“Why’s this so good?”: Paul Solotaroff and the surfing savant

Last year I read a profile on Clay Marzo, a talented professional surfer who struggles to find balance in his life between his passion for surfing and his struggles with Asperger’s syndrome. To me, it is probably the beast feature story I have ever read. I came across the piece in a book called The Best American Sport Writing, and I was immediately entranced by the beautiful story telling and imagery in every line.

Author Paul Solotaroff, who wrote the story for Rolling Stone Magazine, perfectly captures the essence of Marzo’s artistry in the sport of surfing.

Solotaroff writes:

“Put him in the water and Clay Marzo is magic, a kid with so much grace and daring that you laugh in disbelief to watch him surf. Every day he’s out there in the South Pacific, shredding huge swells till he’s faint with hunger and near the verge of dehydration. He doesn’t really ride waves as much as fly them, soaring above the sea foam upside down and spinning the nose of his board in whiplash twists.”

You can almost feel that sea foam splashing against your skin after reading that lede. Solotaroff’s writing captures the attention of the reader so well because he writes with ease and simplicity, all while illustrating every inch of detail in Marzo’s passion for surfing.

Then Solotaroff introduces the tragic irony of Marzo’s life: his extraordinary and effortlessness talent in the water contrasted by his troubles with Asperger’s syndrome. Solotaroff provides a fascinating account of both Marzo’s phenomenal surfing success during his childhood along with the hardships he faced growing up:

“…the best of that bunch, from boyhood on, was Marzo. With his bottomless hunger for huge maneuvers and unsinkable sense of balance and intuition, he looked, to all who saw him, like the future of the sport while he was still in junior high.”

But the signs of Asperger’s were present even at age four, as Clay’s mother Jill recalls:

“He made these weird faces and couldn’t stop doing it. He was humming and flapping and pulling his hair, and always very intense and nervous when he wasn’t in the water.”

Solotaroff keeps a nice pace in painting Marzo’s childhood background. He lays out the amazing perks of being a child prodigy, along with the difficulties that come with the attention and fame.

By the end of the fourth page, Solotaroff returns to the present day Marzo and writes about the details of his personal life and what a normal day is like.

Solotaroff returns to the topic of Marzo’s struggles and explains that even as an adult, his career in professional surfing is threatened by his Asperger’s syndrome.

Throughout the entire piece, the author constantly captured my attention with his attention to detail and magnificent imagery. For the conclusion, Solotaroff crafts a paragraph as well-written as any I’ve read. He writes:

“Marzo is a creature of the waves, but of these waves, the rocky, shark-toothed waters of Maui that he knows by heart. Look at him now, out beyond the reef, doing tricks to raise his flagging spirits. In surf no bigger than a picket fence, he’s positioned himself above the swell, skimming like a coin from a crest to crest. Just as each dies, he spies a new section to carve his name upon, hurling his board up the short-sleeve face to ride the foam again. He’s forgotten the guys watching from their pickup trucks, and the small crowd up here with our mouths agape, and the father he can’t please, and the brother who cut him dead – all of that’s gone now, carried away by the hunchbacked westerly waves.”

I find that feature writing of this caliber isn’t just deeply moving to read, it truly inspires me to write to my best ability and to craft beautifully written stories of my own.

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