April 26, 2010— -- When pro-surfer Clay Marzo rides the waves off Maui's coast, it's hard to imagine that a man so gifted in the water could struggle so much on land.
Beyond a few words, Marzo, 20, finds it hard to hold a conversation. Ask him a question, and finding an answer seems to cause him pain. Chat with him for half an hour, and the words never never flow any easier, because Marzo has autism.
He has a milder form known as Asperger's syndrome. Labeled a disability, Asperger's may help to explain why Marzo is so good on a surfboard.
Since he was a little boy, when his difficulty in communicating became evident, Marzo zeroed in on water. He wanted to be near the water, to be in it -- a focus so intense that it was actually obsessive, according to his mother, Jill Marzo. Obsession is part of Asperger's.
In the water, "he was comfortable in his skin," said Jill Marzo. "Out of the water, he is not comfortable, even today. In the water, it's like he can breathe."
Marzo spends hours a day in the ocean, year after year. Some Asperger's obsessions, such as fixating on train schedules or "Star Wars" or lightbulbs, can disrupt. But Marzo's water obsession evolved into surfing, where obsession is required to succeed.
Marzo's obsession has made him a star surfer. He's a favorite with surfing magazines, is sponsored by Quicksilver apparel and earns an income that reaches into the six figures.
But on dry land, says his mom, Marzo's a fish out of water, unable to process easily anything that takes quick thinking. He struggles in getting around, meeting strangers and answering questions. It's too much too fast for his brain to take in, and the attention that accompanies his surfing fame makes for an uncomfortable experience.
"It's got to be more simple," said Marzo. "You know? Simple. Surf and eat and sleep, you know? My three top things."
That might sound simple enough, but it's never simple to live with Asperger's.
For Marzo, though, it just happened to work out: He needed the water, and the sea was there to catch him.