Article

Freedom

The Unlikely Path and Tragic Motivations of Alex Gray

| posted on February 27, 1987

Photo: Maassen

By Brad Melekian

Five years ago I wrote a profile of Alex Gray for this magazine. Then, he was a “funny kid” who had a tragic backstory regarding a brother who was three years older than him who had died of a heroin overdose at age 20. When I wrote that profile, in 2006, I’d found Alex and his family two years after that death to be so resilient and buoyant that the one day I spent in their home still strikes me as one of the pure and good experiences I’ve had writing about surfing. Alex and I went surfing, and then his mother made us dinner and we sat around a circular kitchen table, where the family shared their lives with me. Alex’s parents told me about their son, Christopher Gray, and then Alex’s father, Dudley, invited Alex and I to play guitar in a music room that he kept partly as an homage to Chris. I don’t know how to play the guitar, but I drove home late that evening impressed by the basic sweetness of the experience and the grace with which the Grays handled themselves. Then I wrote a story about how tragedy had befallen Alex Gray, about how he believed in himself and his dream to one day become a world champion surfer.

Here’s something that’s true: The celebrity profile is an almost unreadable thing. The reason this is true is because the writer of the celebrity profile almost always tries to take the life of someone whose special talent is really only a skill, and to turn the application of that skill into a metaphor, and to transform that metaphor into a lesson. The celebrity isn’t a person, that is, but rather a chimera upon which the writer suggests he and his reader might rest all of their hopes and fears, which is why the celebrity profile always ends on a hopeful upswing, affirming our collective human need to believe that redemption is always close at hand.

Photo: Glaser

The surf magazine profile is the same, only more so. Written primarily by a surfer, for a surfer, the surf magazine profile contains a certain dynamic between writer and reader regarding the meaning of surfing itself, and our abiding belief, as surfers, in the transcendent power of our surfing experiences. We write and read these profiles to confirm to each other that what we do in the water carries meaning, creating character sketches about people who have been fundamentally altered by the fact that they ride waves. In this way, we’re affirming not just the profile’s subject, but the humanity of our surfing experiences.

So, if you were guessing that surfing itself figured as the change agent in this profile of Alex Gray that I wrote five years ago, you’d be right. Competitive surfing, more specifically. It was a decent story, but I recently went back and reread it and I cringed at my own eagerness to assure a reader that by virtue of his pluck, Alex was going to make it.

Here’s something else that’s true: not everybody makes it—not in life, not in surfing. Nor do things always end on a hopeful upswing, nor is surfing always transformative. When people do make it, they certainly don’t make it in the ways that they think they will when they are young.

Alex was a gregarious, enthusiastic 19-year-old kid when I first met him, eager to make the World Tour. Today, Alex is 25, still gregarious, still enthusiastic, but undeniably a man whose life has taken unforeseeable turns.

I don’t know why, but it struck me recently as an important thing to do to go back to Alex, to find out what happened. It also seemed important not to learn anything about him before meeting up, to let him tell me his story himself.

°°°

“Do you know what pleurisy is?”

I do not.

The sky is dishwater gray and the wind is steady from the northeast on a late September morning. It’s not quite fall, and you get the sense that above those grey skies, somewhere in there, it is summer. Alex Gray and I are sitting on my front deck, looking out at the lazy mid-week street. My daughter, one-and-a-half, runs to Alex, a man she’s only just met, and holds up her arms to be held. He picks her up naturally, puts her on his lap, and I’m thinking that all of this is very odd. It’s odd to be re-profiling somebody, and it’s odd that he’s asked me this question in response to my own more pertinent question, which was, “When did you start surfing big waves?” It’s also odd that we’re conducting this interview at my house, and not at Alex’s, and it is odd that my daughter is here. And, is Alex disrobing?

He is.

He lifts his black tee shirt over his shoulder, raises his left arm and with his right hand points to the two gnarled, quarter-sized scars of skin framing the top and bottom of his heart.

“Pleurisy’s this thing that old people get a lot. Basically it’s an infection of the lining of your lungs and chest.”

Back up: For years now, Alex has spent months each winter at the Volcom House on Oahu’s North Shore. That house may be notorious for a variety of reasons, but for Alex, its significance has always been its proximity to Pipeline. When he was younger, 15, he would sleep wherever he could find space and would perform household chores. Now, he’s worked his way up—not to the top of the chain, but he’s a link on the chain. How this happened was a steady willingness to always paddle out in heavy conditions. “Hawaii is the most important part of my year, by far,” he says. Now, Alex can get a wave at Backdoor, Pipeline, or Off The Wall. Last year, he was featured on the cover of SURFER charging through a barrel at Log Cabins. North Shore lifeguard Dave Wassel has taken Alex under his wing, taking him to surf Waimea and some of the North Shore’s outer reefs.

