UPDATE at 4:48 p.m., Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2015: See Strider Wasilewski's live commentary during the World Surf League's webcast of the Pipe Masters and the Triple Crown of Surfing by going to the WSL website.
If you think you can surf the world’s most powerful waves, you’re fooling yourself. It takes magical thinking to put your flesh and bones in the path of nature’s fury.
“You gotta lie to yourself,” Strider Wasilewski says.
He maintained that lie until one day in 2003, when he faced Andy Irons and other pros in the early rounds of a world tour event at the Tahitian meat grinder known as Teahupo’o. One of the participants, a French local, scraped for an impossible wave — and his failure infected Wasilewski with a mortal truth.
“I could see the fear in his eyes,” Wasilewski says. “And he went and got sent over the falls. And he couldn’t see when he finally came up. He had been underwater for so long his oxygen was gone, and water was coming out of his nose. Nothing was working for him. He couldn’t paddle. He was flopping around, waving. I went to help him, and I was trippin’ on him: Fuck, that was so gnarly. And then I was sitting and a wave came right to me, and I started questioning myself at that moment.”
Until then, Wasilewski had never truly understood fear. But somehow, the French surfer’s fear became Wasilewski’s own.
“And I remember Andy seeing that questioning in my eye. And he took off on the wave, cut back and got the sickest pit. He won the heat. He had the edge from that moment on for the rest of our lives.”
That’s Wasilewski’s perception of it, anyway.
It turns out that, a year earlier, Irons had faced his own life-changing wave — at the same spot. In a video, Irons would describe dropping in on a “dredging” 15-footer that heaved over Teahupo’o’s notorious barbed-wire reef. Irons said that he’d been gripped by fear, unable to catch one wave during that session. He charged only to elbow out his competitive brother, Bruce, who was looking at the same monster. “I pulled back on five waves,” Irons said, “and my balls were just up in my stomach. … I’m scared. I can’t do it.”
He made the wave, though, and he made it look easy. Eight years after the experience, in 2010, Irons would die in a Texas hotel room of a heart attack, likely brought on by all the drugs in his system, including Alprazolam, Zolpidem, methadone, cocaine and methamphetamine.
That could have been Wasilewski’s path. Maybe it should have been.
The man from Santa Monica, one of the best surfers ever to hail from the dark days of Dogtown, had been reared in a world of temptation. His mother battled drug addiction until getting it together late in life. His older brother, whom he always looked up to, is a surfer and skateboarder who succumbed to the streets and banged with the now-defunct Venice White Boys. Strider’s home growing up was whatever flophouse his mom could afford, including the Sea Castle Apartments on Ocean Front Walk in Santa Monica. His closest surfing mate, Rick Massie, was the brother of Venice 13 gang members.
Wasilewski’s future as a fixture at surfing’s most revered spots was the longest of shots. If you knew him when he was 20, you might have written off his life. A broken-home pro surfer from Venice, where the waves are often weak and parties are everywhere?
Good luck with that.
But this is some real Left Coast redemption, a story about a white boy rescued from a potential life of crime by a caring black surfer, and later by his mother, Jain Irvine, who inspired him to stand alone. Wasilewski was a free-range kid who went on a Chumash Indian vision quest as a young man and ended up on the cover of Surfer magazine inside the barrel of one of the world’s heaviest waves. He went on as a pro surfer to carve out his own destiny, one that often avoided the pro tour in favor of “lifestyle” pursuits of the gnarliest waves. He became one of the world’s most respected big-wave chasers.
Now Wasilewski is a 43-year-old grizzled veteran whose commentary regularly graces broadcasts of the very pro surf tour he once eschewed.
He’s a hero in a Santa Monica and Venice surf scene still obsessed with the geriatric rock stars of the Lords of Dogtown story. He’s a rare legend who made his name solely in the water, not in the party scene. His newfound fame in the World Surf League puts him on broadcasts alongside some of the world’s greatest living surfers, including ’80s pro tour world champ Martin Potter and recent Big Wave World Tour champion Peter Mel.
