Alex Gray goes BIG
by Mark McDermott
Two years ago, Alex Gray found himself at a crossroads. His 22 year professional surfing career had recently come to a close, and like everyone else, he’d just endured the dark first year of the pandemic. For Gray, this had meant no surf trips, and closed local beaches — keeping him from doing what he loved most, traveling and surfing.
It wasn’t an ideal time to forge a new path. He was 35 years old, cut off from all the things that had sustained him, financially and spiritually, his entire adult life. Alone in his home in Rolling Hills Estates, a question gnawed at him: “Who am I now?”
“I was so scared,” Gray said. “My identity, purpose, and ego had been shattered when I wasn’t introducing myself as, ‘Hi, I am Alex Gray, I am a professional surfer.’”
Gray had blazed his way into the pro surf world when he was barely a teenager. He wasn’t just a talented surfer, but a precociously skilled and daring big wave rider. His parents, Laurie and Dudley Gray, were shocked when he came home from a surf trip to Central California and popped in a DVD that showed their young son flying down the face of one of the largest, most daunting waves on the planet, at the aptly named Ghost Tree break. He had made the cover of every major surf magazine by the time he was in his early 20s and was sponsored by the biggest names in the surf industry, including Volcom and Body Glove. He spent two decades wandering the world in search of waves, traveling everywhere from Africa to Australia to Tahiti, Latin America, and Hawaii’s North Shore.
Then, a few years ago, sponsorship money began drying up for the pro surf world, and Gray’s professional career was one of its casualties. He quickly transitioned to organizing surf trips as a guide, and he was a much-coveted public speaker, legendarily so — at 17, he’d lost his older brother and idol, Chris, to drug addiction, and his status as a pro surfer and deft storyteller helped him reach 25,000 kids in tours of local high schools.
But with the arrival of the pandemic, all avenues of being Alex Gray felt closed. Gray rented out the house he’d bought when he was 22 and moved back to his parents house. At one point, when the beaches were still closed, Gray remembers being overwhelmed by his entire array of circumstances.
“I found myself one day just literally gripping the chair, like with fear and anxiety,” Gray told the Surf Splendor podcast.
Gray has an unusual middle name: Wisdom. And you don’t circle the globe, facing your own fears riding waves the size of tall buildings without acquiring some wisdom, particularly about the nature of waves. Surfers know. The waves keep coming. It doesn’t matter if you are tired, or scared, or, for that matter, stoked, although the latter state of being is more likely to help you catch the wave and ride it instead of getting churned up and spit out. Life is much the same.
Gray has seen more waves than all but a few people on the planet. And so, from the depths of his own fears, in the middle of a global pandemic, he saw another wave coming, and he caught it.
The phone call came one day in March 2021.
A few years previously, Gray had one of the more coveted gigs in surfing, as a “boatman” in Tavarua, Fiji, a 29-acre island surrounded by coral reefs and exquisite surf. The job, which has been held by the likes of pro surfers Shane Dorian and Connor Coffman, is taking surf tourists out on the legendary breaks off the island, guiding and coaching and sometimes towing them into waves. The reward, other than being in one of the most idyllically beautiful places on Earth, is an extended opportunity to surf those breaks yourself, and to hone your all-around water skills.
The call was from a surfer friend Gray had met on Tavarua. He’d found a loophole that would allow them to travel back to the South Pacific, he told Gray, and had chartered an airliner that would fly to Fiji. Thirty surfers were going. He wanted Gray to be the 31st, but he needed to be ready to go immediately. Gray, of course, jumped on the chance. Within days he was on board an empty Fiji Airways jet, propping his legs up in Business Class, stoked beyond belief.
“We landed and I think there were like five employees at the airport. They opened the airport for us,” Gray recalled on the podcast. “When we got out of the airport, it was the strangest thing ever. It was like we were in a zombie land. This police car escorted us all the way through Nadi town.”
He surfed his brains out on what was supposed to be a two week trip. Then came the whispers. Covid had barely touched Fiji, previously, but suddenly an uptick in cases was happening. Shortly before their scheduled departure, the country locked down.
The rest of the surf group finagled their way out via a cargo plane about a week later. But it began to dawn on Gray that he didn’t really have to go. He was single, so no one was waiting for him back home. He had his house rented. Fiji would be locked down indefinitely, meaning acres of waves for a lone professional-caliber surfer.
