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Chuck Patterson is an inspiring person. He is 6’2” and weighs 220 pounds. He competes at the pro level in five different sports: stand up paddling, tow-in surfing, kite surfing, skiing and snowboarding. His bronze skin, perfect set of white teeth, sun-bleached shock of blonde hair, and a body that appears to be made only of muscle completes the image. Chuck wows fellow athletes, sports fans and spectators with a seemingly godlike ability to gracefully play with the natural world’s violent waves and snowy mountain cliffs.
The extreme athlete and I are having breakfast at a local diner in Dana Point, California. He’s ordered a plate loaded with fluffy French toast. His food is getting cold as he recalls the day earlier this year that he rode Maui’s turbulent 40-foot waves in the same manner one would thunder down a snowy Alaskan mountainside on skis. Instead of using the customary surfboard, Patterson startled the sports world by using a pair of Starr surf skis, and to complete the image, he wielded a set of ski poles. A lifetime of physical and mental training and perseverance folded into one very intense moment where Patterson would either take the nascent sport of surf skiing to a whole new level, or be toppled by a wave and risk personal injury and humiliation.
That day at Maui’s most renowned big wave surf site, Jaws, Chuck was being towed by a jet ski into the choppy water as people watched from their boats. The Red Bull crew was filming him. Fifty other teams shared the water. Everybody noticed he was wearing what looked like snow skis. His friends were confused why he wasn’t using a board to surf Jaw’s heartless waves. Had Chuck become bored with the already exhilarating sport of tow surfing? Were Jaws’ legendary waves no longer challenging enough? “Everybody thought I’d lost it,” Patterson says, “and if I wiped out, I’d be the laughingstock of the sports world.
“That morning at Jaws the water was especially sloppy and kind of dangerous, but many people had come to watch, and you never know what tomorrow brings, so I told myself to man-up and do it. I’d surf skied before in Northern California, but on smaller waves, so I knew I could pull it off.”
When Chuck let go of the jet ski’s rope, he was left alone on the trampling sea, bound to his skis and clutching his poles at the summit of a powerful, gathering swell. The situation was far from ideal and getting worse every second. The water was “bumpy and jumpy.” Chuck picked up speed, but the wind shifted and pinned him at the top as he tried to gain momentum to keep safely in the wave’s pocket. If he didn’t, he knew the water would crash over him and he’d be swallowed.
“You get that feeling in your gut, like I’ve got to do this, and then you’re praying to God that everything is good and that it turns out all right and you’re praying that you don’t wreck. I’d never taken a gnarly fall on those skis because I really couldn’t come out of the bindings—so I knew, if I wiped out, I was pretty much going to break my legs or knock myself out. I didn’t have room for error. “
A helicopter and its crew hovered overhead shooting the action. Chuck urgently tried to stay ahead of the wave. His lifetime of athleticism and intense competition concentrated on that single moment. Had he pushed the envelope too far? If he couldn’t shove past the wind and get lower on the wave, he knew he’d blown it. “I couldn’t live with that,” he said. “That would be unacceptable.”
Chuck Patterson’s life as an extreme athlete seems, to him, all too normal, but for the rest of us he is anything but average. He grew up in Lake Tahoe, California, and began skiing at the age of two and a half. His mother was a professional skier and windsurfer, and his father was a nuclear physicist. “I grew up a very visual person. I was really intrigued by what my mother was doing with sports. She was a super-gnarly athlete. I’m a reflection of her. My father taught me to think scientifically. I learned planning and organization and execution from him, and I applied those skills to every sport I participated in.” This may be the perfect extreme athlete formula that has influenced Chuck since his earliest days.
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