By Russell Scott Smith
Updated May 22, 2000 12:00 PM

As host of the lunatic-fringe sports show The Extremists with Gabrielle Reece during the mid-’90s, Reece sampled everything from motorcycle drag racing to barefoot water skiing. But none of those thrills got the ex-model and pro volleyball star’s heart pumping like a November 1995 ride through the Hawaiian surf with world-renowned big-wave rider Laird Hamilton.

Riding tandem with Hamilton on a 12-ft. surfboard “gave me a chance to notice Laird physically,” Reece, 30, says. What she noticed was a 6’3″, 220-lb. Tarzan who was a virtual mirror image of her own 6’3″, 170-lb. self, And what she felt confirmed the worst fears of her then-boyfriend, actor Dean Cain, who she says “had a fit” when he learned she was scheduled to interview surfing’s reigning poster boy. Adds Hamilton, 36, who was married at the time, of their love-at-first-splash: “It was out of our hands.”

And out in the open. “When she came back from Hawaii, she said, ‘I found him, he’s the one,’ ” says Reece’s then-roommate, fellow volleyballer Jennifer Meredith. Four years later, the Reece-Hamilton union resembles equal parts Blue Lagoon and a workout video. “We’re like bros,” Reece says. “I’m like one of the guys, and he’s like one of the girls.” Married in November 1997 in a canoe on the Hanalei River in Kauai, Hawaii, the couple spend a third of the year living in a three-bedroom rented stilt house deep in the jungle along the Hanalei. On the north shore of the island, Hamilton spends his mornings tempting fate and burnishing his surf-devil reputation—careening down the face of 40-ft. waves, kayaking and windsurfing—while Reece lifts weights, bikes and plays beach volleyball. During the summer the couple move to a 10,000-sq.-ft. Mediterranean-style home in Malibu so Reece can compete in professional beach volleyball. Hamilton (who earns a living mainly through endorsements for soft drinks and clothing) often travels with her, leading Reece to call him the “Yoko Ono” of the circuit.’ “As long as I can drive to where she is,” he says, “I’m fine.”

Such bliss, though, didn’t come easy. Reece, who juggled modeling and collegiate volleyball in the late ’80s and early ’90s (she quit modeling and turned pro in 1992), says old boyfriends couldn’t handle her “male” side. “It takes a certain kind of guy to put up with my physical-ness,” she says. “I was brutal with every other relationship.” In Hamilton’s case, his romance with Reece led to a bitter divorce from clothing designer Maria Souza, 31, his wife for three years and the mother of Izabela, 4, of whom they share custody.

For Reece and Hamilton, dealing with domestic upheaval is second nature. Reece’s dad died in a plane crash when she was 5. Her mom, writer and ex-dolphin-trainer Terry Glynn, now in her 50s, spent years on the road before settling with Reece and her second husband in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Hamilton was born in San Francisco and moved with his mom, JoAnn, to Oahu in the mid-’60s after his parents split. At 2, he met surfer Bill Hamilton and introduced him to JoAnn. They married and had a son, Lyon, 30, before divorcing in 1978.

These days, Reece and Hamilton talk about having a child of their own—”in the next year,” she says. Whether this child will mellow Hamilton (who rose at 4 a.m. Christmas morning to surf a monster wave on Maui) is uncertain. “I think as he has children with Gabrielle,” says Bill Hamilton, “she’ll be making more demands of him.” For now, Reece is tolerant, if a little worried. “There are days when he goes out when I feel heavier, but I don’t think he’ll do it forever.” Hamilton, nuzzling his wife, says he knows one thing: “Over the long term, I just want to be a good husband to you.”

Russell Scott Smith

Meg Grant on Kauai