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​Mindblower: The Miraculous Resurrection Of Owen Wright

The full story behind one of world sport's greatest comebacks.
WSL/Kelly Cestari

Australian surfer, Owen Wright's win in the season opening Quiksilver Pro World Tour surfing event on the Gold Coast last week surely has to be one of the greatest sporting comebacks of all-time. Speaking to Kelly Slater just prior to the final, he described Wright's return from a near-fatal brain injury as "unbelievable."

"It sounds pretty unbelievable.I never saw the state he got to at his worse…I did hear from people that he literally could not stand up on a surfboard and almost couldn't walk at times. So it sounds like coming back from almost learning how to walk again. It's pretty crazy," he'd said.


Fifteen months ago, Wright suffered a serious brain injury while surfing giant Pipeline on the North Shore of Oahu. After navigating a big barrel, he was washed into the impact zone where half a dozen ten to 12 foot waves landed on him. It resulted in a case of whiplash so bad it caused bleeding on the brain. Unaware of the realities and subtleties of brain injuries, Wright returned to the Rip Curl house after the surf and went to sleep. It's a common mistake made by victims of head traumas and one that can easily lead to death or permanent brain damage. While asleep the bleeding on the brain continues and begins to irreparably impact various brain functions. When Wright woke a short time later, he was catatonic and was quickly rushed to hospital.

"I was looking into my brother's eyes and thinking, it looks like he's dying," sister and current women's World Champion, Tyler Wright, said at the time. "It looks like he's way gone. He's not there."

At the time, Wright was ranked fifth in the world an earmarked for greatness. He was seen as the heir to three-time world champion, Mick Fanning's throne as Australia's next great world title hope. He was one of the most talented and fearless surfers in the world, commanding hundreds of thousands of dollars in sponsorship deals and endorsements from Rip Curl among others. And was from a remarkable family surfing dynasty that boasts sister, Tyler Wright, who would claim the women's World Title in the year of his injury and his brother, Mikey, also one of the most respected freesurfers in the world.


Following the injury, Wright went underground and his family and the sport's governing body, the World Surf League closed ranks around him to protect him from media scrutiny and speculation. The surfing world was left largely in the dark as to what had happened. Alls we knew is that we'd been robbed of one of the sport's absolute superstars overnight.

Doctors say the head traumas incurred from surfing Pipeline for an hour are equivalent to playing NFL for the same amount of time. Others have likened it to the sort of whiplash incurred in a serious car accident. Over the coming months various rumours emerged about his condition suggesting everything from speech impairment, to loss of motor skills, to being forced to teach himself how to surf again. In March of 2016 we got our first window into the recovery process via his Instagram account.

"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," he wrote. "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."

Prior to the season opening World Tour event on the Gold Coast, he had turned out at a satellite World Qualifying Series event in Newcastle where he showed glimmers of his former self. Then the Quiksilver Pro where he beat three-time World Champ, Mick Fanning, in round three giving the world its first indication that something surreal was about to go down. He went on to defeat 2014 World Champ and form surfer of the event, Brazil's Gabriel Medina in the semi-final before besting best mate and defending Quik Pro champion, Australia's Matt Wilkinson in the final. Cue hysteria.


The scenes on the beach following his win were unprecedented. Tears flowed as freely among rivals as they did Wright and his partner, Kita Alexander, when they hugged around their newborn on the winner's dais.

"Being chaired up by (brother) Mikey and (sister) Tyler was a very special moment, lots of tears. Seeing pit boss Ryan Fletcher there, we were sitting in a doctors office a couple months ago with questions marks. Yeah, it was really emotional. I was crying the whole way up," he said.

With the final done and his resurrection complete, I pressed Wright for more details on the injury and the recovery process - how badly was he affected, did he have to teach himself to surf again, how long did the process take etc. I was reprimanded by the WSL's media manager but he did shed some light on it.

"With head injuries a lot of your coordination and things struggles. I went through all those struggles and basically it all came together and I had the same really great doctor who was confirming with me the whole time, 'you will make it back, you will have that back, it will be 12 months,' and he assured me the whole time," he said, adding:

"I was placed in some really good hands with the help of the WSL guys leading me towards the best doctors in the world. I was really lucky."

Even without the miraculous comeback story attached, the win still rates as one of the best in his career. The Quik Pro title is just his third World Tour victory and his first on the Gold Coast. He is now firmly in World Title calculations for 2017 but there is still one major hurdle to overcome. He is yet to return to the heavy reef breaks of Tahiti and Hawaii that nearly ended his life.

"I've still got that to go through. I haven't gone and challenged that yet but that's another barrier I've gotta push through," he said.

"Just competing at this event was another barrier I had to push through. Returning to competition, stretching myself back out, three heats a day for two days, they're all challenges I gotta process and go through and getting back into solid waves is one of them."