So Alex was only following a familiar pattern when, in December 2009, he was returning home to Palos Verdes from Hawaii to be with his family for Christmas. When he got home, he had a high fever for days. Lying in bed, sweating feverishly in intense pain, he took painkillers and fever reducers, but it wasn’t until the 23rd that he woke up crying and he was rushed to the hospital. There, the diagnosis was pleurisy. Alex was rushed into a seven-hour surgery to remove the life-threatening bacteria. For the next week, two three-inch drainage tubes protruded from his chest.

“There are seven days in my life I don’t remember,” he says with a vacant grin. “I lost 25 pounds in seven days. I was pretty much on my deathbed. Real close. They sent me home from the hospital with a breathing machine. I’d take a walk to the end of my block and be so winded I had to take a three-hour nap.

“The reason I’m explaining all this is because the last time we talked, I was a contest guy, right? From that time that I saw you, it’s all I did,” he says. “I finished 49th, getting close to qualifying. I was there. I just needed that extra bump. Then this happened in December. By March, I was getting better, so I go to enter the event that month at Lower Trestles. I was so excited, I’d been through all this stuff. It’s three days before the contest and I look, and I’m Alternate 45. I look at my overall ranking, and I’m number 1,004. My heart sunk down in my stomach, and I’m like, what happened?”

To explain what happened requires an explanation of the ASP’s fairly arcane internal housekeeping. To compete on the ASP tours, one must pay an annual membership fee of $700, due January 31 of each year. In 2009, the ASP was switching to a new system and informed its members that if they didn’t pay their registration on time, they would lose their ranking, all their accumulated points, and their seeding into future events. To accommodate this new austerity, the ASP extended the deadline in 2009 to February 28. Alex, recovering from his illness, missed his payment, and like that, he went from the 49th ranked surfer in the world to 1,004th.

Cloudbreak, 2011. Photo: Glaser

The ASP’s International Media Manager Dave Prodan says that Alex was one of 300 surfers who lost their seeding as a result of this missed deadline. “He was hardly singled out,” he says. In addition, Prodan points out that the ASP was in touch with Alex’s mother and representatives from Alex’s sponsor, Volcom, at the end of January. “In January, the Gray camp was well aware of his renewal situation,” he says.

Alex doesn’t remember specifics about late January and early February. “My professional surfing career was on hold,” he says. “I was trying to be a human again.” Alex had been competing on the ASP since he was 17 years old (“I saw the ASP more than I saw my family,” he says), so he assumed they would make an exception for him. He had his doctors write letters. “The ASP wrote me back. No apologies. ‘Hey, this is the rule. We emailed you. You knew what you had to do.’”

He continues: “I told them, Can you please just fine me? I will pay you. What do you want? In my mind, I was like, ‘You can’t do this. You can’t do this to someone. You understand that you’re affecting my life and career over a membership fee, right?’

“So I forwarded these e-mails. Volcom wrote them an e-mail. At that time, Volcom didn’t have any pull or clout with the ASP, and probably at that time, the ASP didn’t like Volcom because they were one of the only companies that weren’t supporting the ASP, so I didn’t have anyone to pull for me.”

Alex was told that there would be no exceptions. Like that, everything he had worked for in the previous seven years was gone on a technicality.

“I was so mad,” he says, seething slightly in the retelling. “This was my life. This was how I made my money. I went to bed and woke up every morning thinking about how I could do better in the next contest. The ASP just literally pulled the rug out from under my feet. At that moment of my life, my whole world stopped.”

°°°

It's unlikely Alex misses competition in moments like this. Photo: Ghiglia

Don’t worry: This isn’t a story about surf contests, nor is it one more surfer’s woe-is-me tale about “The Man,” or “The System,” or the various ways in which he has been fucked by both. It’s just that it’s necessary to explain the significance surf contests held to Alex Gray’s life in order to explain how he came to his current unexpected path. And much of the significance of surf contests to Alex’s life has to do with the death of his brother, Chris.

In re-profiling Alex, I didn’t want to rehash Chris’s story, one that is tragic, and that has already been told. But when I sat down with Alex, it became clear that Chris’ story figures prominently in Alex’s own explanation of his current life, and he was eager to talk about it. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about him,” he said. So it’s a fact that can’t be ignored that Alex Gray remembers certain things that defy cheery magazine profile conveyance. He remembers, for instance, living in a house without doorknobs. “There was no privacy in our house,” he says. “We couldn’t allow privacy because of what we called ‘The Beast.’ My brother Chris, he wasn’t there. If The Beast came knocking on his door, it was on, and that motherfucker was just the biggest destructive thing I’ve ever seen.”

