Last August, Alex Gray had the kind of day that surfing legends are made of. The Billabong Pro Tahiti at Teahupoo (pronounced Chō-Poo) was to be postponed because the waves were too big for competition.
When Gray heard the news, the Peninsula High graduate hopped on a plane and got over there.
“Basically they had the world’s best 45 surfers in town and about 20 of us flew in and went out on a day that most everyone was standing in the channel watching,” Gray said.
The 2004 South Bay Surf League MVP winner now earns his living chasing big waves, or as he calls them, “waves of consequence.”
Kelly Slater, the 10-time world surfing champion, looked at the conditions that morning in Teahupoo and passed.
“Someone’s gonna get killed out here,” Gray recalls hearing him say.
“It was the first time I had ever worn two life vests. They were the craziest waves I’ve ever seen and it was the most scared I’ve ever been,” Gray said.
The waves that day were quite possibly the sickest ever. It wasn’t so much the height, though the waves were four to five times overhead – 30- to 40-feet tall. More terrifying was the pure volume of water as thick as a school bus, which pitches out as far as the wave is tall and collapses over a coral reef just five to 10 feet deep
“There were waves that I couldn’t even fathom,” Gray said. “I went to Tahiti with the intention of catching the biggest waves of my life. We knew it was going to be big. How big it actually got I had no idea.”
Gray chose to leave the World Qualifying Series contest circuit two years ago to pursue a more lucrative career appearing in surfing videos and magazine photo spreads. In short, he only surfs when the surf is good and getting paid for it.
He and other big wave hounds study weather patterns to predict when and where the big swell will hit land. It could be Hawaii, or sometimes obscure newly undiscovered breaks in places such as Africa, Scotland and Egypt. Gray travels on average 10 months out of the year. What it really meant was that Gray could live the endless summer dream chasing down the best surf the world has to offer.
Body Glove, Volcom and half a dozen other surf industry sponsors underwrite Gray’s travels and enabled him to recently buy a home in Torrance. His growing reputation as a big wave rider earned him an invitation as an alternate to this winter’s Eddie Aikau Big Wave Contest in Hawaii, one of the sport’s most prestigious events.
Gray prefers paddling into waves rather than being towed in. But on that August day in Teahupoo the waves were too fast to paddle into, so he accepted a tow-in by a Wave Runner.
“That was mentally the toughest surfing challenge I’ve ever really pushed myself to do,” Gray recalled. “The hardest thing I’ve ever done was getting out of the boat that day.”
Scientists have found that thrill seekers’ brains’ have fewer of the auto-receptors that regulate pleasure inducing dopamine. Highly addictive drugs affect the dopamine system in a similar way. Gray said he’s simply after the feeling he got the first time he rode a big wave.
“You’re really just overcoming your own fear and pushing your own limits,” Gray said. “I feel like we really restrict ourselves with our minds. Surfing allows me to open up more and find what I’m capable of.”
About 90 percent of the waves in the first hour that day at Teahupoo were unmakable closeouts. One of them drove Gray to the bottom with such force that it ripped off the life vest he was wearing over his wetsuit. The wave held him under long enough for him strap the life vest back on. Fortunately, the second one was under his wetsuit, enabling him to float back to the surface and wash into the safety of the Teahupoo lagoon. (See cover photo by Glaser/A-Frame).
“When surfing waves of consequence you sometimes want to take a spill instantly,” Gray said. “It’s what you’re most afraid of. As humans, we think negative before we think positive and the fear begins to take over. Once you do find yourself in a bad situation and you come up okay, it’s kind of a relief. I can do this.”
About an hour later he was back in the water chasing another giant. He caught a smaller wave and fell again, leaving him in the impact zone to duck dive under a wave the size of an office building.
Shortly before sunset, he got back on the Wave Runner and returned to the line-up for a final attempt. After letting go of the tow line he dropped down a 30-foot-plus face and disappeared inside the barrel for such a long time that spectators feared he had been driven to the bottom once again. Then a ball of spray with the force of an avalanche exploded out of the barrel, dragging an exuberant Gray with it. The wave earned him the 2011 Surfer Pool Award for best barrel ride.
Which brings us to Hawaii where Gray accepted the award last December and delivered a speech that introduced this short, gutsy surfer to many in the surfing world as not only one of the best in the sport but also as a wise and humble kid.
“There was a moment at Teahupoo where I just had goose bumps and couldn’t feel any limb on my body,” he told the crowd. “This feeling came over me and I thought, ‘What would my brother think if [he knew] I was here right now?’ This calming smile came over me. He probably wouldn’t believe this and he would be so stoked for me. That’s one of the coolest feelings in the world that even though he can’t be with me physically I can bring him everywhere because without him I wouldn’t have this gift of surfing.”
At Palos Verdes High School on a recent school day, Gray delivered much the same message about his brother and his surfing life before a packed gymnasium of students. His brother Chris died seven years ago, at age 20, from a heroine overdose.
Chris Gray, he said, had none of the characteristics people would associate with heroine addiction. He was smart and handsome.
“I’m hoping the message was clear to all the students that drug abuse happens to good people,” said Vice Principal Brent Keykundahl. “It’s not just people on the streets. Good people with good friends and good homes and great parents can make poor choices that lead to the ultimate sacrifice.”
Gray’s parents, too, haven’t shied away from telling their story as a way to connect with others in grief and to dispel the myth that parents of drug abusers did something wrong. Laurie Gray is active in a local grief-counseling group and recently helped establish a web site for students seeking mental health counseling.
