August will be a big month for three-time Mavericks winner Darryl Virostko. Known as "Flea" in the big wave surf community, Virostko will commemorate three years of sobriety on Aug. 25. About that same time, Virostko and girlfriend Onawa Foster-Tannheimer expect a baby girl.
The portrait of a reborn father is a far cry from the indomitable hard-charger rumored to surf Mavericks high.
"There is no panic in Flea, and he has spent a lifetime emerging from hell," Bruce Jenkins wrote in "Inside Maverick's: Portrait of a Monster Wave."
Indeed, after years of hard living, Virostko's substance abuse reached a boiling point in 2008 when the Santa Cruz native lost his surfing sponsorship and had to face a troubling reality.
Virostko's experience at a Santa Cruz rehab center helped him get clean, but it also led him to conceive of his own rehabilitation program, appropriately named Fleahab. He hopes to create a program that harnesses the power of exercise and activity to aid in the recovery process.
With all these changes, Flea has also reconsidered his relationship with the epic surf spot off the coast of Pillar Point. He said he's stepping away from it and will no longer compete at Mavericks.
"I've won three times out at Mavericks and I've had a great life surfing Mavericks, but I'm getting older and having a baby," Virostko said. "I want to change my whole way of looking at surfing."
During a recent benefit for the Half Moon Bay Surf Club at It's Italia restaurant in Half Moon Bay, the Review's Lily Bixler sat down with Virostko and Foster-Tannheimer to talk about fair-weather sponsorship, substance abuse among surfers, his transition to being a role model for kids and the future of the Mavericks surf contest.
How did you get the nickname Flea?
When I was a little kid, before I hit puberty, I surfed big waves in Santa Cruz, so Vince Collier just started calling me Flea because I looked like a flea on a wave. I didn't like it, so it stuck. But, now, I don't mind it.
You've been outspoken about overcoming substance abuse and it seems you've changed your course to become a role model for kids. What was the turning point?
I knew deep down inside that I didn't want to live that way. I had to have drugs and alcohol to just get by during the day. Finally, when I made the point to go get help, there was no looking back. It's night and day once you get clear-headed and start changing.
How many months of sobriety have you had?
I'm going on three years of sobriety. It's great. ... So it's cool. Time flies. My friends who are getting high and drinking still, I tell them I've got three years, and they're like, "What? No way! It seems like last summer." And I'm like, "No, I've got three years already." But by just living by example, and not even saying anything, a lot of people are turning their lives around.
You started Fleahab in 2009. Maybe you can tell me the goal of Fleahab and the role it played in your personal recovery?
When I went to recovery, I went to a place called the Beacon House and I couldn't exercise; I couldn't get out and do the things I like to do. That's all I wanted to do in getting sober. So I figured I'd create a place, Fleahab, a sober-living environment, where people could focus on surfing and playing tennis and playing golf and actually getting into the activities that they used to love to do and now they don't do because they drink or use drugs. Like camping, hiking, just all these things. It's just a place where people can be healthy and get back into society.
How did the active lifestyle help in your recovery?
I want to get tired by the end of the day. So you get up and do all these things that make you tired and it really eliminates the feeling you get where you want to go get drunk or whatever. You're so tired and you've done so much, you go to sleep and you can sleep at night. It's something that's helped get me to where I am today - just being able to do activities and all the things I do every day.
So now that you've turned over a new leaf, how has your relationship with surfing changed?
I was a professional surfer. I was getting paid 12 grand a month, a lot of money, and all of a sudden you admit you're a drug addict and all of your sponsors just disappear. No one sticks on your back and says, "That's cool you're getting sober. We're behind you on this one." That was the hardest thing for me: not having that support from sponsors. It's forced me to look in a different direction in life - a direction where I can actually work and figure out some kind of business to make money and live. It was gnarly because it was all at once. You're making tons of money and then no money and everyone skips out on you.
When you're out in the water do you feel a different connection with the waves or is it similar to how it was before?
It's the same as it was before. I love surfing; it's great. But now I just want to surf for fun. I don't want to compete or feel I have to go out to make someone happy. It's more of a personal thing for me now. I get to go get away from my everyday life and go paddle out and forget about everything. That's where it's at now with surfing. I want to push it out there that it's alright for people to admit they have a problem. In the surfing world, sponsors should support their guys.
There's a certain sense that surfing giant waves requires fearlessness. Do you think that lifestyle that's associated with this kind of surfing has intensified substance abuse in Northern California surfers?
Partying and big-wave surfing go hand in hand. You get done after a good session and everyone's like, "Let's go grab a couple beers." We're adrenaline junkies. So for a lot of us, we go all the way with a lot of things.
Surfing is getting to be a sport that's really professional. Everyone's now really into their health and getting a good night's sleep. It's really changed a lot in the past couple of years because of the recession. It's really gotten tight with sponsors. You've got to be on top of your game.
You've recently joined forces with Mavericks Community LLC, previously Half Moon Bay Surf Group LLC. I'm interested in why you've decided to join now and what you want to see happen with the group?
I'm going to not compete in the Mavericks event from now on, and I want to help run the contest the way it should be run. I'll be a spokesperson for them. Whatever I can do to help the group, I'm going to do. As long as we're working together, we can put a good event on.
We don't need big companies involved. We will have some sponsors, but we don't want to get out of control again. We want to create this contest for the future so that in 10 years we're still going to be doing it and it keeps getting better and better. For the surfers, by the surfers. I'm excited to actually be where I am now.