It’s a strange position for a guy who abandoned surfing competitions in his youth.
“Surfing’s an interesting paradox,” says the WSL’s Dave Prodan. “It’s a sport filled with rebels. Then there’s people who rebel against people who are rebelling.”
For a lifelong surfer, let alone one who escaped the gravitational pull of the streets, the waters of Santa Monica Bay are an unlikely launchpad to surf-culture stardom. Wasilewski describes his childhood break as a place of “closeouts,” waves that heave, barrel and crash with no light at the end of the tunnel.
David Landsdowne grew up in Baldwin Hills and as a kid watched surfing on TV: “I said, One day I’m going to do that.” In the mid-1960s he met some L.A. surfers and tried it for the first time. In 1974 he spotted a letter to the editor in Surfer magazine. African-American wave riders were being scouted by the Black Surfing Association. Soon Landsdowne was surfing and recruiting with BSA founder Tony Corley. “We were trying to get articles in Ebony magazine and trying to expand black surfing,” he says.
Landsdowne organized youth teams for the Western Surfing Association, the oldest amateur organization for the sport in the United States. In the early 1980s, a 10-year-old Wasilewski joined one of Landsdowne’s surf contests.
Most of the kids were white, Landsdowne recalls. Many were comparatively well off. “A lot of the kids, their parents had money,” Landsdowne says.
Wasilewski wasn’t the typical SoCal surfer boy from a middle-class household. He says his father, who’s from Aups, France, “wasn’t around.” In elementary school, Wasilewski learned to surf by chasing down lost boards and riding them until their owners caught up with him. His first board was a Jeff Ho shape he bought at a yard sale with his $5 weekly allowance. The seller agreed to wait a month until Wasilewski had the $20 in hand. He was 6. Skateboarding legend Jay Adams gave him a Z-Flex fin for it.
“I remember there was a moment in Santa Monica,” Wasilewski says, “storm swell. I was maybe 10 years old. I was surfing and I got caught inside for, like, 10 waves. It was windy, onshore. Waves were breaking on a really shallow sandbar. And I was in a spot where I couldn’t get out. I remember just getting completely annihilated. I was drowning. Fuck, what am I going to do? And finally I got pushed in to the beach. And I was standing on the beach going, ‘That was rad!’ I kind of dug that, like, almost dying feeling.”
Landsdowne, who would work with the young surfer for six years, until he was 16, notes that Wasilewski “was pure. He was just a surfer. He had good values and good morals, and he didn’t look at anybody differently.”
Wasilewski took the bus to Malibu, surfed Bay Street and even braved the notoriously polluted waters at the foot of Pico Boulevard, site of a storm drain. It wasn’t until after he met Venice’s Rick Massie that Wasilewski ventured to the Venice Breakwater, a locals-only spot that awakens with fury during large northwest swells in winter.
“Crossing the border between Venice and Santa Monica when I was growing up surfing was a no-no,” Wasilewski says. “I was one of the only guys they would let come down and surf. Ricky Massie was like my rival. But we were good buddies. So I kind of got a hall pass.”
He also got to know and surf with Z-Boys legend Jay Adams, who was more well-known as a skater but who was respected by locals as a true waterman. “You know,” Wasilewski says, “my mom used to party with Jay’s mom.”
Adams died of a heart attack last year in Mexico at 53. He spent much of his life on drugs or in and out of prison, but his last few years he was clean and sober. Venice legend Solo Scott was in Mexico surfing with Adams. “He surfed, he was sober, and he was next to loved ones,” he said during a Venice Pier memorial to Adams.
“It’s the simple fact of drugs,” Wasilewski says. “It killed everyone. Crack and cocaine just flattened the entire Westside of L.A. and all of these athletes. If you weren’t partying, you were not really part of the crew.”
Wasilewski was part of a younger generation than the one that produced the Dogtown and Z-Boys phenomenon. “I wasn’t expected to be partying like that,” he says. “I was a lot younger than everybody else. All the drugs and violence behind the scenes, I was too young to see. I mean, I kind of knew it was there, but I was never truly exposed to it.”