Alex remembers, for instance, coming home from high school one night to the sight of Chris shooting heroin on the family’s couch. “I was 17. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t stop him.”

Alex remembers coming home from school another night and hearing, before he walked in the door, Chris raging at his parents: “He was saying things to my parents that no one should ever say to their parents.”  He remembers Chris turning his attention to Alex. “Things that a brother should never hear,” he says. “And then it got physical. My dad and I had to hold him down. My brother’s just going, ‘I don’t want to be here, I don’t want to be here, I don’t want to be here.’ The Beast was saying that; it wasn’t my brother. So we said, ‘Fine, where do you want to go?’ He said he wanted to go to where his dealer was. My dad was like, ‘Sure, okay, let’s go.’ So my dad and I took him and dropped him off in the ghetto, with nothing. He had nothing. He had a pair of jeans, a shirt, and shoes. And we dropped him off. He gave my dad and I a hug like it was cool. It was the first time I’d seen my dad cry. We drove away. My dad and I didn’t say one word. Not one word. And I understood what was going on, but I didn’t. I was like, ‘Wait, you mean, he’s coming home tonight, huh?’ And my dad just didn’t say anything.”

Chris didn’t come home for two days, and when he did, he returned badly beaten, a thick swollen knot on his head. The next day, he was ready to get help. We’re at a coffee shop as Alex tells me this, and those clouds that were hiding the summer sun never did lift. Telling the story, Alex tilts his chair back. His eyes are wet, and he inhales deeply and blows it out skyward, then composes himself.

“And that’s when he went to rehab. It’s so gnarly to experience something like that. We had to have the whole conversation of me saying, ‘I don’t want to see you again if you’re not clean. That person that comes out when you’re using, I could do without seeing that person ever again.’”

Chris Gray did get clean. He was clean for 60 days, and was doing well. “He looked good,” says Alex. Then came the night of Alex’s surf team banquet—he was the captain of the team and graduating from Peninsula High School in Palos Verdes. “It was this big celebration. They were giving out awards; I had to make a speech. It was an awesome night.” Chris went to his friend Kevin’s house. “We didn’t think anything of it,” says Alex. Returning home from the banquet, Alex’s parents got a call from Kevin’s parents. Chris’ heart had stopped. Alex’s parents went to the hospital; Alex went home.

“I sat there for like two hours next to the phone. Just sitting. Waiting. Hoping that that call was going to be a good one. And I got the call. He was already dead when they put him in the ambulance. It was so… That was one of the strangest moments of my life. I remember I was drinking a cup of tea, and I put my cup of tea in my car, I put it next to me and I was just driving down, going, ‘Fuck, I’m going to see my dead brother right now.’ My parents were in this little waiting room, and I open the door, and they look at me, and my dad let out this cry that I’ve never heard, and my mom was on her hands and knees, hysterically crying. And I just came in and I was like, ‘Fuck.’ That’s when reality hit. And then they asked, ‘Do you want to go see him?’ And I said no. And basically I don’t remember shit for like two weeks after that. We did the funeral and stuff, but I don’t even remember it. I don’t remember any of it at all.”

It was a heroin overdose, and so Alex offers this about drug addiction: “I always thought that it was bad people, people who had done bad things. But he was a good person. He was my favorite person. That threw me off.”

°°°

Three months after his brother’s death, Alex had gone surfing exactly once, a session that ended with him throwing his surfboard in a trashcan. Then, Alex’s mom, Laurie, looked at the NSSA schedule posted on the refrigerator, noticed a contest in San Diego, and suggested they go. “We’ll get a hotel room,” she said. “It’ll be good.”

They went. “Something clicked,” Alex says. He won the contest, and, like that, competition became his focus. He graduated from high school and left immediately to England to compete on the WQS. Competing on the WQS is an expectation for many pro surfers—even those who know they will never make the Tour, much less be world champions. Alex sincerely believed he would one day win a world title. “In my mind, there was a tunnel, and at the end of the tunnel was being world champion. That was the only thing that mattered.”

Even then, Alex knew that what he really wanted was to honor his brother. “I always had this dream of getting up on stage, and being able to thank him and talk about him. That meant more to me than winning the contest. That was my dream.”

That sounds sweet, but it manifested in macabre ways. “I used to pretend that the guy that I was surfing against was the reason my brother was dead,” he says. “It was like my secret weapon.”

