Clay Marzo's favorite board length is 6 feet 1. "But it doesn't matter what board you put under his feet," says Adam Klevin, the cinematographer for "Just Add Water," a film about Marzo. He always goes big and always finds the barrel.
Wired to waves
Autistic surfer Clay Marzo is a gifted tube rider
Professional surfer Clay Marzo isn't concerned about his next contest win or whether he'll become world champion one day. He's entirely focused on what's happening in the present, which has helped make him one of the most exciting and innovative surfers on the waves today. Eight-time world champion Kelly Slater has said that nobody in Clay's age bracket comes close to what the 19-year-old accomplishes every time he paddles into a set. And there's a reason for that.
"He's not capable of conforming," says Clay's mother, Jill Marzo. "He's just capable of being him. And that's the beautiful thing. Nothing bothers him because he's in the moment. For years I tried to change him to fit in, but I've been forced to accept and live in the moment with him."
Clay, who grew up in Lahaina, is the focus of a new Quiksilver documentary/surf film called "Just Add Water." More than a movie about a rising young star, however, it details Clay's aptitude and unique personality, and his life with Asperger's syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder that can make school and social situations challenging but also allows him to hyperfocus and exhibit exceptional talent in a specific arena.
Adam Klevin, the cinematographer for "Just Add Water," notes that while most athletes' skills decline with fatigue, Clay can handle four surf sessions -- up to eight hours -- in a day. "And he never stops going bigger," Klevin says of Clay, who is renowned for his ability to take off late and rack up "an amazing percentage of tube rides." It's an intuitive rather than conscious pursuit, Klevin believes.
Clay Marzo helps a child catch a wave during Surfers Healing in California. Started by Israel and Danielle Paskowitz for their autistic son, Surfers Healing is a free surf camp for children with autism.
Last year, Clay Marzo, 19, was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism.
Indeed, "getting barreled" is what Clay says he likes best about surfing. He'd rather not wear a wet suit, and does so only when the water dips into the 50s. "I can trunk it in 60," he says without an ounce of boasting. He likes to travel "where the waves are firing" but also appreciates returning to his refuge on Maui. He remembers everything and never lies. And he doesn't try to emulate anyone else.
"I look at (Asperger's) as a gift," says Jill. "He's wired a different way, and it's something we're just starting to understand. His social cues are not the same as yours and mine, and never will be."
With his pale blue eyes, tousled, sea-salt-drenched blond hair and lean frame, Clay remains happiest in the water and doesn't speak unless he has something to say. "People always wanted to find a label for Clay," notes Jill, "but I knew intuitively that keeping him in the water was what he needed."
As a child, Clay collected seashells and played at Puamana beach. By age 2 he could ride a boogie board standing up, and at 3 or 4 switched to a surfboard. Everyone in the family surfed, including his grandmother and older brother, Cheyne Magnusson, also a professional surfer. "Clay was so natural in the water that I didn't even worry," Jill says of those early days. "He was incredibly in tune with it from a young age."
Still, she greeted the movie idea with skepticism. "I was really nervous," she admits. "I didn't want to expose it. I worried that people would treat him differently or that he would be embarrassed by it." Instead, the film and an extensive article in Surfer Magazine yielded e-mails from others inspired by Clay's unique pursuit of his passion. That, she says, made the journey worthwhile.
When asked what makes his surfing remarkable, Clay shrugs. "I don't know. The whole approach I have." The best part? It's definitely all his own.