When he was 12, Wasilewski won the national title from the highest-profile amateur competitive surfing organization, the National Scholastic Surfing Association. In his midteens he went on to compete in Professional Surfing Association of America events. But he soon realized contests weren’t for him. There’s a strong spiritual ethos in surfing that holds that the artistry of a sport about dancing on waves can’t be quantified.
“The politics of it and watching how it worked, realizing the judges were human, there was all this error, I guess it wasn’t as fun as I originally thought it would be,” Wasilewski says. “So I just kind of ran away from it all and went surfing. I lost all my sponsors, actually.” He estimates that it cost him $15,000 to $20,000 per year.
To family and friends, Wasilewski was throwing his life away.
“Everybody was, like, ‘Well, if you’re not going to do this, what are you going to do?’?” he says. “And I told them I just want to get paid to go surf to Hawaii and surf Pipeline — become kind of a lifestyle surfer.”
Wasilewski wouldn’t be the first to try this. Gerry Lopez made a name for himself surfing the North Shore’s Banzai Pipeline in the 1970s without having to show his face in too many contests. Santa Barbara’s Tom Curren unplugged from the pro tour and started free-surfing for good after he won the world title three times, in 1985, ’86 and ’90. Steve Pezman, publisher of The Surfer’s Journal, notes that while Australians largely created the modern pro surfing tour, Californians were often its detractors, wary of having judges decide which expression of creativity on the waves is the best.
“There were surfers who carved their own paths and played according to their own value systems,” he says. “There’s a component of surfers that attempt to, and some succeed in, making a living from free-surfing.”
But it was a long shot.
Wasilewski says sponsors “had no grasp” of what he was trying to do as he traveled to Hawaii for each winter surf season — with the hope of getting his picture in the surfing magazines. The strategy employed by Lopez and Curren included being photographed at sublime spots so often that sponsors would come running, regardless of their lack of pro tour presence. “If they’re well-known enough and respected enough, someone will pay them money without entering contests,” Pezman says of the lifestyle surfers. “They have a very high degree of market recognition and respect.”
Wasilewski wasn’t there yet. From the time he was 16 until he was 20, he worked in restaurants and did “whatever I could to get by,” he says. He even modeled for a time. He’d work, he says, “so I could get money to go to Hawaii and surf at Pipeline.”
Pipeline is no longer the scariest wave in the world. Nor is it the biggest. But it’s still a major-league test of mettle for the globe’s best board riders. Winter north swells jack as they reach a coral reef on the North Shore of Oahu, producing masochistic tubes that mostly run left as you face land. It probably didn’t hurt that, like the legendary Lopez, Wasilewski is a goofy foot. That means he can face the wave, which is a more natural stance than having your back to it, as regular foots do.
It was 1994 — a make-or-break year for Wasilewski. His mother, his brother and even old friends were concerned that he was becoming a beach bum with frequent-flier miles. He, too, started to question himself. So he set out on a mission to determine who he really was.
“I went to a Chumash Indian sweat lodge in Malibu, and it’s kind of a cleansing ritual where you basically try to purify your thoughts,” he says. “'Am I on the right path?’ And I start thinking, ‘You’re on a perfect path. Don’t change a thing. You saw your purpose in life.’ I told my mom that I was going to go back to Hawaii. And she was, like, ‘Really?’ ‘Yeah, mom, I promise you I’ll come back.’?”
By then his mother had returned to school, earned a college degree and become a Venice High School counselor and an L.A. County deputy probation officer who specialized in juvenile rehabilitation. His brother ultimately got it together, too, Wasilewski says.
Whatever happened at that sweat lodge, it worked.
That year he visited Quiksilver with friend Massie, who earned buzz as a rare Mexican-American to compete as a pro. (Later, Wasilewski says, Massie scared the shit out of the Quiksilver crew by bringing a gun to the company’s Orange County office.)
A team manager ultimately gave Wasilewski $500 and a plane ticket to Hawaii.
