Sebastian recently sat with Owen Wright, currently ranked seventh in the world for surfing, in our sauna, of course, to talk all things health, recovery and surfing, and to share some of his epic journey with us.
We're honoured that Owen had the time to come and hang out in the sauna with us and share his story in the hopes that it sheds some light on this real issue for surfers everywhere.
Owen began surfing almost as soon as he could walk, and was competing professionally by the age of ten, with 6 or 7 competitions a year. On tour by seventeen, he became a full-time surfer at nineteen with a title at 16 and a world title at 18. The biggest accomplishment for Owen ~ and "hardest slog" ~ was qualifying for the top bracket at 19, "once you get to the world tour, you're up against you know, Kelly Slater who had been on tour your whole entire life growing up." But that was the passion and the dream for a young Owen, with sponsorship from leading brands like Rip Curl, he was competing against the best and loving it.
Then in December 2015, everything changed.
Owen was in Hawaii competing for a world title, ranked 5th at the time. Free surfing the day before his heat, Owen took a wipeout that changed the course of his life. He'd already had a series of concussions leading up to the event, but nothing nearly as bad, this wipeout caused a brain injury that took Owen out of the competition. There's been a significant amount of research that's come out of that incident and Owen discovered that when you've suffered a series of concussions, it can lead to a major concussion, which in turn can cause a brain injury. Which is exactly what happened that day in December.
The world may think that this is a rare occurrence, but Owen says that concussion is a part of the job and that you can't stop minor ones from happening.
Owen stresses that these stories within the sport have to be picked up and recognised because no one's talking about it - we're out in the ocean, where people cant watch us, disappearing between waves and out of sight. This kind of thing (concussions) have been happening for a long time. For Owen, it happened in front of everyone... he was going for a world title. It was big news and now he feels okay talking about it and bringing awareness to the issues to help other people going through the same thing.
During his early concussions, Owen shares stories of not having the memory of the actual incidents. He would get rushed to the hospital and stay for 3 weeks until he was stable. He would have a selection of side effects on any particular day which would include, the inability to walk, slow speech, memory loss, anxiety, fight or flight triggers, an influx of adrenaline, headaches, fogginess and post-traumatic amnesia where he would often think â€˜where am I? or what am I doing here?'. The brain was in so much trauma that its natural response was to forget, a protective mechanism that Owen learned to work with and appreciate.
Owens health and brain injuries really woke people up in the surfing industry. There was awareness around concussion in other sports, but not nearly enough in the world of surfing.
Since the incident, many surfers have confided in Owen that it almost gives them peace of mind, because they have had similar concerns and issues.
Owens recovery included a variety of methods and the support of naturopaths, neurologists, psychologists. He found useful therapy in DNS exercises, which stands for Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization, to help the brain remember simple movement which would often to spark intrinsic muscle memory, things like crawling, stabilising your body on your belly and the neuropathways you are born with and learn as a baby. Simple things such as a breakfast routine each day would help improve neuro skills.
At the start of 2019, Owen questioned whether he was going to get back to where he was before but decided to push through. Once he saw that he was making recovery in simple tasks, he began to surf again. Owen had to make the jump and train his mind and body to go from a "learn to surf" to "professional athlete" which took him until August 2019. "Now that I think I'm recovered, I'm always taking precautionary measures - reducing my natural impulses and leaning on pragmatism, even when I'm surfing, to make sure I get the right waves."
One factor Owen swears by that has helped him has been to maintain a relaxed state of mind. A key consideration for him is to remember that once you've had a concussion you need to take care of yourself; make sure you aren't putting your body and brain under the same amount of pressure you would normally do.
So what's on the cards for Owen in 2020? He is optimistic about surfing and doing all he can for complete recovery "I sit back and do feel quite proud of what I've come through, that's a nice feeling, the sense of coming a long way, it's a good feeling to have".
Check out the podcast here to hear more from Wright and Sebastian's chat.