Laird Hamilton has no time for alpha males

Laird Hamilton, dripping wet and in board shorts, is exactly what you would expect: Tall, tan, ridiculously good-looking. That shock of blond hair, chiseled physique and masculine presence have been familiar for decades. Which makes him something of a contradiction. “He’s the most sensitive one in the family,” says his wife, Gabrielle Reece. “The more alpha, the more loving and sensitive. It has to be that way, right? It’s like any master sensei. These are people who have been hurt and know life is fragile.”

If anyone can make the bullies of the world more sensitive and caring, it’s Laird Hamilton. The legendary surfer has tackled monster waves from Tahiti to Malibu. He has paddled the English Channel, gone helicopter snowboarding in Chile. This past winter, he saved his Malibu home from the Woolsey fire using a pump and water from his swimming pool. “He traded two surf boards for a fire suit,” Reece says matter of factly, as if to suggest, “That’s just what Laird does.”

The ocean. The sky. Life. Mortality. These things make sense to Hamilton. Perhaps it’s because his athletic pursuits have brought him to the brink more than once. “Death has influenced me,” he says, busily making turmeric lattes in his home gym. “It has made me more grateful and thankful to be alive.”

MALIBU, CALIF. -- THURSDAY, MAY 30, 2019: Members of the ‘tribe’ workout in the backyard of Laird Ha
From left: Brandon Jenner, Darin Olien (standing) and Randall Wallace work out in the pool. Having access to nature and friends is important to Hamilton, especially when there is no surf. “The house is meant to be used,” adds his wife, Gabrielle Reece.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

With a new book, “Liferider: Heart, Body, Soul, and Life Beyond the Ocean,” written with Julian Borra, Hamilton hopes to share a kinder, gentler side to the thrill-seeking aquaman.

At 55, Hamilton has no time for alpha males.

“Not if it’s just physical, unfeeling stuff,” he says in “Liferider.” “It’s too limiting. I want to develop the whole, and that’s about way more than just aggression or strength. That’s about true connection. That’s about honesty. That’s about the sensitivity of compassion.”

With toxic masculinity much discussed and debated, Hamilton is preaching humility and caring. To anyone who has struggled on a dark day and been rescued by a friend, Hamilton is trying to emphasize the power of community.

“Everything is connected,” Hamilton says. “Surfing is a solitary sport. But I can tell you that some of the most amazing things I’ve done surfing have come from being a part of a tribe.”

Nowhere is this more clear than at his Malibu home, where he and Reece, a world-renowned volleyball player, host regular workouts in their pool, not far from the waves of Point Dume.

MALIBU, CALIF. -- THURSDAY, MAY 30, 2019: Laird Hamilton takes a sauna following a morning workout i
He knows a lot, he says, about what it takes to live a happy life. Perhaps it’s because his adrealine-fueled pursuits have brought him close to death more than once. “Death has influenced me,” he says. “It has made me more grateful and thankful to be alive.”
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Surfing may have defined Hamilton, but his swimming pool has become a metaphor for what inspires him to keep moving forward.

“The pool is about community,” he says. “Sharing is how I learn.”

On a recent weekday, seven friends showed up to train alongside Hamilton, including former NFL offensive lineman Steve Wright, actor John McGinley and musician Brandon Jenner. The couple’s daughters, Reece, 15, and Brody Jo, 11, have been known to join in — or, as Reece puts it, “torture everybody.” (Hamilton has a daughter, Izabella, 24, from his first marriage, to Maria Souza.)

There are two barrel saunas, both heated to 220 degrees, two ice baths and an outdoor shower. A weight rack situated behind the diving board is in constant use, unlike the scores of chaise longues scattered around the pool.

As the men lift weights, do push-ups, swim with dumbbells, and move from the sauna to the ice bath, they confer on their workouts and discuss solar heating, current events and the latest podcasts.

Peer training is a terrific recipe for fitness success, but for Hamilton, it’s more than exercise. “Working out is a small part of it,” Reece says of the pool crew. “It’s about accountability. It’s more of an exchange. It’s what they need at the moment. Laird is smart enough to know that he keeps learning and is inspired by being around all of these people who are offering him information.”

Surfing is a solitary sport. But I can tell you that some of the most amazing things I’ve done surfing have come from being a part of a tribe.
Laird Hamilton

By opening their pool to others, the couple have created a community center that revolves around health, wellness and family. You could argue that the pool group has become their family.

“The tribe is real,” says friend and “Malibu Mob” member Elijah Allan-Blitz, a virtual reality director. “Laird and Gabby are the heart of it, and the pool is a manifestation of that. That is how they share the physicality that is so important to both of them. The only requirement is authenticity.”

It may gall his critics — and there are many — but as the father of three has gotten older, he has evolved into a more patient version of his younger self. (In the 2017 documentary “Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton,” he admits to being brash and “obnoxious” in his early years.)