That winter he went to Pipeline, surfing’s Mecca.
“This guy on the beach was sitting there smoking a joint,” Wasilewski recalls. “And he goes, ‘All you gotta do is catch one wave, man. It just takes one.’”
There were 100 surfers out, he says, but he got a bomb all to himself after pro Noah Johnson alerted him to a good takeoff zone. Wasilewski looked as comfortable as a grandpa in a recliner. His Matt Biolos board had a bit too much curve at the bottom, Wasilewski says, so it threw him for a curve at the bottom of the wave, putting him off-balance. However, it looked as if he was relaxed — “soul-searching in the depths of Jaws,” he says.
The moment was captured by Don King, who would become a Hollywood cinematographer known for his work on Lords of Dogtown and Blue Crush. The shot made the cover of Surfer magazine.
“At that moment, that was the biggest thing you could possibly have as a surfer,” Wasilewski says. He remembers the Quiksilver marketing chief saying, “I knew you could do it.”
Wasilewski had been sleeping on a cot in a friend’s mosquito-filled garage. He didn’t know he had made the cover until he saw a copy of the magazine at a friend’s North Shore house.
“There was the magazine down on the table, and there I was on the cover, but it was all beat up and written on,” he says. “It had a fart coming out of my ass and a joint in my mouth. But it was still one of those surreal moments. I remember kind of feeling like, ‘Wow, those fucking Indians were right.’?”
Wasilewski soon scored a contract with Quiksilver, a nearly $1 billion company that is the world’s most valuable surfing brand. He represented it alongside 11-time world champion Kelly Slater.
His mother had expected him to go to UCLA, but when she found out he had scored a sizable Quiksilver contract that would pay him to travel the world and ride waves, she told Wasilewski that he could always go to college later in life, he recalls.
Wasilewski soon established himself as a lifestyle surfer who could get his picture in the magazines again and again. “He was regarded as the guy who was in touch with the grassroots,” Slater says.
Unlike some of the free-surfing pros of the past, Wasilewski almost exclusively charged big waves. Some spots were so gnarly that the only way to get into the wave was to be slingshotted by a Jet Ski.
“The first time he towed [was] at really huge Teahupo’o and I didn’t realize how crazy he could be,” Slater says. “I always knew he liked big waves. But Teahupo’o is, or at least was, an unknown still at that time. And he caught a huge one he didn’t make. And I thought he was just a pretty face.”
Slater recalls meeting Wasilewski when they were only 12. The two exited from Quiksilver a few years ago, amid a change of ownership, but they still hang out about once a month in Malibu, where they both live when they’re not traveling the globe.
Wasilewski was captain of the Quiksilver pro team before becoming a “brand ambassador,” traveling to the company’s stores around the world. When Quiksilver let him go after 20 years, “I got a golden parachute,” he says.
“It was the best thing that ever happened to me. It was a perfect time to segue into something new.”
Now students of Venice and Santa Monica surf history put Wasilewski’s name alongside those of other area wave-riding legends — Adams, Massie, Allen Sarlo, Solo Scott, Nathan Pratt.
Unfortunately, the area’s biggest watermen have, in some ways, outlived local surf culture. Santa Monica’s landmark Horizons West surf shop, which since 1977 occupied the home of the legendary Zephyr skate team, was gentrified out of existence in 2010, the victim of plans for a mixed-used development. And surf spots once strictly regulated as locals-only strongholds are now, as Wasilewski describes them, a “zoo” filled with condo-dwelling newcomers on $1,500 long boards.
“In the beach culture and surfing here, I really don’t know what happened,” Wasilewski says during one of our meetings for coffee on Main Street. “I mean, surf culture is still around, but you don’t see as much of it. Thinking about it and talking about it makes me want to do more down here in terms of creating more of a local scene. You know, kind of steward that leadership to bring back the culture more and give people the hope of doing it.”
Wasilewski describes how he eventually got over the fear that had paralyzed him in 2003.