“Dude, you have to be there for all of us,” former pro surfer Jon Rose told Gray on a phone call. “We need one of us to experience it. This is going to be history.”
Good surfers possess a skill known as wave recognition. It’s about knowing which waves to catch. Gray stayed. He allowed himself to become trapped in paradise. Other than a few local rippers, he had arguably the greatest surf break in the world, called Cloudbreak, all to himself.
His 14 day trip would last 282 days. But what occurred on Tavarua ended up being less about the epic waves — of which there was an abundance — than stillness. The life of a pro surfer certainly is one of astonishing beauty, fun, and adventure, but it’s also a life of non-stop hustle. Attention-seeking is, often uncomfortably, part of the job. Gray, who’d posted nearly daily for almost eight years, disappeared from social media. He unplugged, and immersed himself in the wild blue. He developed a daily practice of 100 pushups, 100 sit-ups, a 2 mile run, an hour bike ride, and morning ice baths. He ate healthfully and cut his alcohol consumption way back. He journaled. Old injuries began to heal, and Gray, who’d battled insomnia for years, learned again how to find the untroubled sleep of a child.
Even today, other than that one podcast interview, Gray declines to speak of that time. When he reemerged, late in 2022, he posted a video of himself surfing what looks like Cloudbreak to Instagram, saying that his time away had been transformational.
“As some of you’ve noticed, I’ve been absent from social media for the first time since I signed up 10 years ago,” he wrote. “Life, but more so, incredible people, presented me with a very unexpected opportunity of a lifetime. I decided to use what’s become the last eight months for self betterment. While everyday I’ve considered myself the luckiest human in the world, days like this video pointed directly towards the luckiest surfer in the world. Last year was the longest year of my life while pinned at home from the pandemic protocols. Riddled with fear of how to survive a new lifestyle, I thought it was to be my new direction in life. I’ve been most grateful to be guided back to who I am, and what truly makes me happy.”
“I never imagined at 35, after all I’ve experienced with my prior surf career, that the best time of my life was yet to come.”
When he was setting out in the world as a young surfer, Gray didn’t envision that part of his epic journey would include becoming Grand Marshal for the Palos Verdes Peninsula Parade of Lights. But there he was, two weeks ago, adorned in a goofy, oversized, very Christmassy green sweater and a red Santa hat, riding in a yellow Corvette convertible at the head of the parade.
Gray couldn’t have been happier.
“It’s a great perspective of this phase in my life,” Gray said. “It’s an honor to be chosen out of our community to lead our holiday parade. There’s so many incredible people here. And it’s really fun for me, because I was part of the parade with my AYSO soccer and Little League teams when I was a kid. To have it come back as an adult now and be the Grand Marshal is amazing.”
The Alex Gray story is well known in these parts. He started surfing as a little kid because his cool, older brother Christopher took up the sport. Alex soon became one of the most dedicated groms on the California coast. Video footage exists of him ripping while still a skinny, mop-haired little boy, his tall, movie star-handsome older brother beaming with pride.
The part of the story that isn’t told as much is how the extended Gray family and the larger Palos Verdes community itself helped Alex pursue his passion.
“I’m third generation Palos Verdes, and as I get older, it becomes more and more apparent just how lucky anyone is to grow up here,” Gray said. “With the mixture of my family’s support and also the community’s, I was able to take a childhood dream to a far extent within my surfing career. And, of course, there’s a backbone and spine within it, being from a community that allows such a foundation as a kid.”
The adage, of course, is it takes a village to raise a child. Gray’s village was richly populated with caring elders.
“I was so lucky to have two sets of grandparents within a couple miles of my home, as well as uncles and cousins nearby,” he said. “It was really special to have that amount of love in whatever my brother and I were doing as kids. Like, I vividly remember my grandma running down the sidelines of my soccer games. And when my parents weren’t available after school because they were still at work, I would call my grandma and grandpa to give me a ride down to the beach to go surf. I realize now that these are things that not everybody gets to experience, but I really did have a very tight knit family, a love and support group of multiple generations. It’s why this community has always meant so much to me. It’s why I began speaking at the high schools when I had just graduated — having a sense of wanting to give back for all that I was given has always been important to me, due to what I experienced.”
