Laird Hamilton is a very polarizing figure in the world of surfing. Sure he comes off as a chauvinistic egomaniac, but also there’s a lot we can learn from someone who has pushed themselves and surfing itself for the better part of four decades.

The interesting parts of this Sports Illustrated profile on Laird and his new movie is that it steers away from the usual Laird-isms that surf media typically fall into. They bring up psychologically fascinating things like “alexithymia” and the relationship that thrill seeking athletes like big wave surfers have with a disorder not unlike PTSD. In a few years we believe there will be a scientific term for whatever it is that athletes feel when they are forced to give up their “extreme” sport of choice.

Here are a few choice samples:

 

“Over the last decade Tim Woodman, a sports psychology professor at the Bangor University in Wales, has studied the psychological profile of men and women who participate in high-risk sports. He has come to believe many have a condition called alexithymia, a difficulty in expressing and experiencing emotions. Unable to feel and connect in their daily lives, they instead leap from the sky, climb peaks and slice down the face of big waves, the better to engage, and then conquer, the most primal sensation: fear.”

 

“Men like Hamilton don’t always play well with others. On the one hand, he sought isolation. He lived in a remote surf hut without a phone—he built a wooden box at the end of the driveway housing an answering machine that he could check selectively—and traveled the world in search of “the unknown and the undone.” “

 

“But what if the reckoning comes not when the lights go out but when we cannot pursue those dreams in the first place?  In The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, author Steven Kotler recounts an email he received from Chris Malloy, a big-wave surfer and filmmaker. “I hope you talk a little about how utterly f—– we can become when we get too old or broken or smart to keep it up,” Malloy wrote. “Not all of us experience a happy life after doing this s— for a couple of decades. I bet there are some PTSD similarities. It’s funny, I read Sebastian Junger’s War and I learned something: The guys coming home are all screwed up, not because they saw people die as much as they missed the rush. I would never put myself in the same category as those fighting men, but it can be hard to get excited again. Ever. And that feeling sucks.””

 

“In his 1973 book, The Denial of Death, anthropologist Ernest Becker argued that everything we do in our lives is, in essence, a defense mechanism against mortality. Life is different, though, for elite athletes, who die two deaths. The second is the one that awaits us all. The first comes when they can no longer compete in their chosen craft, the one that provides meaning and identity. Perhaps this provides insight into the motives of Hamilton and fellow seekers. Perhaps the reason they take such outsized risks is because, for them, that death is the more terrifying of the two.”

 

 

Click to SPORTS ILLUSTRATED for the profile on Laird Hamilton and the relationship between ‘action sports’ athletes and PTSD

 

 

 

 

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