We’re at Dogtown Coffee on Main Street, not far from his first waves in front of lifeguard tower 17. A mural of Jay Adams adorns the back of the shop. Some women from the World Surf League headquarters across the street recognize him and wave. He wears a blue polo shirt and khakis. A gold chain adorns his neck. A fresh haircut can’t tame his sand-tone hair. His signature gap-toothed grin appears when he recalls his brightest days.
Which are now.
Wasilewski says yoga, abstinence from alcohol and mountain biking in Malibu have put him in his best shape ever. “My hesitation is gone,” he says. “I caught some of the heaviest waves I ever have at Pipeline this last winter. I feel better than I ever have.”
In 2002 he married Lily Harfouche, a Malibu boutique owner and Sarah Lawrence College alumnus from Lebanon. It was, of course, a Chumash ceremony. This year they had their third child, Cruise West, brother of Coast Kingsley, 8, and Country Cove, 7.
Wasilewski recently launched a surf-centric sunscreen, Shade, with a neighbor who owns a skin-care products company. They nabbed the trademark for Shade after Coppertone, which had it for 40 years, let it go. “Made for surfers by surfers,” Wasilewski says.
His second wind also is taking him back into the water this summer — not only as a surfer but as an announcer for the World Surf League. It might be ironic that a man who made a living outside the contest tour is now a key part of it. “I love the fact that I’m coming full circle,” he says.
But contests have improved markedly since the league took over the pro tour in 2012. The WSL consolidated separate events to ensure that fans could go to one website to see the best surfers on the most challenging waves. The tour was once a hodgepodge of events that could have a smattering of top pros battling mediocre surfers in small beach break. The league has merged events into a run of 11 top-tier, must-see men’s contests in often solid surf.
The WSL says 6.2 million people watched the live stream of last winter’s Billabong Pipe Masters. That’s more than the U.S. television audience for the final game of the 2014 Stanley Cup hockey finals, according to The New York Times. The contests also air on Fox Sports Australia and Time Warner Cable in San Diego and Hawaii. Edited versions of select broadcasts are shown on ABC and ESPN.
Wasilewski has become central to the WSL’s web-first strategy. He started last year in the broadcast booth, usually away from the action, but this summer he adds color commentary as he sits on a board with a microphone in his hand, only yards from the lineup. His input brings that grassroots credibility to the broadcasts. At the Billabong Pro Tahiti he used his firsthand knowledge to set the scene. “It’s terrifying,” he announced in his salty voice during the WSL’s broadcast. “It’s like a three-story building coming down on your head.”
“The unique thing about Strider is he brings a lot of big wave–charging experience,” says the WSL’s senior vice president of content and programming, Jed Pearson. “It’s about the charisma he has, the realness.”
“He knows of what he speaks, for sure,” says Surfer’s Journal editor Scott Hulet.
This winter Wasilewski watched his 7- and 8-year-olds charge snowboard jumps at Big Bear with the kind of intensity in their eyes that he has when he’s on the job. He stopped himself from stopping them. “I’ll never forget,” he says proudly.
The 8-year-old got so high doing a 180 — 15 feet — that “the whole mountain started screaming for him,” Wasilewski says. The kid landed, caught a rail and crashed without injury.
“You start to think, OK, if you call anyone off their path, it’s only going to hinder the result, no matter if it’s a kid riding a bike or going off a snowboard jump,” Wasilewski says. “It’s not going to help. So I let it play out.”
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In 2012, his mom died of lung cancer. Wasilewski and his family had put her in hospice but ultimately brought her home to his Little Dume residence. He and his brother took turns looking after their mother for 12-hour shifts for months, he says.
Wasilewski tears up thinking about her. He remembers what she taught him: No fear. That’s her legacy.
“Growing up in L.A. with not a lot, you can go down the wrong path really quick,” he says. “She did everything she could. She gave me the most important thing in life, which was the power of personal choice — not to have to go with what’s expected.
“A lot of people procrastinate. They have big dreams, but they never pull the trigger, and they’ll never know. All those things you didn’t do will come back to you.”