Gray was 17 when his brother Chris, who was 20, died from a heroin overdose. The experience almost claimed his life as well. He quit surfing and fell into a deep depression. But surfing eventually pulled him back to life. His instinct immediately was to help others, so he began speaking about the experience of losing his brother at local schools when he himself was only months removed from being a high school student. His first speech was at Palos Verdes High School. He’s since spoken at more than two dozen schools. Anyone who has not seen one of his speeches should take care to attend the next time Gray speaks at a high school. You will never see anything quite like it: hundreds of teenagers in rapt attention, while this surfing star steps down from the pedestal of celebritydom and talks to the kids with a rare mix of eloquence, heart-wrenching realness, and even humor.
“I’m lucky to be able to have these huge platforms,” Gray said. “My Instagram has 90,000 followers, and as great the ‘fame’ advantage of it can be, I’ve always just felt the urge to do that awkward, uncomfortable thing, and bear some of my soul and heart to people so they understand that it’s not just strawberries. I’m just like everybody else. It’s the oddest and I think the hardest part of being human is you grow the most, and find yourself, during those really hard, rough moments.”
Rolling Hills Estates Mayor Britt Huff, who was on the parade committee that chose Gray as Grand Marshal, said the honor was conferred on him for the way he has used his status as a surfer to help others. She believes Gray has almost certainly saved lives by finding a way to reach kids who are at one of the most vulnerable stages of life.
“It’s kind of the whole concept of the wounded healer, in terms of when someone has gone through an experience like that, kids can really relate to it,” Huff said. “And especially kids who are hanging out at the beach a lot and into surfing. He’s a real hero to them.”
“To hear that firsthand, when you’re a young person, how drugs have impacted someone’s life like that, it really touches the heart and the mind in terms of, ‘Hey, this is a road I don’t want to go down,” Huff said.
Gray’s message, in those speeches to high school and middle school kids, is not the reflexive “Just say no” to drugs kids have heard endlessly. His message is about the power of choice.
“I needed to break the stigma that drug use happened to bad people,” he told an assembly of students in Torrance in 2019. “We were so surprised and shocked that it took Chris’s life that I just realized it could happen to anybody and we all need to open up and stop judging, blaming and putting shame on people for making accidental decisions or mistakes. My brother made a choice; the consequence was to take his life.”
But there is also empowerment in Gray’s message. He climbed out of his own depression and began surfing again. And he made the choice to live again, and to do so in a way that would help others. The story of Chris’ death, he hoped, could help save a young person on the cusp of making a bad decision.
“I emotionally stand in front of you today because it still hurts to not have him here,” he told the kids. “But what can I do to honor him, to honor the gift? And that was to continue to move forward with everything he gave me. And when I made that choice — to switch from dark, heavy depressive feelings and use that moment in time, that adversity, that unfortunate circumstance, and allow it to uplift me to do things that I would have never imagined — I learned the power of choice.”
Life is funny in that the same lessons present themselves in often unrecognizable guises, over and over again. When Gray’s professional surf career ended, he struggled, before and after the pandemic hit. But then he learned, yet again, about the power of choice. He’d boxed himself into this idea of “Alex Gray, professional surfer.” He found his way out of that box through what could be called his spiritual practice — which is surfing. He takes small groups on surf trips, hosts surf sessions for people grieving the loss of a loved one, and basically uses everything life has given him to help others.
“I think that’s under the headline of growing up,” Gray said. “One of the steps of growing up is becoming less and less focused on yourself, and making sure that either the way that you’re doing your daily walk is helping others, or that you’re taking the time out of your life to help someone directly.”
Gray’s daily walk always includes a paddle out.
“Surfing for me has always been more than just accolades and a goal oriented, challenging sport,” Gray said. “Surfing has been a place for me to go and deal with life. It’s like that one place and moment in time where I have to let go of my mind, which can be very active, with a lot of thinking. It’s great when it’s oriented, but when it’s not, I can be filled with a bit of chaos. Surfing has always been that place for me to let go, to find the answer to possibly what I can’t understand, and just to be free. I feel so lucky now to have that tool for the rest of my life, because it makes me a better person, every time I exit from a surf session. And I get to share that with others.”
Gray said he’s had several mentors who’ve helped him along the way, but he singled out one in particular as key to everything he’s accomplished as a surfer, and more, as a human being: Greg Browning. He had just turned 11 years old when Browning showed up at his birthday party. At the time, Browning, a South Bay native, was near the peak of his fame as a pro surfer, part of the influential Momentum Generation that included Kelly Slater and Rob Machado. Gray was starstruck.
