big wave, surfer, laird hamilton

Being Laird

Words: Nora O’Donnell
Photo: Courtesy of Take Every Wave 

At the Sundance Film Festival, the weather outside is frightful, but it’s no match for legendary big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton. 

When the most important film festival in America takes place in a tiny mountain town in Utah at the end of January, it’s very likely there will be snow. But at this year’s Sundance in Park City, the snow dumped continuously, causing festival shuttles to crawl and Uber prices to surge.

It’s a brutally cold Monday morning and Laird Hamilton is stuck in traffic on his way to a screening of the new documentary Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton. Wearing nothing but a light jacket, jeans and flip-flops, Hamilton steps out of his enormous truck and starts directing traffic. He stuns passersby as he pushes cars to safety. Nothing is going to stand in his way, not even one of the biggest storms in Sundance history.   

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Hamilton is not your typical Sundancer. The day before, he spent his morning at a local sports club, tapping on his smart phone as he intermittently watched a circle of people form around a towering presence with a blonde ponytail. It’s his wife, Gabrielle Reece, the 6-foot-3 former professional volleyball player, model and fitness guru. Reece walked the group through a high-intensity workout routine she developed called HIGHX, when she noticed someone hovering outside the perimeter.

“Ma’am, are you observing or participating?” she asked me.

“Observing,” I sheepishly answered, even though one of the publicists had just handed me a brand new pair of Salming running shoes so I could participate. Moments later, with a kettlebell in my hands, Reece was coaching me on my swings. Her encouragement was addictive, and everyone in the class synchronized to the rhythm of her voice. 

After an hour of punishing moves with Reece, Hamilton took over with a series of breathing exercises that sounded like 30 people hyperventilating in unison. Hamilton learned the technique from adventurer Wim Hof, who claims the practice can strengthen the body and improve circulation, among other health benefits.

This is not Hamilton’s first Sundance. Back in 2004, he was featured in Stacy Peralta’s iconic surfing film Riding Giants, the first documentary ever to open the festival.

“The last Sundance was like a whirlwind,” Hamilton says later. (He missed the premiere, but Reece attended in his place.) “I had priorities,” he explains matter-of-factly. Back then, his priorities were conquering the world’s largest waves, and there was a giant swell out there that he couldn’t miss. 

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“This time, I’ve come earlier. It’s just been a lot smoother. I don’t really have expectations. You know that old saying, ‘No expectations, No disappointments?’ I think about where I’m at in my life now versus where I was 13 years ago, and it’s immensely different. I’m calmer now.”

Calmness is relative. At 52, Hamilton is more active than most people half his age. Most Sundance attendees are not spending their mornings at a fitness club. Instead, they’re nursing hangovers after a late night of free drinks and passed hors d’oeuvres from a merry-go-round of industry parties.

 “Having a good time is great,” Hamilton says, “but when the side effects of that good time start to override everything, then you have to look at it and ask yourself, ‘Is this productive?’ I think people are becoming more health conscious and they want to start things on the right foot. They want to reap the rewards for the rest of their day and feel unbelievably great.”

Hamilton’s intense workout regimen is one of the keys to his longevity in big-wave surfing. In Take Every Wave, he’s seen swimming underwater with dumbbells, taking dips in ice baths and practicing his breathing techniques with Hof. It’s clear from the film that Hamilton has an unquestionable talent in the water—and a deep understanding and respect for it, too—but it is his passion, dedication and innovation for surfing that make him such a figurehead in the sport, even though he’s never competed professionally.   

“I think the only time I’m not going to surf is when I die.”
Laird Hamilton
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And if I'm lucky....

A post shared by Laird Hamilton (@lairdhamiltonsurf) on

Take Every Wave focuses on Hamilton’s evolution as a surfer, from being one of the creators of tow-in surfing to his current focus with the innovation of foil boards. To develop his latest board, Hamilton collaborated with skipper Jimmy Spithill and the engineers at Oracle Team USA, who together are changing the face of yacht racing with the use of foils. Hamilton hopes to do the same with surfing. 

“When you ride a foil, it’s so pure,” Hamilton tells the crowd after his Monday morning screening. “It’s like being a bird.”

The audience has just watched a man in his fifties ride a seemingly endless wave on the big screen, and they’re all in awe of the feat. They also notice Hamilton’s flip-flops.

“I will testify that Laird is who he is entirely all the time,” says the documentary’s acclaimed director, Rory Kennedy. “I know you all came here in a snowstorm, but it’s gotten ten times worse out there. We just got stuck on Main Street and Laird was literally pushing cars out of the way.” 

After the chuckling dies down, a woman in the audience asks Hamilton, “What are you going to do when you can no longer surf?”

“I think the only time I’m not going to surf is when I die,” he responds.

Other big-wave surfers have said the same thing before, but when Laird Hamilton says it, you believe. 

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