Southbay Strong Episode 1: Alex Gray
Following his brother's death, pro surfer Alex Gray gets "Southbay Strong" and doubles down on his passion for surfing.Posted by Our South Bay on Wednesday, May 18, 2016
Alex Gray seems, at first, to be impossibly positive. A professional surfer and third-generation Palos Verdes resident, Alex is slender and tan, his movements animated. He smiles constantly and speaks with compelling—but genuine—enthusiasm.
Attempting to talk with Alex briefly is entirely out of the question. Simple hellos evolve rapidly into lengthy and comfortable conversations. But drone on he doesn’t. Nor does he dwell on himself. He engages you completely, asking questions, constantly moving and laughing.
Alex seems to care for the moment, the conversation and whomever he’s speaking with completely. To put it simply, he seems to be wholly and truly content.
But looking at Alex, taking in his abundant sincerity, a question does begin to form: Has all that positivity ever been tested? Is he always this way? And would all that enthusiasm survive, unscathed, if he were actually challenged?
But Alex has been tested. He’s experienced tragedies and challenges: the loss of his brother, Christopher, a debilitating illness and a major career setback … events that would derail most people. But that positivity survives in spite of those obstacles.
So why? “I’m very lucky to do what I love as a profession. I can’t get enough of it,” he explains.
Alex feels fortunate for everything he’s earned in his life—especially his surfing career. Remaining positive, pushing forward serves as his way of showing gratitude, of being thankful for everything he has and of showing his appreciation to all those who care.
And he is, as expected, confident that things usually work out in the end. “I’ve had these hardships, but I’ve done my best to keep going, make it positive, and things turn around,” he says.
Alex notes that growing up in the South Bay, he played all the usual sports as a kid: baseball, football and soccer. But when he was 10 years old, his older brother brought surfing into the Gray household.
Christopher, who was three years older than Alex, returned from Junior Lifeguards one day and said that one of the instructors, Jimmy Miller, had taught him how to surf. “We didn’t know that was one of the best surfers in the South Bay,” says Alex. As soon as Christopher came home, he announced to his family that he was officially a surfer.
As younger siblings usually do, Alex wanted to follow in his brother’s footsteps. “I told that I was a surfer now too,” he says.
Alex’s father had “this old foam surfboard with a plastic fin from the ‘70s” that had been stashed in the garage for decades. He gave Alex his first surf lesson at Torrance Beach. “I rode my first wave, and I didn’t know how that wave would change my life forever,” Alex says.
After that point, Alex did everything in his power to surf every single day. “I became a con artist at getting rides to the beach. That’s all I thought about: surfing,” he says.
TUNNEL VISION Alex slices through a wave off the coast of Redondo Beach.
At 12 years old, Alex connected with a local professional surfer, Greg Browning. Greg helped Alex gain some of his first sponsors, like Spyder Surfboards and Body Glove. And then Alex began competing in events up and down the California coast.
“My parents drove me to these contests literally every weekend from when I was 12 to 18,” he says. When he started attending Palos Verdes Peninsula High School, Alex began traveling more for competitions. From Australia to Costa Rica, Alex flew around the world—gradually working closer to his ultimate goal of becoming one of the top surfers on the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) World Tour competition.
Alex became hungry. He rarely went out with friends, didn’t date and focused solely on surfing. “I put tunnel vision on, and I just told myself that I wanted to get on the world tour and possibly become a world champion,” he says.
His sponsors told him that as soon as he finished high school, they would set him up financially to start traveling and competing more internationally. Friends fell to the wayside; teachers tried to dissuade him from pursuing what they saw as a risky career move.
One teacher, he says, tried to convince him to switch to a traditional sport like football for a more “promising career.” To Alex, it seemed like nothing could pull him away from his dream.
When he was 17 and nearing the end of high school, he was preparing to jump on the world qualifying series. But before he could do so, his brother confessed to the family that he had a drug addiction. “I didn’t even know what that meant at first, to be honest. My parents did, but I didn’t,” Alex says.
The family pulled together, working to help Christopher detox and remain sober. But at 20 years old, he relapsed and passed away from a heroin overdose.
