In December of 2013, I was in the French Alps when racing legend Michael Schumacher had an accident while skiing. Contrary to expectations, it didn’t happen on some backcountry chute or 45 degree slope; it was simply an off-piste area between runs. The accident happened somewhere we’d been several times that day. Schumacher hit his head on a rock and, despite wearing a helmet, the impact was enough to put him in a coma. Now, more than two years later, there is little news of Schumacher’s recovery, or lack thereof. His family have opted for media silence, partly for the sake of privacy and partly because – as is so often the way with head injuries – it is almost impossible to accurately predict the extent or timing of recovery. It doesn’t take much to cause a head injury with a lasting impact.
In December of 2015, Owen Wright suffered a head trauma at Pipeline on the North Shore of Hawaii. He didn’t have a spectacular wipeout, but it was still Pipe, and it is a lethal wave. Much like Schumacher, the seemingly innocuous manner in which a potentially life-altering injury happened is truly frightening.
Very little has been said until now about the extent of Wright’s injuries. We know that he will not compete on the WCT this year, but lately more sinister details have emerged. It has been reported that Wright has bleeding on the brain, suffers from severe memory loss, and requires full time care. The most recent update has come from Wright’s own Instagram feed. He posted a picture of himself carrying a soft top at the water’s edge, stating that it was his first surf since the accident. This could be seen as an encouraging sign of progress, but the details are less hopeful. Wright appears to have caught one knee high wave and states: “I couldn’t get to my feet. So I just layed [sic] there.”
Wright says that after his initial euphoria at being in the water again, his reflections on the beach afterwards were more challenging. Remember, just a few short months ago, he was scoring perfect heats in maxed out conditions at the Fiji Pro. He was reported to be dominating at Pipe and widely touted as a potential winner of the Pipe Masters, not to mention a genuine World Title contender. Now he’s belly surfing a soft top to the beach in knee high waves.
Thankfully, the overall message in Wright’s post is one of positivity: “It made me realize that… self improvement is necessary but to focus on camparison [sic] of what used to be, what others can do or why you’re not good enough is detrimental to the now; negative emotion in your self will hinder improvement and happiness. Simple statement… challenging to practice.”
Seeing Wright’s Instagram post, I couldn’t help draw parallels with the tragic case of American snowboarder Kevin Pearce. In 2007, Kevin Pearce was a teenager with the snowboard world at his feet. He was the only man who seemed to threaten the dominance of Shaun White. Over the next two years, Pearce not only asserted himself as one of the best Superpipe and Slopestyle riders in the world, but was expected to challenge White for the gold medal at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. However, during a training run in the half-pipe at Park City, Utah on the 31st December of 2009, Pearce suffered a head trauma which would hospitalize him for many months and end his life as a professional snowboarder.
The story of Kevin Pearce’s short career, accident, and subsequent rehab is detailed in the superb 2013 documentary The Crash Reel. If you haven’t seen it, I would strongly suggest you make an effort to do so, whether you’re a snowboarding fan or not. Just make sure you are prepared to be violently affected because it’s nothing short of fucking tragic.
There is a sequence in the film where Pearce gets back on a snowboard for the first time since the accident, supported and cheered on by his friends and family. Watching this once great athlete, still in his early 20s, but unable to perform a simple ollie, was enough to reduce me to tears. I’m afraid that it is this sequence that came flooding back when I saw Owen Wright’s Instagram post.
I admire Wright’s positive attitude. As a surf fan and fellow human being, I dearly hope he makes a full recovery. To see such famous, and often seemingly indestructible athletes like Schumacher, Pearce and Wright reduced to shells of their former selves by serious head trauma is utterly shattering.