water, experiencing and studying the motion of waves, his peers believe he understands aspects of surfing that they may never comprehend -- that Marzo is to surfing what Einstein was to science and Mozart was to music. (Some experts believe both men, known for social awkwardness and single-minded brilliance, had Asperger's.) "It's a gift," Marzo says. "With surfing, with the way I see the world, with everything. It's definitely my gift."

Doomas/A-FrameYou can see Marzo surf in the documentary Clay Marzo: Just Add Water.

In the two years since the diagnosis, Marzo has been learning to bridge the gap between the calm of the water and his chaos on land. He attends biweekly therapy sessions, which teach him how to both recognize and give social cues and help him maintain calm in group situations. He has also scaled back his competition schedule. Instead of trying to qualify for the world championship tour, he focuses on video trips and photo shoots. "In surf culture, we've always had misfits and oddball characters," Tierney says. "So why would we ask a kid who's not a contest robot to become one? Clay is so much more interesting than that."

When he does compete, Marzo chooses events carefully. He went to the Quiksilver Pro in late August, in Puerto Escondido, Mexico, because the water is warm and feels like home, the surf big and barreling, and the break familiar -- he was on the team that won X Games gold on those waves in 2007. The competition wasn't nearly as much of a draw as the chance to surf barrels in a spot worth leaving home for. Yes, he notched one of just two perfect 10s at the event. And, yes, he won his first pro contest with a confident, calculated, patient display of surfing. But his performance is almost beside the point. For Marzo, the trip to Puerto was simply about feeling whole, about riding waves, about surfing. It's always been about the surfing.

Alyssa Roenigk is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

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