Alex says that life stopped. He didn’t go to school for a month and a half. “I don’t remember much during that time. It was a dark, hazy area,” he says. He rarely surfed, and one day when he tried, it went terribly. “Surfing was that something that me and my brother shared.”
Alex wanted to use the sport to reconnect with his brother, to start healing, but surfing reminded him too much of Christopher’s passing. “Surfing was a gift that he gave me. It was that connection that made surfing so fun with my brother. As a younger sibling, all you want to do is shadow your brother,” he says.
After one particularly terrible afternoon session, Alex tossed his board in a trash can and told his parents he was done with surfing for good. His parents, he says, were beyond supportive.
On a whim, the family decided to attend a few local contests, just to keep the surfing connection burning. Alex says that even being down on the sand watching these events pained him. “My brother was always with me. He was really my coach,” he says, adding that Christopher would usually be by his side before an event, offering advice and tips. But he was gone.
Something clicked in Alex’s mind. He was on the brink, he notes, of every professional surfer’s dream. And would his brother want him to walk away? To give it all up? No, he decided—he would treat surfing as a means of honoring his brother’s memory.
“I turned the darkest place I’ve ever been into a grateful, loving and passionate place of honor,” he says. “I have this gift and this fire built up, and I’m like, ‘Let’s do this,’” he says.
Alex started competing actively again. Within a few years of competing nationally and internationally, he had climbed the global rankings. At one point he finished 49th in the world.
At 22 Alex was hungry for a higher ranking. But during a trip to Hawaii, he developed a pain in his chest. “I felt like I was having a heart attack.” He came home to the South Bay, and one night he woke up “on the floor, on my hands and knees, gasping. I thought I was dying.”
His girlfriend rushed him to Torrance Memorial Medical Center. He was diagnosed with pleurisy—a painful and potentially life-threating inflammation of the lungs and chest—and he spent a week in the emergency room.
Relaying the experience, Alex grows quiet for a moment before saying, “There was a close point where I almost didn’t make it.” He lost dozens of pounds, he shares, and felt like
“It took three months for me to feel human again,” he says. Once he recovered, he was eager to return to competing. But when he checked his world ranking, he saw that he’d dropped from the top 50 to “1,000-something.”
He called the ASP (renamed the World Surf League), and they informed him that because he’d failed to pay his annual membership fee of $700, the points he’d earned over the course of his competitive career were no longer valid. He explained that he’d nearly died; his doctors had proof of Alex’ illness.
The ASP’s response? “Sorry, nothing can be done. Those are the rules.”
“All my competitive successes got pulled out from under me,” he says. There was a moment of panic: Most of the incentives his sponsors offered were contest-based. He worried that his career was finished.
He started competing in small-time, local events “just to get points back.” They often went terribly, and surfing was starting to lose its fun.
But then “I got lucky,” says Alex. His sponsors approached him with a deal: He could take time away from competitive surfing, and they would support him as he chased swells around the world.
Alex never looked back. He focused entirely on big wave surfing, pursuing titanic swells from Hawaii to Tahiti. He generated images and videos of his incredible rides, and he pushed the limits of his surfing abilities—hunting down rides in remote surf destinations like Alaska.
He pushed competition aside. “I want to go to obscure places, and I want to take the extra effort and time to search out the less-thought-of places,” he says.
Although he has no signs of slowing down, Alex laid down some roots in Torrance and bought a home, not far from where he grew up. He also speaks to local high school students about his brother and the impact of drug abuse on himself and his family. With each public interaction, he heals a bit more—channeling grief into a rallying call for courage.
The source of that impossible positivity stems from Alex’s gratitude. He’s grateful for his career, for his family and for surfing—a gift that his brother and Jimmy Miller gave him. Alex will keep pushing, keep working—no matter the obstacle or challenge. It’s his way of thanking everyone who’s supported him.
“I’m living the dream that my brother and I first had when we started surfing. This is exactly what I dreamt of, and it’s even better than what I could’ve imagined,” he says.
The Palos Verdes Art Center held its opening reception for the Surf’s Up and Enceladus Exhibitions. More than 400 attended the opening, held at the Art Center’s new, temporary location at The Promenade on the Peninsula. In all, 19 artists participated in the show curated by Jacqueline Dreager.