Monday, January 25, 2010
From the Top of the Wave to the Bottom - Flea
Nearly dying is a specialty of Darryl "Flea" Virostko.
The surfer, who won the first three monster-wave contests at Mavericks north of Half Moon Bay, almost drowned there once when the leash that attaches his ankle to the board clung to an underwater rock.
So epic was a plunge down a 50-foot wall of water at Hawaii's Waimea Bay in 2004 that Surfer magazine dubbed it the "Wipeout of the Decade."
But Virostko was never closer to death than when he decided to get sober last year, several days after terrified relatives and fellow surfers staged an intervention.
Closing out a final bender, he smoked a pipe of crystal meth, then chugged a half-gallon of vodka as he drove from Santa Cruz to a Pacific Grove rehab center.
"I didn't care about my life at all," Virostko said recently, talking about his rise to stardom and near-fatal descent. "I wasn't being Flea."
Being Flea means pushing the limits of mortality on freakishly large waves, not dry land. Now, he said, it means celebrating 14 months of sobriety, teaching addicts to surf in his FleaHab program, and training to become a drug and alcohol counselor.
"If I can do it, anyone can do it," the 37-year-old said of quitting drugs. "Because I went to the edge of the earth."
Virostko's comeback is an undercurrent of this season's Mavericks Surf Contest, an event that once seemed designed for his audacity. The five-month contest window opened Nov. 1, meaning Mavericks can be held the next time giant swells roll in.
If Virostko wins, he'll own four of seven titles. He could also use the $50,000 check. He recently had to sell his house to pay off $150,000 in back taxes and stay out of bankruptcy.
'You can't go any lower'
Mavericks made Flea's name. But the first time he paddled into it in the early 1990s, he said, he was on acid. In later years, he often visited on meth. At this year's contest, he will be surrounded by surfers who hope he can channel his intensity into his recovery.
"I've never seen anyone who was in that deep turn it around," said Joey Thomas, 61, a Santa Cruz surfer and friend. "You can't go any lower."
"Going from one extreme to the next - that's how he has negotiated his life," said Virostko's 39-year-old brother, Troy. "Now it's opening a new door."
Virostko said drugs never helped his performance - just the opposite, he said - and had nothing to do with his famous fearlessness. That came naturally.
He grew up relatively poor, in a neighborhood on Santa Cruz's west side known as "the Circles" because of the layout of the streets. "West side, best side," he said, flashing a "WS" tattoo.
His mother was a nurse and Jazzercise instructor, his father a high school art teacher who taught him to surf at age 4 at Cowell's, a spot just north of the Boardwalk where many a child has caught his first wave.
He always felt at home in the water. Richard Schmidt recalled an 8- or 9-year-old Virostko knocking him off a wave at another spot known as Rivermouth. Schmidt, a big-wave pioneer who runs a surf school in town, was 12 years older.
"No apology or nothing," said Schmidt, who is now a friend.
Virostko was always a bad boy, said childhood friend Joshua Pomer. In junior high, when a bigger kid bear-hugged Flea - who is now 5-foot-10 but got his nickname because he was tiny until a late-arriving puberty - Virostko hit him in the face with a juice bottle.
"The guy will never back down to anyone," said Pomer, 36, who is finishing a documentary called "The Westsiders" on the life of Virostko and his friends. "He's been in a lot of fistfights and he's lost a lot of them, but he's won a lot of them as well. It's that same bravado he took to Mavericks."
Virostko won the inaugural big-wave contest in February 1999. He celebrated by renting a room at Santa Cruz's Dream Inn on a bluff just north of the Boardwalk, where he and his friends dropped acid and tossed furniture onto the beach.
After he beat world champion Kelly Slater the next year, Virostko was surfing royalty. He won his most recent Mavericks title in 2004.
Read the rest here.