Will the Last Dogtowner Please Turn Out the Lights?

An interview with Strider Wasilewski.

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For nearly 30 years, Strider Wasilewski has remained a name and a face familiar to the surfing world at large, first as a professional freesurfer for Quiksilver who made his bones at Pipeline and helped pioneer Teahupoo, later as a surf company executive for the Mountain and Wave during the peak of its empire, and today, as an on-air analyst for the World Surf League. All that time, all those hats, all that insider exposure—and still, hardly a word has been written about Wasilewski, personally, in the way even marginal surfing personalities are discussed, often ad nauseam. He seemed untapped. 

And so, on a Tuesday afternoon in January, I meet Wasilewski at the refurbished barn that he, his wife, and children call home, to find out what the posters, magazine spreads, press releases, and the webcast can’t tell. At 44, he appears every bit a man who has made a life and living out of surfing—still fit, hair still a shade shy of platinum, and skin a color that defies his Northern European lineage. 

He’ll say he’s been nothing if not blessed, but up close, I can’t help but notice that he also wears the other, less leisurely side of his time in the surfing spotlight. That enviable skin is worn and freckled and scarred. And as the sun falls and the weather cools, a limp appears—the result of a foot once broken so badly doctors considered amputation. His face settles at serious, and he speaks with a slow assurance—a mixture of gathering just the right words and caring little that he’s on the record at all. 

In conversation, it’s quickly affirmed that though Wasilewski’s current life lies just 20 miles up the coast from his upbringing in Dogtown-era Santa Monica and Venice, it’s been a high, and sometimes low, trip in between.

Illustration by Chloe Scheffe/photo reference by Danny Liao.

WB: There’s a photo floating around online of you pushing through a bomb at Cloudbreak, with audio equipment still on your back, and the WSL microphone in your hand. 

SW: I get off on waves like that. It’s an addiction, where you feel most alive when you’re closest to death. That’s why I put so much energy and time into Pipeline and Teahupoo. They still scare the shit out of me. There’ve been moments when I’ve felt confident, but I’ve never felt comfortable out there.
To see those waves coming, you have to be mentally ready. And listen, when you’re underneath a crazy, tow-in bomb that closed out on you at Teahupoo—running along the reef sideways, getting pieces of you taken off, the bottom black, a weird alien light above you—and you see coral heads coming, that’s when you start to think you’ve had enough. But that feeling never goes away, and you end up going back out. The addiction part of it never leaves you. I got to surf the Code Red swell. Most guys who do it keep doing it until they don’t have it in their bodies anymore. Randomly enough, I learned to love that feeling in Santa Monica at 10 years old. It was an onshore afternoon, and I was getting worked on the inside, wave after wave. I couldn’t get my breath. I was so overwhelmed. The waves were maybe 6-foot faces, but at the time, it was life or death. I’ve spent almost my entire life trying to find that feeling, only the danger level went way up.

WB: Was growing up in Santa Monica and Venice in the 70s and 80s as rough as people remember?

SW: It doesn’t even feel like the same place sometimes. I saw a guy get shot in front of my house. They used to deal drugs in the alley behind us. There were addicts living on the beach and under the pier. It was the Dogtown era. I moved there in ’78. It was right when Tony Alva and Jay Adams were hitting their peaks—doing what you see in the movies. They were stars. They’d kick me out of the parties because I was too young. They didn’t want me to see what was going on. In that sense, they were looking out for me, which thinking about it now, was really cool of them. I can’t believe most of those guys made it through those days. When I started surfing, I couldn’t go to Venice. My little crew could go down there and skate, but we weren’t even allowed to walk out to the breakwater. The guys would throw rocks at us, beat us up, break our fins, and then tell us to go home. They didn’t care that we were little kids. Slowly, I became friends with a kid named Ricky Massie, who was my childhood rival as a surfer. Through him, I got a hall pass to go to Venice. His family members were Venice gangsters. Even though the rest of us were terrified to go down to the breakwater, Ricky was probably safer down there than he was in his neighborhood. We used to go to parties at his house that were so scary.

I realized that growing up in Santa Monica and Dogtown, with all of the guys talking shit all day, taught me how to defend myself, and to always have something to come back at them with. If it wasn’t for that, I don’t think I could do the [commentating] job I’m doing now. I walked into something that I felt was natural to me.

WB: For the most part, it doesn’t seem like anyone is growing up with that anymore at the beach. California beach towns are becoming gentrified and safer. I know I didn’t really deal with that stuff, at least on a consistent basis. 

SW: It’s just a different era. We knew how we had to act. When I was the team manager at Quiksilver, I ran the house at Pipeline with Reef McIntosh, and we made the kids do their chores. The house was spotless. Their parents would call me when they got home and ask what I did to their kids. I was worried I did something wrong. But they’d tell me that they were cleaning their rooms and dishes—things they’d never done before. That type of respect, and understanding of pecking order, was inherent when I was a kid. I hope the kids today respect what they have, and how good they have it. Most of us didn’t have it good. The first winter I surfed when I was like six, I had to wear trunks, or if it was really cold, two pairs of pants and two sweatshirts. I’d run out and surf for as long as I could until I froze, because my mom wanted me to prove it to her that she should buy me a wetsuit. Sure, I saw a lot of stuff at a young age because of where I grew up, but surfing was different too. People don’t remember me for it, but I did really well as an amateur. I won the NSSA Nationals. And every year from when I was 10 to 13, I went to Florida for the East Meets West All Stars. We’d stay at the Holiday Inn in Melbourne Beach, and were exposed to everything—partying, girls, you name it. Now, kids are groomed to be professionals and stay in their lane. It’s safer. There’s parenting involved.