Alex was relentlessly competitive. He engendered hate among his peers. “When I put a jersey on, I would do anything in the world to make sure that I made the heat and you didn’t. Man, people hated me. Because I was mean. Ask any other surfer, and they’ll tell you that I was the worst. I was the biggest hassler there was. But I didn’t give a shit.”

It took talking to a sports psychologist for Alex to realize the depths to which his motivation was eating him alive. “It was just too much. Ultimately that was something that kind of crushed me. Because that’s too much. If I failed to win a heat, I failed.”

°°°

After losing his ranking in 2009, it didn’t take long for Alex to understand that the ASP wasn’t going to budge. So he did what he’d always done before—he started working. “I’m really good at digging deep and fighting for stuff,” he says. “So I started going to contests that most people wouldn’t go to. Contests that were expensive to get to, in places that were really far away—Scotland, Canada. I didn’t know what else to do.”

It also didn’t take long for people around Alex to notice that something was wrong, that he wasn’t himself. “I’m not an angry person, and this anger overcame me. The last time we talked, my brother had passed away, and the life lesson for me was to turn something like that into a positive. So when I lost my ranking, I thought, ‘I’ve gone through things before. Shit, man, put your head down and get it back.’ But I couldn’t get over the anger.”

It was his sponsor, Volcom, that first broached the subject of leaving competition with Alex. “At that point, I was like, you know what, ‘Fuck ASP. I’m not going to let them get me down.’ In our industry, you can’t stop. Because there’s always somebody else knocking on the back door to fill your spot. As a pro surfer, your seed is your value. And if you mess up…I’ve watched guys, ‘Boom, you’re done. You’re not close to qualifying? We’re over you.’ But I was lucky to have good sponsors. They were like, ‘Hey, this isn’t right. You’re not right. We love you. We think it’s in your best interest to take a year off.’”

Alex agreed to the “year off,” knowing all along that what it really meant was that he was no longer going to compete. “The reality is, you can’t take a year off.”

What happened next is less clear, and equally unforeseen. Last year, Alex left the Tour and started chasing swells. Big swells. Raised in Los Angeles, following the WQS for seven years, it seemed more natural that Alex Gray would try to become a “personality” than it did that he would begin to chase big waves. And to an extent, Alex has gone this route. He just launched a new website, TurkeyMelt.com. He appears frequently on Fuel TV. The week after we spent time together, he was featured on Bravo’s hausfrau theater show Millionaire Matchmaker, taking desperate people surfing. But where many surfers might make these D-list TV show appearances the lead plank in their “personal brand” platform, Alex has allowed it all to be ancillary to his surf career. He’s made his own space in the surf world, and has earned the respect of a diverse range of peers by having a diverse range of skills. He can throw big airs in Torrance, and he can pull in at Backdoor, and that, more than any other reason, is why he has the career he does now. And since he’s been given the freedom to leave the world of surf competition, he’s made it his primary focus to follow swell—big swell—and to not back away from it when it’s in front of him. To do this, he’s drawn on his years of big-wave experience in Hawaii.

In the summer of 2011, he was on Tavarua for a swell that was notable for the names it attracted to the island—Kelly Slater and Bruce Irons among them. Alex then went to Teahupoo, twice, to surf the wave at its most massive. It was on one of these trips, during a break from an ASP competition because the surf was too big, that Alex was sitting on a boat in the channel. Makua Rothman was driving a jet ski, and came by to see if anybody wanted a wave. Alex surprised himself and everyone around him by asking if he could go. “I was physically scared. To get out of that boat and grab the rope was the biggest mental barrier. But to be behind the rope with Makua driving on what’s possibly the biggest this wave’s ever been surfed, I was like, ‘Fuck, my brother would be so stoked for me right now.’ This weight let go of me. And I just smiled.” Alex then proceeded to get towed into, and make, a wave at Teahupoo that defies a written description and won him the SURFER Poll Award for Best Barrel.

It would be easy to kick out of this article by writing about that wave as some sort of conversion experience. To make the point that after all of the tribulation that Alex Gray has faced, he had one redeeming wave that made up for a lifetime’s worth of anguish. In the celebrity profile, that’s the way the narrative bends. But that’s not how life works. In real life, there is no such thing as permanent redemption. And so, it’s best to leave things open-ended: Five years ago, Alex Gray was an entirely different type of person on an entirely different type of path. Today he’s another person, on another path. Alex Gray knows better than most people his age that it’s entirely uncertain what happens next. Today, he thinks of his forced retirement from the ASP as the best thing that ever happened to him. “I try to live by the motto that everything happens for a reason,” he says. “And today I love surfing more than I ever have in my whole life, and I’m happier than I’ve ever been.”

It’s best to leave it at that.