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.”
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.