“If we can help one other person or let society or people in our community know there is no shame, everyone has different struggles, that’s our goal,” Laurie said. “In telling Chris’s story and Alex’s story of resilience and courage and carrying on with dignity and grace, I think it allows a conversation.”
Telling his brother’s story at area high schools has been as much of a healing process for Gray as it is a learning experience for the students. His message is multi-facetted – that life isn’t easy, drug abuse can strike in unlikely places, seek help if you need it, and there are plenty of ways to have fun and pursue your dreams without drugs. Gray’s life is a case in point.
“I’m just glad I’m addicted to something healthy,” he joked.
The lives of the two young brothers revolved around surfing. Both competed in contests at a young age.
When they weren’t competing or taking family trips to California beaches, they surfed Torrance Beach. After his brother died, Gray had a hard time getting back in the water. Then, after about two months, he decided the best way to honor his brother would be to surf the best he possibly could.
“I surf in my brother’s honor, always,” Gray said. “Miraculous things happen. I’ve had them in situations I was scared for my life. There are moments when it’s like, ‘Oh hi Chris. The reality is that grief is real and it can eat you alive. They say time heals but there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about him. He’s giving me this life. Everything I have is because of him.”
Joe Bark, a long-time surfboard and paddleboard shaper, and Redondo Beach fire fighter, has known Gray since he was a boy. He described Gray as widely respected largely because he’s so humble.
“He’ll come back from a trip and you have to pry these stories out of him,” said Bark who credits Gray’s success as much to his attitude as his surfing prowess.
“There are guys who surf big waves, but Alex does it day in and day out. And he does it with a smile,” Bark said. “The guys he hangs with are the best of the best.”
Gray earned his first sponsorship at age 12 from Volcom, which asked to put a sticker on his board during amateur contests. Body Glove and other sponsors soon followed. At age 18, after graduating from high school and shortly after his brother’s death, Gray chose to pursue surfing professionally rather than go to college, an unlikely path for the son of a teacher and a judge.
His father, his uncle and his grandfather all became attorneys. His mother is a speech therapist at Palos Verdes High, His father Dudley Gray is a Superior Court judge in Torrance.
“When he graduated from high school there was a tipping point,” his father said. “Do you go to college in hopes of getting a nice middle class job and a nice middle class life? Or do you risk that none of that might happen and pursue your dreams? As parents, we saw that he was having success and looked at the opportunities it had afforded him so far. We decided we’re not going to let school get in the way of a great education in the university of the world.”
After surfing professionally for several years, Gray amassed nearly enough career points in 2009 to qualify for the Association of Surfing Professionals World Championship Tour. The he suffered a bacterial infection in Hawaii. The illness put him out of competition for three months. When he returned, Gray’s standing had dropped nearly to the rank he held four years prior.
Disheartened, Gray decided to give up contest surfing to pursue big waves.
His father said the first time he saw photos of his son riding a monster wave he broke into a cold sweat.
“For me honestly, you’re shocked,” he said. “Your heart starts pounding, your respiration increases and you sweat a little bit. Then you talk with Alex and he’s such a consummate professional. He said in the kindest possible way, ‘This is my life and you have to embrace that this is what I do.’ And I said, ‘You’re right. Live big.’”
Gray said he could tell his parents were doting over him a lot more after his brother died. At some point, he had to level with them.
“I’m an extreme athlete doing things that are potentially life threatening. It’s my passion in life,” he said. “I’m so lucky to have such supportive parents.” Now, his dad’s eyes light up calculating the magnitude of the wave in a photo of his son on the cover of a Surfer Magazine that hangs on the wall of their Rancho Palos Verdes home.
Greg Browning, who manages the entertainment division at Body Glove, has been one of Gray’s biggest mentors since he was a teenager.
“What I love the most and dislike the most are the waves he’s trying to surf right now,” Browning said. “He’s trying to catch the craziest waves you can ever ride. As a friend, I’m like ‘really?’ As somebody who surfs I’m just blown away at what he’s done.”
On a big day at the famed Jaws surf break in Peahi, Hawaii in January, Browning said Gray’s mom sent him a text message.
“She said, ‘Take care of my baby. Don’t let him get hurt.’ And I said, ‘It’s not up to me but I’ll do the best I can.”
Last year Sion Milosky, a friend of Gray’s, was killed at Mavericks in northern California.
Four months out of the year, Gray lives at the Volcom house at Pipeline on the North Shore of Hawaii.
Despite having surfed many of the world’s biggest and most famous breaks, he said he’s always humbled by the waves at Pipe, the first widely ridden, extreme wave.
The day before the Volcom Pipeline Pro in January, Gray surfed an outer reef and sliced his knee open on the coral. Despite stitches and barely being able to walk, he competed in the contest and finished fourth.
“With any competition, or any goal you set for yourself, you have to push through walls,” Gray said. “The walls are just set in your mind. If you can pull strength from your fear, you’ll probably surprise yourself and do something you’ve never dreamed of.”
“The ocean is a teacher,” Gray said. “It’s the best teacher in the world. It’s the most humbling place in the world. It doesn’t matter who you are. At any moment, the ocean can serve you something you aren’t ready for. And all you can do is relax. That’s taught me a lot. When you take that on land those are two incredible things to bring with you.”
To follow Alex Gray’s surf trips, visit TurkeyMelt.com
His 2011 Surfer Poll acceptance speech:
The award winning wave:
Interview about Mavericks: