( Flea image courtesy of surfersvillage.com )
SANTA CRUZ - On a clear August night, Darryl Virostko got in his black Toyota Tundra and drove to Monterey's Beacon House drug rehabilitation center. The big wave surfing icon from the Westside of Santa Cruz, known to surfers worldwide simply as "Flea," made the trip in a daze.
When nurses admitted him, Virostko's blood alcohol content registered at 0.28 on the breathalyzer. A BAC of 0.30 and above is usually enough to put a person in a coma, if not flat out kill him.
It had been a week since family members and a group of his closest friends, including childhood surfing heroes Richard Schmidt and Joey Thomas, held an intervention for Virostko at Santa Cruz High. Initially he was upset, but Virostko knew the partying had gotten to be too much. Not even the three-time Maverick's Surf Contest champion could handle such an intense ride for this long.
"It got to a point where I needed it," said Virostko, adding he's now eight months sober. "I was (upset with) everyone else for doing the intervention thing, you know. I was like, '... I'm walking home.' But now I look back and I thank them."
You'd be hard-pressed to find a Maverick's surfer who's had more near-death experiences in big waves than the 37-year-old Virostko. He's been held underwater for so long post-wipeout that a second monster wave passed over and pinned him down. He's had his leash tangled in the minefield of jagged rocks just inside the peak at Mav's known as the Boneyard, trapping him like a fly in a spider's web as 10-foot surges of white water repeatedly washed over his struggling body. And he will forever be remembered in surfing lore for taking two of the most publicized and horrendous wipeouts in the sport's history. One happened at Waimea Bay during the 2004 Eddie Aikau contest and the other at Maverick's on the biggest day of last winter - possibly the biggest day ever surfed at the break.
What really separates Virostko from the rest of the pack at Maverick's, however, is his uncanny ability to shrug off such face-to-face meetings with the reaper and, within minutes, charge right back out into the maelstrom - only to drop into an even meaner wave. More often than not, he'll stick it.
"He has that 'I don't mind the consequences' attitude that you have to have," said fellow Maverick's surfer Peter Mel, a Santa Cruz big wave icon in his own right. "He's always been that way, since he was young. He always had something to prove. He has a great ability to forget about the repercussions and go for broke. Nothing sits with him. A bad wipeout, a lot of people would be haunted by that. But he can forget about it. He's able to move on from that.
"He's one of the best guys to surf big waves with," Mel added, "because you know he's gonna go. I know for me, in my career as a big wave surfer, I would never have had the success I've had if I didn't have him pushing me."
It's that fearlessness and relentless determination, combined with raw natural ability, that helped Virostko capture the first three Mavericks's titles (in 1999, 2000 and 2004), as well as the respect of every big wave rider from Hawaii to South Africa.
Virostko first surfed Maverick's, the now-famous break off Half Moon Bay's Pillar Point, in January 1992. He followed the lead of his big wave elders from Santa Cruz such as Schmidt and Vince Collier. It was Collier who gave Virostko his nickname after watching the teenage surfer streak across a middle peak set wave at Steamer Lane and joke that the pint-sized grommet - Virostko stood just 4-foot-2 at the time - looked like a tiny flea hanging onto the back of a big dog.
Once he discovered an aptitude for riding big waves, Virostko's star in the world of professional surfing rose steadily through the late '90s. By the early 2000s, it was nearly impossible to pick up a surf magazine and not find a full page ad or photo of Flea flying down the face of a Maverick's wave or punting one of his trademark aerials high above the lip.
Between lucrative sponsorship deals and the oversized cardboard checks from his wins at Maverick's, the money was flowing in. Eventually, he was able to put a down payment on his first home, just a few blocks from the points and reefs he grew up surfing. He also had a new truck and Jet Ski sitting in the driveway. When he cruised West Cliff Drive in his sparkling '65 drop top Chevy Impala, bros would wave and girls would stare. Virostko was Westside royalty.
"It was fun being a pro surfer, getting 12 grand a month, traveling the world," Virostko said. "It was pretty much just like a party. But maybe not making the best decisions. There are decisions in life that you have to be smart about, and sometimes you're not that smart when you're just having fun."
Virostko's reputation for wild antics and a rock star lifestyle on land is almost as legendary as his performances in heavy water. Folks in Santa Cruz still talk about those early Maverick's victory parties, like the time Virostko rented multiple suites at the Dream Inn and footed the bill for a rager that would have made Ozzy Osbourne blush.
In 2002, a journalist from Vanity Fair magazine, in town to write a 12-page feature on Virostko and fellow big wave surfers Shawn "Barney" Barron, Ken "Skindog" Collins and Josh Loya, got to see firsthand what happens when the Westside boys get together for a few beers on a flat summer day. She later admitted to being "frightened" by the rowdy crew, and her Vanity Fair piece pegged Flea as the "Tommy Lee" of surfing.
The demands of the pro surfing lifestyle and all the non-surfing baggage that accompanies it began to wear on Virostko. The mundane responsibilities - trade shows, conventions, promotional tours of surf shops on the East Coast and Southern California - often involved more partying than actual water time.
"I was over being told where to surf and what to do by my sponsors," Virostko said. "I was having to do all that, so when I did come back to Santa Cruz I wanted to do what I wanted to do, not what everyone else was expecting me to do. All the crowds and this and that, I didn't want to deal with it because I deal with it around the world.
"Everyone kinda gets burned out on doing promotional things for sponsors," he added. "It involved a lot of partying and drinking. It's taxing on your body and you're supposed to be a big wave surfer in the best shape of your life. You're traveling around in a motor home in New Jersey during the summer with no waves. Yeah, it's fun. There's chicks. Everyone's partying. Team managers are buying you beers, shots, whatever to get you loosened up for these events, yet your body is so tired by the time you get home. You're pushed into situations where everyone on the trip has an alcohol problem."
In 2004, Virostko's big wave fortunes took a turn when he suffered his now-famous wipeout at Waimea Bay during the Eddie Aikau big wave contest, the last time the highly prestigious event was held. His horrendous free-fall underneath the lip of a seething 40-foot closeout appeared on the cover of surf magazines around the world and was dubbed the "wipeout of the decade" by Surfing Magazine.
Ironically, he came out of the ordeal relatively unscathed. It was a second wipeout suffered in his next heat, when Virostko tried to pull into a massive tube and got axed by the lip, that badly tweaked the ligaments in his knee. The injury kept Virostko out of the water for more than two months and prevented him from defending his three-straight titles during the Maverick's Surf Contest that same winter. Instead, he was forced to cheer from the sidelines as fellow Westsider and protege Anthony Tashnick kept the crown in Santa Cruz .
"I let him win," Flea said with a grin. "He hasn't beat me out there yet."
The Ice Storm
Ice. Crank. Crystal. Whatever you call it, methamphetamine is heavy stuff. An extremely powerful stimulant, a single hit of meth can keep a person high for 12 hours. The psychological effects are often described as producing an intense feeling of euphoria, increased endurance and a sense of invincibility. It's not so different than the dopamine-saturated rush that comes from making an air drop at heaving Maverick's. Problem is, it's just as addictive, and you don't have to wait until the buoys read 15 feet at 17 seconds to score it.
Virostko said he began using meth after the death of his uncle, Doug Virostko, in the spring of 2007. He began surfing less and partying more. Virostko's brash presence went missing from the lineups around town as he regularly passed up sessions to recover from the previous night's hangover. Some days, he would never leave the house. His profile in the surfing media, once larger than life, went missing almost completely, much to the frustration of his sponsors.
"I took my uncle's death pretty hard," he said. "Me and him are pretty similar people in the family, crazy but fun, so that kinda (messed) with me."
At the opening ceremonies for the 2007 Maverick's Surf Contest, Virostko was the last surfer to arrive. When he finally showed up, more than half an hour late, he didn't look like one of the planet's premier big wave warriors. His body was stricken with the telltale signs of heavy meth use: noticeable weight loss and a sunken face pocked with scabs. By then, Virostko had been dropped by most of his big-money sponsors. He was also struggling to keep up with his mortgage payments and would eventually be forced to sell to pay off his mounting debts.
"There was a point where basically the drugs were unmanageable. I couldn't manage my own life," he said. "They call it speed for a reason."
On the morning of the 2007 Maverick's contest, Virostko again showed up inexplicably late for his opening-round heat. He never checked in beforehand and had to be chauffeured to the lineup via Jet Ski while his fellow competitors were dropping into waves. After borrowing some wax from someone in the channel, he made it out to the peak about 10 minutes into the 45-minute heat and then proceeded to take two of the worst wipeouts of the event (he also landed a miraculous backside drop, back-dooring the left on the biggest wave of the heat). Virostko finished last in his heat and bailed soon after. During the rest of the day's action and the awards ceremony, he was nowhere to be found.
"There was a period in the last year where we didn't see him holding down the fort at the Lane and at the Ave.," Mel said. "But he knew he had to be out on the big days (at Maverick's). I wouldn't say he was on point at all. Dec. 4 (2007, on the biggest swell of the season) he took two of the most heavy wipeouts of anyone I've ever seen. I thought he was going to die. I think he would even tell you he wasn't on point. I was scared for my friend's life - I was scared for myself, too, that day. But there were days there where he was out there and he wasn't in his normal state and I was scared for him, not stoked for him."