“He was the first professional surfer I’d ever met,” he said. “He picked my brother up from Miraleste School the next week and took him surfing down in Torrance. For a fact, I would never have accomplished as much as I did in my surf career without Greg Browning. Because Greg came into my family’s life, just asked to be there from a friend, and rather than just show up at my birthday, he stuck around for the next 27 years. Greg helped a family that knew nothing about surfing — my parents didn’t surf — and he guided me through my amateur career, which competitions to do, how to build my resume, which sponsors to approach, and how to approach them. He’s single handedly the most important person in my life because, yes, he took me on the path of a childhood dream. He believed in a kid and then grabbed me and brought me in front of every chapter on how to open that chapter, and then how to finish it. But then on top of that, what Greg has really done is teach me how to be a good person along the way.”
Browning was recently diagnosed with ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and even the way he’s facing this daunting challenge has been inspiring for others, including Gray.
“He’s handling it like Greg Browning,” Gray said.
And that’s the biggest impact he’s always had on Gray, because being like Greg Browning means never taking yourself all that seriously.
“Greg’s greatest gift in life is being selfless, and helping others,” Gray said.
“I’ve watched him, over the past two decades, aways give anyone a chance and to present an opportunity for them in any way that you can of what that person’s trying to achieve in life. And Greg has been there for me when life was not easy, personally and in my career, and that stands out to me more than anything now. Rather than just be around when people are doing well and everything’s a celebration — there’s always a down part of that, and any of us who have had Greg there during our downs are so lucky. From meeting him at my 11th birthday party, I immediately knew I wanted to be Greg… He has helped me go further, and also shaped me into wanting to be somebody who gives back.”
Joel Elliott was one of those people Browning also helped, in his case, working alongside him as a surf filmmaker. He likewise expressed deep admiration for Browning, as a surfer and human being. But Elliott also noted something he observed about Gray on a surf trip to New Zealand, that he has a special gift for that most revered of qualities among surfers, called “the stoke.”
“Aside from having great style and all that stuff, Alex is one of the most stoked surfers that there is,” Elliott said. “He’s down to surf anything, any size, at any time, and has the time of his life every time.When we were in New Zealand together, he was the only one who went out the day it was breaking about a mile out and about a mile high. Frigid. Uncomfortable. Everyone else, including some of the most well known professionals in the world, grumbled and hid in the caravan. We all stood on a cliff and watched him, an ant, get towed into monsters behind a jet ski. Just him and the driver. He got lost for about 20-30 minutes and for a bit, we were all worried that he had been swept out to sea. It was starting to get dark and he was still lost.”
“When he finally came back in, he was laughing and hollering. Like he always does.”
The term “professional surfer” is a funny one, in a way. Gray is still young, at 37, and in some ways more skilled as a surfer than ever. You’ll still see photos of him catching the biggest waves in the world. His fame as a surfer is still growing. This year, he was inducted into the Los Angeles Sportswalk of Fame, becoming only the second surfer, after iconic big wave rider Greg Noll, to be so honored.
The main thing that changed and took away the “professional” part of his title was the surf industry’s declining sponsorships. But what initially felt like a curse for Gray became a gift because it allowed him to open up his life to even broader possibilities. Pro or not, he’s still surfing every day, traveling widely, and refining the fine art of finding the stoke. Asked if he’s found the perfect balance, the sweet spot of his life, Gray turns the question on its head.
“I think it’s a continual work in motion,” Gray said. “Something I’m very careful of now is having a hard stop to an idea. To say that I found that sweet spot — I think it is more so that I want to continue to work on my sweet spot for the rest of my life. Right?”
One answer Gray has arrived at more definitively is a new way of introducing himself. He’s taken “professional surfer” out of the equation and opened things way up.
“Now, I feel like, ‘I’m Alex Gray, I’ve already had an incredible aspect of life, I’ve experienced so much I’d love to share with you, the good and bad within it,’” Gray says. “But I’m also open now to learning from you, and trying to move forward just with open eyes and ears, outside of what was a very, very focused lane of life.”
To learn more about Alex Gray, including his surf trips and grief support groups, see AlexGraySurf.com. PEN