Hamilton continues to challenge his own perceptions of what’s possible. “The book came out of things that I believe and live,” he says, pleased that he has surprised so many readers with his sensitive side. “I learned a lot about myself in the process. There’s something about being a student. As a surfer, I always try to keep evolving.”

MALIBU, CALIF. -- THURSDAY, MAY 30, 2019: Legendary surfer Laird Hamilton sorts through his foilboar
Hamilton inspects his foilboards as he prepares for a surfing trip to Peru. He no longer surfs on traditional surfboards.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

That evolution includes the lifestyle program he co-founded with Reece, XPT, which stresses breath, movement and recovery. In this capacity he shares his theories on health and fitness, but he does not do so in the book. Today, he is more concerned with what it means to be human in the age of technology.

“We forget to look up from our phones,” he says, eyeing Point Dume from his living room. Like most surfers, Hamilton surveys the swells several times a day. (The family splits its time between Malibu and Kauai.)

The couple purchased the 8,000-square-foot home in 1997 for its views of the best surfing spots in Malibu and its proximity to the coastal bluffs, where Hamilton regularly cycles. The six-bedroom home features an impressive weight room, a garage workshop and sleek, monochromatic interiors that don’t try to upstage the stunning ocean views.

MALIBU, CALIF. -- THURSDAY, MAY 30, 2019: Legendary surfer Laird Hamilton, left, and wife Gabrielle
Hamilton and wife Gabrielle Reece prepare for the day in their Malibu kitchen.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

The couple are surprisingly down to earth — they have no managers or publicists and handle everything, with the exception of legal matters, on their own. Yes, there are Cheerios in the pantry. And yes, the hyperactive Hamilton watches Netflix at the end of the day. (“There aren’t enough abbreviations for me,” he says of his ADHD with a self-deprecating laugh.)

“My life is my work,” Hamilton says. “I tried to design a lifestyle that allows me to be flexible.” Hamilton readily acknowledges how fortunate he is to have the freedom to go surfing in Peru the following day.

“Nature is a force that keeps him in check,” says Reece. “The laws of nature are different. The world is a confusing place for Laird. He is always in the tension of wanting to go and wanting to be here for his family.”

He is also sensitive to how his lifestyle may be perceived by others. Growing up in Hawaii as a blond-haired kid among islanders, Hamilton was bullied and learned humility. “If you’re not humble in the ocean, you can die,” he says. “I work hard. I’ve dug ditches, I’ve built houses. I have empathy for what it takes for people to survive.”

As part of his evolution, and in keeping with the book’s theme of community and compassion, Hamilton views himself today as an ambassador for the ocean. “I can show the majesty of the ocean,” he says. “I can do that in a unique way. It goes back to everything being connected. If we take care of ourselves, our priorities will reflect that. If we are healthy and well rested, we will be passionate about the environment. If we feel good, then we will go outside and connect to the ocean. It all goes back to nature. It will all circle back to us.”

Asked if he gets annoyed when people wonder if he will still be surfing at 60, he smiles and recalls his late friend Don Wildman, who died last year at 86.

“He was enthusiastic about everything,” Hamilton says, not quite realizing that he could be describing himself. “Age is just a number. You are the company you keep.” At home in Malibu, that company qualifies as family.

MALIBU, CALIF. -- THURSDAY, MAY 30, 2019: Legendary surfer Laird Hamilton takes a coffee break at hi
Hamilton takes a coffee break in the first floor gym of his Latigo Canyon home in Malibu.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Force of Nature

“Liferider” is organized into five pillars: “Death and Fear,” “Heart,” “Body,” “Soul,” and “Everything Is Connected.” Below, selected advice from the psyche of Laird Hamilton.

“At the end of the day, I think it’s that you care. That you care no matter what. If you care, sincerely and deeply, people can feel that.”

“One of my favorite books, ‘Natural Born Heroes’ by Christopher McDougall, cites one thing as the greatest mark of a leader: Compassion. Not courage. Not strength. Not endurance. But compassion. That’s heart right there.”

“In the end, sure, work out and live how you want to and it’s going to help you. For me that had an affect — the extreme physicality — but in the end that’s so limiting. And it’s not real. You need depth. Like emotional depth.”

“I think there’s too much ‘head’ stuff going on sometimes. I think we need a little un-mindfulness. This is as much about the unknown as it is about the known. Part of the overthinking of it all is that I think we are a little lazy. ‘If I do a little mindfulness, live the hashtag, then I’ve done it’ — kind of a smart, efficient way of missing out on all the real hard work.”

“You can’t be truly heroic without being compassionate. Period. Anybody that does anything heroic has to be compassionate. And compassion, I would say, is more of a feminine trait.”

“The accomplishment of an ego is limiting. Accomplishment of your spirit and your soul is far more fulfilling.”

“Achievement should be about family, friends. Those are achievements.”

“The thing that connects you is just being a valuable part of that tribe. Maybe that’s all I wanted. That’s family.”