Owen Wright: Australian surfer returns from head injury to reach Tokyo 2020 Olympics
The “pure joy” of catching that perfect wave never diminishes for Owen Wright, but he also knows full well how bad it can go.
He gets straight to the point. “I had to relearn to walk and relearn to surf.”
The 2015 season had gone so well for Australia’s Wright, then ranked fifth on the World Surfing League championship circuit. He was aiming for the world title and “in one of the best forms of his life”.
But as he trained before the last event of the year in Hawaii, a wipeout changed everything. A wave over 15 feet that surprised him was the last straw after a series of smaller concussions, leaving him with bleeding and swelling of the brain and the official diagnosis of traumatic brain injury.
“Some details are still a bit unclear,” Wright told BBC Sport.
“A wave landed on my head and it shook me so hard I kind of lost my mind. It was a long way back from there.
“It was explained to me that everything is still there, it’s just that you have to reconnect these brain patterns.”
Surf runs in the veins of Wright’s family. He’s one of five siblings who all surf; her sister Tyler is a two-time female world champion while her brother Mikey also competes in the Championship Tour.
“My dad had this philosophy that if you can get a kid to surf, then fatherhood is easy,” he says.
As he faded into the public eye, it was his family who rallied behind his injury as he struggled to grasp the gravity of it.
He was acting “like there was nothing wrong” because it wasn’t visible – no cuts or scrapes, no plaster or crutches. In the end, the family had to organize an intervention.
“I don’t think I always fully understood the gravity of the situation because of the nature of the injury. I was a bit crazy,” said the 31-year-old.
“If you ask my friends and family, I was trying to surf all the time. They had to take my surfboards away from me. I could barely walk past the house, but still tried to surf. “
When he was finally allowed to put his boards back a few months later, it wasn’t the easy return to the water he expected.
“I couldn’t get up, so it was a very mixed mix of emotions. I just didn’t know how to get up.”
It was in March 2016.
Exactly a year later, in March 2017, he won the Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast – his first Tour comeback competition, 15 months after his last.
It was an emotional victory for more than the obvious reason. He beat his best friend Matt Wilkinson in the final, a man who had been by his side throughout his injury, and was greeted on the beach by his now wife Kita and their baby.
“I was still very weak, I guess, and there was a lot of conflict between the parties over whether or not to surf,” says Wright.
“For me, winning this first competition of the year was something extremely special, and it just showed me the power to just dream and have that vision and never lose sight of it.”
Wright was left with lasting effects from the injury, although “nothing he could really complain about”. However, he now takes extra precautions and can often be seen donning a helmet during training and competitions.
Such protection is a rare sight in sports and Wright wants to see it become more common – he now sees his job as “being more vocal” about its availability.
“I wear it whenever I feel there is a risk to myself. If the risk factor increases, I put on a helmet,” he says.
“If there are a lot of people and there are people, I will put on a helmet because of the risk of someone else’s board hitting me. If the waves are big, I put it on. If there are pebbles, I put it.
“There are a lot of surfers, intermediates, beginners, kids to great surfers, who don’t recognize the risk to your head and your brain. When it hurts, nothing else works.
“There is a simple answer to that. There is a helmet and I want to see it become a part of surfing.”
He was wearing a helmet when he won the Tahiti Pro Teahupo’o in 2019 – one of the biggest waves in the world – and he could wear one in the weeks to come when he and the surf make their Olympic debut in Tokyo. .
Unlike Tahiti, the surf spot for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, Japan is not known for its big surf and Tsurigasaki beach is not going to offer the biggest waves to competitors.
But the Games were the light at the end of the tunnel for Wright, a chance to wear his country’s colors on the biggest stage and introduce the sport to a new audience.
“The Olympics were one of my big goals,” he says. “I kind of lost the pace of the world title due to a head injury and my ability to turn, flip and jump was quite reduced, but I can still ride very well, and qualifying for the Olympics was something that was a very real possibility for me.
“So I put all my effort into that and I ended up qualifying for the top spot for Australia and that was that moment for me where I said to myself yes, I am here and I am. back.
“I love to achieve things in sport and I kinda felt that I was not able to achieve what I would like [after the injury], and being selected for the Olympics, it felt like I felt like a great victory again and a great victory for myself. “
So if qualifying for the Games was a big win in and of itself, could an even bigger victory be in sight?
“I think it’s going to be interesting,” says Wright. “I think I have a really good shot.”