How Aussie Owen Wright Beat Brain Injury To Win Surfing's Toughest Comp
When he won the Tahiti Pro at Teahupo'o in thumping surf this week, Aussie surfer Owen Wright sat on his board and sobbed into his hands.
This appeared to be the moment he had finally conquered his fears and made peace with the ocean, after it nearly took his life and great love in 2015.
Four years ago, a then 25-year-old Wright was living the dream. The lanky, quintessential Aussie beach boy from Culburra on the south coast of NSW was ranked number three in the world, and widely regarded as Mick Fanning’s successor as the next Australian to reign over the surfing world.
A natural waterman, his effortless style almost made you think you could paddle out and catch a few big sets yourself. There was always a smile on his face and he was happy to have a chat anytime -- whether after a win, or a loss.
This humble nature made him a favourite among his peers, fans and the media.
Pipeline, the famous reef break on the North Shore of Hawaii, was “pumping” the day Owen’s life changed forever in December 2015.
One of the competition favourites, he was warming up for the season, ending Pipe Masters by navigating a big barrel... just like he’d done countless times before.
But on this occasion, disaster struck.
Wright was washed into the “impact” zone, where unrelenting 12-foot waves rolled in and rained down on him with so much force he couldn’t surface for air. He said it was like "drowning over and over and over again".
This is known as a “hold down” in surfing, and it isn’t uncommon, particularly somewhere as heavy as Hawaii. So when Owen returned to the beach and appeared his usual self, everyone carried on with their life on the North Shore. The surfer himself went for a nap.
When he woke, he couldn’t speak, and was frighteningly disorientated. Wright was rushed to hospital, where it was discovered he had a shocking concussion and bleeding on the brain.
Like Steve Smith in the cricket two weeks ago, there was a delay between the incident and the worst symptoms of concussion. But for Wright -- unlike Smith -- the effects were ongoing and extremely serious.
Wright effectively had to learn life all over again. He suffered severe memory loss. Speaking and walking were a challenge. Surfing suddenly became a pipe dream.
With his close-knit family, including sister Tyler -- a two-time world surfing champion herself -- providing full-time care, Owen privately began the long journey to recovery. He largely disappeared from the public eye during this time.
A few months after the accident, surfing fans were both relieved and heartbroken when he posted a picture to social media saying:
"I went for my first surf a couple days ago. It was the funnest thing in the world. Funny thing is... I couldn't get to my feet so I just laid there. It was about knee high and the drop was... well there was none but it felt like I was dropping into 10-foot Teahupo'o."
Yes, it was wonderful to see him back in his natural habitat, but this prodigy wasn’t destined to be riding foamies on a foamie. That was not the script for his life.
Wright’s love for the ocean was far greater than any challenge he faced and over the course of a year he re-learned something that was once second nature: balancing on a board, and riding a wave.
At the time, Wright said he felt his body was returning to normal, but his brain still had some catching up to do.
But in 2017, he completed one of sport's greatest comebacks, winning the Quiksilver Pro on the Gold Coast.
That was momentous in itself, but to win at the iconic Teahupo’o event this week, just 18 months after his miracle comeback, was something else entirely.
When you go to the famous Tahiti break, there’s an aura about the place. The sound of waves thumping onto the reef there is something that never leaves you. It’s like the whole weight of the ocean is behind them.
With a razor-sharp reef lurking centimetres beneath the surface, there’s no nastier break to wipe out on.
Surfers often speak about how Teahupo’o gets into their head. But this week, Wright was all heart as he fearlessly rode to victory.
It felt like the world held its breath until he emerged from every barrel safely. And after the tears, he flashed that trademark smile and said that while he’s had so many ups and downs, this win made him feel like his life is on the up.
Two years ago, Wright's first tiny wave after his accident felt like "10-foot Teahupo'o", as he put it.
This week, he made surfing the real Teahupo'o look as easy as a tiny shore break. And that's when you knew, once and for all, that Owen Wright was back.