Stab Magazine | Albee Layer On Concussions In Surfing, His Own Recovery, And The Coverage Of Alex Botelho's Wipeout

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Albee Layer On Concussions In Surfing, His Own Recovery, And The Coverage Of Alex Botelho’s Wipeout

“I’ve had probably six concussions I can clearly remember, but there’s a lot of smaller knocks that happen you don’t take notice of. It’s very similar to what football players get. Overtime it leaves residual damage.”

news // Feb 25, 2020
Words by stab
Reading Time: 6 minutes

At the end of 2019, the Jaws Championship ran. It was similar to most other years: 50-foot Jaws, a lot of barrels, a handful of wipeouts, and Billy Kemper inevitably won. It’s the premiere big wave surfing event in the world, but with that title comes considerable risk. 

While we’re all akin to watching and rewatching wipeout videos, there’s very real consequences beyond the half-a-minute hold downs which are endured. Last week we witnessed Alex Botelho’s horrific incident at Nazaré, and while Albee Layer’s fall at Jaws wasn’t marketed to garner maximum clicks, it’s had lasting effects on his health. 

A fall at the Jaws event for Albee led to a concussion, hospitalisation, and now an uncertain recovery process. Albee assured us he’ll make a full recovery in the long term—he’s already back surfing—but he’s currently still facing the the repercussions of mild traumatic brain injuries and possible chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). 

We spoke to Albee over the phone while he rests up in San Diego about his own recovery, big wave surfing, and Alex’s recent injury and subsequent media coverage. 

Stab: Hey Albee, how’ve you been? I saw you’ve been back surfing a little bit these last few weeks. 

Albee Layer: Yeah, a little, not anything too special [laughs], just been wiggling around a little bit. 

I surfed Jaws again quite quickly after the initial injury—I just towed in—but thankfully I didn’t fall on any waves. I think if I would’ve fallen though I would’ve been fucked. I did the minimum of what everyone said about recovery and just thought I’d be sweet. 

There’s not many people who understand concussions, especially multiple concussions all that well.

What is the diagnosis at this stage?

It’s essentially from multiple concussions, then there’s lasting effects. In saying that it’s hard to define. They’ve done MRI’s and other scans but nothing shows up. They mostly show whether there’s bleeds or large abnormalities, but since nothing showed up I took the sort of standard advice by waiting two weeks and then went back to doing what I normally do…

So, surfing massive Jaws…

Yeah, so I surfed Jaws and didn’t fall. Then surfed a couple of small days, did a few airs and what not. Then one day I surfed when it was like 4-foot, I fell and hit the back of my head on the water and I almost got knocked out again. I came up seeing stars and pretty much got re-concussed. Normally a fall like that wouldn’t be worth remembering, so I knew something wasn’t right. 

Since then I’ve surfed again, I’ve started wearing a helmet, but I haven’t really surfed anything bigger than head high. 

What are the affects on your day to day life?

There’s a ton… a little bit of everything. One thing broadly is if I do too much in a day, whether that be like social interaction or solving problems—physical activity isn’t too bad—at the end of the day I have headaches, get really anxious, and at times my thoughts verge on depressive. I also get really, really irritable, so I’m just a fucking nightmare to be around. 

You get mad at yourself, then you’ll snap at someone, then you’re aware that you’re off, and it’s just cyclical. It’s not common to feel like that, most days are okay, but there’s times I’ve noticed I’m like this and that’s not usually who I am. I feel like a bit of a burden on my girlfriend and my friends around me when I’m like that.

Other symptoms I’ve had to deal with are generally confusion, struggling with short term memory and couple of other issues. 

Are you noticing improvements?

Yeah, for sure, there’s definitely been improvements. If I feel good and then do something dumb like drink, then the headache the next day is twice as bad as it would usually be. 

Yeah, especially if you’re not doing much it’s easy to just sink a beer.

Or when I’m around other people I know drinking will make me more sociable and talkative in the short term. Then later I’m just twice as shitty [laughs]. 

What’s the prognosis timeline-wise. When will you be back surfing properly?

