A Life Cut Short

Chris O’Rourke, One of Surfing’s Unsung Heroes

| posted on December 27, 2012

In the '70s, Chris O'Rourke was California's great hope for international competitive success. Photo: Aeder

Greatness never realized is a well-worn trope, built on nostalgic proclamations that can never be disproved. The departed are glorified in their absence, attributes immortalized in sentimental grandeur. We continue to tell the stories of those who have passed in order to heal, honor, and ensure a legacy will live on. It’s for these reasons that former SURFER photographer Kirk Aeder devoted nearly a decade of his life to telling the tale of one of California’s lesser-known greats, Chris O’Rourke.

Chris was touted as West Coast surfing’s hope for the future. In his 1976 SURFER Profile, Gerry Lopez claimed that Chris was the best surfer from California he had ever seen. But just months before his 23rd birthday, Chris’ upward trajectory was cut short by cancer. No one knows if he, or any of surfing’s fallen heroes, would have reached the great heights projected in their absence, but Chris’ story doesn’t need a concrete conclusion. It is as much a tale of perseverance through tragedy as it is the story of an incredible surfer who died too young.

Chris O’Rourke’s childhood began tumultuously. His family was forced to uproot themselves and move cross-country to escape an angry loan shark. Eventually they found themselves in La Jolla, where Chris quickly became one of the most promising young surfers in the lineup. The older locals claimed they had never seen anything at Windansea before quite like Chris—smooth style, with radical contest flair. He dominated the Western Surfing Association Boy’s division, and by the time he was 16, the Men’s division as well.

But at 17, the No. 1 ranked surfer from the West Coast was struck with some harrowing news: despite his healthy, athletic appearance, Chris had Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Chris, however, continued to compete while undergoing treatment, collecting a string of results at some of California’s most prestigious pro events. And, miraculously, his cancer appeared to be in a state of decline. It seemed Chris had beat cancer.

A few months later, however, on a surf trip in Baja, Chris inexplicably collapsed. He was rushed to the closest hospital, where another tumor was discovered, this time near his brain. It took longer for Chris to regain his strength, but in October 1980, he made his last competitive appearance at the California Pro contest in Oceanside. Wearing a helmet and fighting back the urge to vomit, Chris finished the event third out of a field of 120 surfers, including many of the world’s top competitors. Joey Buran, Chris’ rival, won the event.

“I can honestly say that before Chris got sick, when it came to surfing, he was light years ahead of me,” says Buran, who went on to win the 1984 Pipe Masters and finish 7th on the ASP World Tour. “So how good would he have been? We’ll never know. Chris was in an entirely different league. If he had stayed healthy, the sky was the limit for him.”

Chris passed away a few weeks after Simon Anderson introduced the Thruster. Who knows where three fins would have taken him. Photo: Aeder

Kirk Aeder, on his recently released biography of Chris O’Rourke, Child of the Storm:

What compelled you to dedicate so much time to writing the story of Chris O’Rourke?

It took nine years to write Child of the Storm. Those familiar with his story never questioned why I was taking on the task. Others would always say, “I’ve never even heard of the guy.” My response to them was always the same: “Everyone, not just surfers, should know who Chris was. If you were there, you would understand why.”

What would we understand?

Chris crammed a lot into 22 years. His love for life and surfing had no boundaries. I have still never met anyone who exhibited as much passion as he did. Something that was really important for me in the book was to be as forthright and open as possible. For many people, Chris was a hero, but he obviously had a lot of flaws too, like all of us do. I didn’t want to sugarcoat anything, whether it was about his personality, the localism at Windansea, how he viewed his rivals from California, or smoking pot. It’s all relevant. Knowing what Chris went through, all the ups and downs, how hard he fought just to surf for one more day, was extremely eye-opening.

After spending years working on this book, did you ever question your commitment?

Chris never gave up, so neither did I. Producing the book was like an emotional roller-coaster ride, a soul-searching journey for sure. I interviewed a lot of his friends, foes, and family. The manuscript went through countless revisions. Each time was pretty much like reliving the drama all over again. I laughed and I cried.

Our sport has seen a handful of great surfers die young. How should Chris be remembered among them?

Chris was ahead of his time. Back in the mid-’70s he rode waves like today’s top surfers do. Chris favored slabs like Big Rock and Simmon’s Reef, places most others steered clear of. Everything he accomplished was on single-fins. When upcoming surfers start receiving accolades at only 15 or 16 years old, that’s when you know they have a chance to be something special—for example, Kelly Slater, Tom Curren, Martin Potter, John Florence, Gabriel Medina. But there are also those highly regarded young guns that never live up to all the hype. The journey to success is not always clear. Life’s complications and distractions become too heavy, and the road to greatness is never realized. The end of Chris’s journey, however, didn’t happen that way. He didn’t self-destruct on drugs, or start spiraling downward for other reasons. Chris O’Rourke had his life taken away by forces he had no control over. I think all of us know of someone like Chris, an individual who’s not a perfect person, but who nonetheless provides great courage and inspiration. As we have learned from the saga of Chris O’Rourke, you never know what will happen tomorrow.

  • Jeremiah

    Just finished Child of the Storm, and I was just about in the first few chapters when you guys sent out this article in Surfer, and I felt like It was the craziest timing for me to pick up Aeder’s book and find this awesome article on Chris. He’s been an incredible inspiration the past few weeks, his story is so relatable and Real!

    Thank you guys for all your hard work at Surfer, your time that i’ll ever know spent researching and interviewing, just to have someone like me be able to experience Chris’ story. Truly Incredible.

    (One of the coolest feelings was when I was finished, I realized that the scribble on the inside cover I couldn’t read at first, turned out to be a note from Kirk to enjoy the book, “Mahalo, and God Bless”)

    Thanks again guys!

    – Jeremiah

  • Ginna Lazar

    I tip my hat. Chris was in my class at La Jolla High. Knew him well…

  • LJ_Old_School

    I knew Chris well also. Even as a young kid at La Jolla Elementary School, he was incredibly charismatic and lively. He fit in early with the Windansea crew, which was still a heavy and formidable unit back in the day. This was less than ten years after Butch Van Artsdalen ruled the roost. You could get your clock cleaned at the foot of Nautilus, and not just by the powerful waves. That beach and reef was a gallery of alpha dogs, rippers and brawlers, and yet O’Rourke had carved a solid niche by the time he was 10. In the musical world, you would call such a person a prodigy.

  • g

    hate to say this but that book should be re written, not enough of the people who really knew Chris were interviewed. He practically lived at my house and no one talked to anyone in my family and there are many people upset that they were not talked to as well its like the writer was on the outside and needed to talk to his old school friends, sorry Kirk but most of the bro’s think this

    • Barney Rubble

      Like who? What was missed?

  • Kevin Kinnear

    After Vietnam scattered the California surfing elite to the four winds and Rolf Aurness disappeared after winning the 1970 World Contest, Chris single-handedly picked up the torch as the international competitive figurehead for the Golden State. Chris later passed it on to Joey Buran and then Tom Curren elevated it higher than ever before by dominating the amateur and professional circuits. If it wasn’t for Chris’s stellar performances during his prime, professional surfing would’ve disappeared from our radar screen altogether during the 70s. I have no doubt that the Windansea Wonder’s stellar solo climb would’ve continued in a steady trajectory right to the top.