Even though he didn't surf in the 2008 Cold Water Classic at Steamer Lane , Virostko still managed to create some of the biggest buzz of the weeklong contest (the biggest story, of course, was 17-year-old local boy Nat Young becoming the youngest winner in the event's history). During the middle rounds of the Cold Water, a recently sober Virostko was invited up to the announcer's booth to add some color to the broadcast over the loud speakers. To the surprise of everyone - from local surfers to industry big wigs on hand for Northern California's premier surf contest - Virostko spoke openly about his battle with drug addiction and his time in rehab. He thanked Santa Cruz wetsuit pioneer Jack O'Neill for helping get him into the Beacon House and announced that he was rededicating himself 100 percent to big wave surfing. Virostko's candor shocked even good friend Ryan Buell, who was part of the commentary team for the live webcast that afternoon.
"It was a huge moment for him," Buell said, "because the first step to recovery is talking about it. I was stoked he was doing it and not hiding it anymore. The great part was that we were doing the live webcast and the e-mails started coming in rapid fire from all over from people showing their support, saying 'Right on Flea.' I think it was liberating for him to see the support online and know he's doing the right thing. ... Everybody's excited at the prospect of a healthy Flea charging Mav's again."
Virostko said the time was right to let out the demons of his past.
"Basically I have nothing to hide," Virostko said. "This is a true story. This is what happened. I'm not blaming it on anyone except for myself. I decided to do all those things that I thought were good at the time, and I got hurt. I fell off cliffs. I could have died a couple of times. I should have died ... I kinda blew it, you know. I probably could have done better in my surfing career if I took it more seriously. ..."
Virostko is the first to admit it's a daily struggle to avoid slipping back into the familiar saddle of addiction. But he's hoping that by helping others, he can also help himself. Virostko is currently working with Schmidt, the Santa Cruz big wave legend and longtime surf camp operator, and O'Neill to create a new drug rehab program in Santa Cruz specifically designed for surfers and other outdoor athletes. Virostko hopes to work as a drug counselor at the center and lead healthy, outdoor activities for patients, including surfing, camping and fishing trips and mountain biking treks.
"We want to open this rehab for the surfers and the athletes that care about their body and their sport and are having problems with alcohol and drugs. I was trying to find a place where you could surf all day and still get clean," he said. "But I couldn't find it. I didn't want to go to the Beacon House where I couldn't surf and had to sit around all day. And this is a place that's going to be a full-on fun, active program. It's Flea-hab. It's gonna be fun.
"It's something that would help me stay busy. ... I don't want to use drugs. I don't want to drink anymore. Because I'm tired of it. I'm finished. This will keep me busy, definitely, to help people out. If people can take it from me, I know exactly - the drugs did exactly what they were supposed to do. They worked. I'm just fortunate to get out of it without any felonies, without any DUIs, without killing someone. And I still have my physical health. That's the main thing."
Virostko is also determined to reclaim his position at the pinnacle of the big wave surfing totem pole. Just eight months out of rehab, his body is still a far cry from the chiseled physique of his prime and his weathered face reflects a couple years' worth of heavy methamphetamine abuse. At one point during the height of his partying days he had lost nearly 15 pounds. While he's gained back most of the weight, he still has some work to do to regain the physical conditioning of his youth.
But Virostko thrives on being pegged the underdog. This is the defiant charger who swept the first three Maverick's contests. The kid from Santa Cruz who beat the mighty Kelly Slater at the second Quiksilver Men Who Ride Mountains event - not just once but in all three heats of the contest, including the final. To this day no other surfer in the world can claim such a heat record versus Slater, who heaped praise upon Virostko after the final, saying: "I've surfed the biggest waves with the best surfers in the world, and this guy charges as hard as any of them."
Today, the intensity in Virostko's face has returned. The hunger is there. He's surfing every day. He's following a healthy diet. He's moved to Ben Lomond with his girlfriend and three dogs, Mija, Riddle and Passion, to "get away from my wreckage." Virostko surfed Maverick's twice this winter - on the only two legitimate Mav's swells that came through - including the Nov. 30 "Turkey Day" swell, which saw some of the largest, cleanest paddle-in Mav's in years. He managed to nail a handful of heavy drops.
"He's already proved himself several times over," said Mel. "He will always have his space in the lineup and in the contest if he wants it. Right now, to see him back, I'm just stoked to have my friend back in the lineup."
Getting out and attacking waves has Virostko feeling like a kid again.
"I probably feel better than I've ever felt physically and mentally in my whole life," Virostko said. "Those first three wins at Maverick's, that's how I feel now. I was a kid, I was surfing every day, I was clean. I was just high on life. High on being able to be paid to surf, you know. Stoked to be surfing huge waves. And I feel like that now."
Surfacing: After surviving the hold-down of his life, Darryl 'Flea' Virostko returns to the waves - Santa Cruz Sentinel