I’m going to this clinic next week here in San Diego and after that I’m hoping to be near recovered. I haven’t started yet, but talking to the guy who runs it, and seeing the work they’ve done it seems like what I need. They work a lot with people in the armed forces who have multiple concussions from blasts and football players who’ve all seen big recoveries, so if it does everything it seems to do I should be totally fine. 

I’ve had probably six concussions I can clearly remember, but there’s a lot of smaller knocks that happen you don’t take notice of. It’s very similar to what football players get. Overtime it leaves residual damage.

Will you reconsider the approach you take in surfing?

I probably won’t do any events anymore. 

Wow. Okay.

I don’t usually make stupid mistakes like that. It was 100% me getting caught up in the moment and going on a wave I only went for because I was in an event. Maybe if they do priority and stuff, I’d consider it, but right now it doesn’t match how I want to surf out there.

I thought I wouldn’t get caught up in all that stuff but I definitely did. 

Do you think that formatting is something the WSL should consider changing?

I don’t know, that’s for every surfer to decide, it’s not for me to say. The priority thing is a no brainer to me, I don’t think we should be battling when it’s fucking 50-feet, that’s downright stupid. 

It was gentleman’s rules the first year they ran, then a few people break the mold and suddenly everyone is surfing it like that, otherwise you’ll lose. It’s just ridiculous that’s there’s no priority, why are we the only event without it.

Do you think that’s related to the comment you made after Alex’s injury? That your lives, as big wave surfers, are clickbait? 

When I said that, it was about how [the WSL] put out that video of Alex, which was fucked. It wasn’t like “Hey, he had an accident, here’s the accident,”—sure, that’s fine. The way they edited it was so that it went viral [with Alex’s unconscious body face down in the water before being dragged onto shore]. It’s so fucked to show somebody like that.

They didn’t give information as to whether he was okay and his condition. It was more like, “He’s stable in hospital, here’s a fucking montage of him nearly dying.” Come on [laughs].

It was full clickbait. The only benefit of showing it like that is getting views. Maybe they’ll argue that because it was live-streamed, someone would’ve uploaded it anyway, but they control the media narrative and they edited it like that and released it to a big audience. 

Do you know how Alex is going?

No, unfortunately not. But everyone seems to have written it off as if he was fine. But like, I didn’t even get knocked out and three months after I’m still dealing with it. He was knocked out for six minutes. His battle is just starting. 

He’s really strong, so maybe he’ll be totally fine, but it’s hard to imagine.  

How has the WSL being in your own recovery process?

They’ve offered their help for sure. Pat O’Connell has been calling me pretty much weekly seeing how I’m doing. They offered to use their insurance as well which is great. 

I had to go out of pocket on a few expenses but it seems like the WSL has every intention in helping there which is great.

So, you’ve been surfing again with a helmet on. Do you think that’s going to help?

I think there’s a way to make a helmet, but the problem with the current ones is that you’ll break your neck before it helps your head. If I had a current one on at my Jaws wipeout I would’ve broken my neck. 

I want to try and work on one with someone. To me it seems like all you need is a neoprene hood but something with additional padding, or something like that.

What are you wearing now then? A Gath?

Yeah I’ve been wearing a Gath in the smaller stuff I’ve been surfing in. 

Is this something that needs to become accepted in surfing, particularly surfing big waves?

It’ll be like a lot of sports where the norm is not wearing it, then a lot of guys will end up brain dead and dumb and you’ll start to see a transition.

I went to Nora’s skating contest and all the girls wore helmets and none of the guys do. Two or three of those guys got knocked out and then skated another run afterward. It’s this weird tough thing, but to me, you’re not being tough, you’re just sort of being stupid. 

Fighting through pain [like breaking an arm] is one thing, but when you’re doing something which makes you a burden on other people, that’s just selfish and stupid. 

For most surfers, it’s not something you’ll have to worry about, but for people like me trying to surf big Jaws, I hit my head a lot more than the average surfer. 

Yeah, it’s not like wiping out at a 6-foot beachie. 

All the slab guys as well would’ve had a number of concussions that they wouldn’t think about.

I worry about when we’re in our 50’s and 60’s what’s going to be going on [as a result of these injuries]. That’s pretty scary to me.

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