By Matt Pruett
Photos by Pete Taras and Tom Carey
Long ago, Chris Ward was the best 16-year-old surfer in the world. These days, if you believe the press, he’s a washed-up thirty-something surfer who likes to pound hillbilly gals for fun. The truth is a little more complex, perhaps…
Accounts vary. But the most fantastic version goes something like this: During the wee hours of last call on Tuesday morning, January 8th, 2008 outside the Whiskey Creek in Mammoth Lakes, California, 29-year-old Chris Ward – flushed and puffy-faced and full of booze and testosterone and god knows what else – is out of his element. He’s on land.
Confronted by three mouthy women over a jacket while their brooding male escorts crack their knuckles in intimidating disdain, Ward grips a large piece of ice beside him.
This is where things get hazy: for the courts, the media and anyone else who’s followed the Californian’s bizarre proclivities over the years. “Fuck you bitches!” he screams. “Gimme that goddamn jacket!” Ward lifts the weapon over his head, roars and hurls the missile at the females. Naturally, they all go down at once like some extreme sports parody of the Three Stooges. Their valiant avengers proceed to beat Ward to a bloody pulp before the coppers come and drag him off to jail and unchecked online circuits everywhere start firing, confirming that the 17th ranked surfer in the world has achieved a whole new zenith of douche-baggery.
He’s a drunk. A thug. A woman beater.
Did it all go down exactly like this? Of course not. Monosyllabic as he has been about the incident while the courts and lawyers and D.O.C. go through the bureaucratic motions, one Chris Ward plea sticks out like a sore jawbone. “I’ve never hit a woman.” That’s not good enough for an impressionable public who demands the full story, even if it’s not true. But a few Mono County court documents and Ward’s somewhat cryptic defense are all we’re likely to get. So be it. Waveriders are a transient, visceral species galvanized not by the verbalism of action, but the ignition of it. The wisest career moves don’t necessarily reflect what’s going on it the water, and vice versa. That’s Chris Ward. Otherworldly attention in the sea, but often so flaky, disconnected and, yes, volatile on land, friends call him “Dum Dum” while ad campaigns chant “Psycho Ward” and proclaim him “The most interesting surfer in the world.” But as intriguing and/or disturbing as his story may be, let this serve as a spoiler alert. Just as the one household, “Where’s Wardo?” ends with a question mark, so does this piece. Chris Ward is out of sight, out of mind, and running out of options. His next act – may it be an Irons-like encore, an Occy-like rebirth or an Archy-like disintegration – remains to be seen.
But first, a little rewind is required.
In 1994, Chris Ward was the best 15-year-old surfer in the world. A hell-spawn of the San Clemente Mafia which claimed longhaired extremists like Matt Archbold, Dino Andino, Christian Fletcher, and Shane Beschen, vanguards of the sports aerial revolution. Ward was the ideal poster child for the death-to-prettyboy culture Matt Biolos and Mike Reola were cultivating with their cutting-edge young brand …Lost Enterprises. Already housebroken in the NSSA as a rising amateur sensation (winning the Open Boys and Open Juniors titles in 1991 and 1994, respectively), Ward posted up daily at the San Clemente Pier with a backpack and bagged lunch, keenly observing his mentors’ flight patterns. Thus, his true breakthrough arrived not in heats but via the 1995 release of …Lost’s first quality video production What’s Really Going On? where Ward validated shorebreak improvisations like chop-hops and run-and-jumps while charging far beyond his years at Puerto Escondido and the North Shore’s reefs. Un-like scorecards and even photos, video clips couldn’t lie. The kid had power hacks, the tube panache, a proclivity for colossal aerials and Lear-esque curiosity for experimentation – so much the complete package, in fact, one had trouble figuring out what his chief strengths were. He was also handsome, fearless, and completely unsheltered.
“Chris Ward was unequivocally the best kid in the world his age. No one else was even close,” remembers Dino Andino, whose son Kolohe is currently America’s top professional prospect and facing similar expectations as Ward experienced before he could legally drive. “He was an extension of what he grew up around. San Clemente is a small beach town, but it had been the center of the media focus for a while, and Ward’s talent was on the iconic level, so innovative and polished. People called him lazy, because he looked so relaxed while doing bigger stuff than anyone else was doing. He was just such a natural.”
Subsequent years and the surf video boom of the late 90’s gave the boy a fringe celebrity window. Wardo-mania hit a fever pitch with the 1997 release of 5’5” x 19 ¼”, where he and Cory Lopez spearheaded a resurgence of the fish design, now a staple in every grom’s quiver. The grom was headed quickly toward demigod status. Maybe a little too quickly.
“He’s always been an intense and different type of person,” says …Lost co-founder Matt Biolos. “He didn’t have a normal childhood and went through a lot of things a teenager shouldn’t. Not just fame and money, but real issues with his father’s health, supporting his entire family by the time he was 16, then having a child not long after. I wish I were more of a mentor to Ward. But to tell the truth, he never really let me that close. He’s his own man. I’ve always respected that and haven’t really ever pried into his personal life since he was 15.”