WB Why did you quit competing?

SW: When I was 16, I started doing the PSAA contests. I saw the political side of it. I was watching guys win their heats in the water, but lose on the beach through the judging. It felt lame. So I went up to Big Sur for a while, and surfed that whole zone alone. I lost my sponsors. They said, “We can’t see you.” I didn’t want to play the game. It wasn’t why I loved surfing. The only thing I cared about was Hawaii. Pipe was why I loved surfing. It still is. I’d work all summer just to get back to Hawaii. I didn’t care about being a pro. I just wanted to prove myself at Pipeline. 

WB: Did you see a path to surfing for a living outside of contests? Curren and Lopez were doing it, but they’d already proved themselves in competition. 

SW: Dave Kennedy, Chris Malloy, and a few other guys had opened that door up, but I didn’t have a clue. Just before I went over to Hawaii for the ’93/’94 winter, I went to this sweat lodge ceremony in Malibu, and they told me I was on the perfect path. I went down to Quiksilver with my little book of photos from Pipe and everywhere I’d been, but they told me they didn’t need another kid from California who wanted to be a star. I walked out of there devastated. I decided that, after I got back from Hawaii, I was going to go to college. Then, Robbie Page came out to the parking lot with some stickers, a little bag of clothes, a wetsuit, 500 bucks and said, “If you can pull it off, get some work done.” One day that winter, I was going out at Pipeline and there was this guy on the beach smoking weed. He looked at me all stoned and said, “You just need one wave.” It was classic. I paddled past the crowd to Second Reef, and a wave came right to me. I was on a board with too much rocker, and I almost fell off the back doing a bottom turn. It looked liked I was doing a soul arch. A couple months later, my friend told me I was on the cover of Surfer. I thought he was lying. Four months went by, and I still hadn’t seen this magazine. I was staying in my friend’s garage, and everyone would party in there, so I’d wait until they were done to go to bed. I moved the coffee table to pull out the couch, and upside down on the table was a magazine. I flipped it over and saw the cover for the first time. They boys had drawn all over it. It had a fart coming out of my ass, a joint in my mouth, kook written on it. Still, I stared at it for like an hour. At first, I was making almost nothing. But I rolled the little money I did make into going on surf trips. I made sure I was always on it. Before I knew it, I was at the forefront of Quiksilver’s heyday, alongside Kelly. I was living the dream. I got to go all over the world and got paid for it. Everywhere you can think of, I went. It lasted 20 years.

The frame that launched a career: Strider Wasilewski at Pipeline, from the cover of Surfer magazine’s May 1994 issue. Photo by Don King.

WB: What was it like moving into a desk role after that?

SW: I watched Quiksilver’s peak pass, and I saw the ugly side of the inner-workings of a corporation. I thought that being the Vice President of Marketing, having that big title, was going to lead me to the success that I wanted. But when I went down that path, I was so unhappy. I was 200 pounds. I was commuting to Huntington. With all the things I was doing everyday, it felt like I was going nowhere. I could see the writing on the wall with the new people that got brought in. It was dark. Then I got fired from Quiksilver. My mom was dying from cancer, and I was being audited by the IRS for the third fucking year in a row. A year went by, and I didn’t know what I was going to do. I started giving surf lessons and was hanging out at the beach everyday. I got healthy again. I lost the 30 pounds I put on from the stress of corporate life. When I eventually approached the WSL, I was late to the party. They said, “Sorry, we don’t have anything left.” It felt like Quiksilver all over again. Quiksilver told me no for ten years whenever I’d ask about being a commentator. Every goddamned year I’d go to Australia and I’d ask them, “Can I do this?” And all I’d get was a no. But one of the WSL bosses, Jed Pearson, said, “I’ll give you a shot.” After a while I realized that growing up in Santa Monica and Dogtown, with all of the guys talking shit all day, taught me how to defend myself, and always have something to come back at them with. If it wasn’t for that, I don’t think I could do the job I’m doing now. I walked into something that I felt was natural
to me. 

WB: You quit competing because of contest politics. Do you think it’s strange that you’re a face of the WSL now?

SW: As far as contest results go, there will always be errors. Because judging is subjective. But, at the end of the day, the best guys are winning. John [Florence] is winning. Gabriel [Medina] is winning. The surfing “core” can at least respect that. People can look at it and say surfing has sold out, they can complain about wave pools, and be mad that people are getting paid. But you know what? People have been getting paid to surf since day one. They’ve been in commercials, in contests, and getting endorsements since the beginning. All those things don’t have anything to do with why most people surf, which is because they love surfing. We have it better than most sports, because loving surfing has nothing to do with the professional side of it. So don’t be mad at pro surfing. Guys get paid because they’re great at it. What should they do, say no? It’s amazing that people can make a life out of surfing. Trust me.