Former world champ Shaun Tomson’s kid Mathew was killed playing the “choking game.” His experience inspired a book you should read… Story by Derek Rielly Shaun Tomson is the great South African surfer who pioneered tube riding at Pipe and who won the world title in 1977. In 2006, his teenage son Mathew died playing […]
Former world champ Shaun Tomson’s kid Mathew was killed playing the “choking game.” His experience inspired a book you should read…
Story by Derek Rielly
Shaun Tomson is the great South African surfer who pioneered tube riding at Pipe and who won the world title in 1977. In 2006, his teenage son Mathew died playing “the choking game” while at boarding school. This year, Shaun wrote a book called The Code: the power of ‘I Will’ a book he hopes will help prevent similar accidental deaths…
Stab: When and why did you write this book?
Shaun: I wrote this book last year with my co-author Patrick Moser to empower young people to think twice about that big decision that can kill them. That’s all I’m hoping for, that a kid somewhere, sometime stops and thinks twice and maybe he’ll save his own life. That is the mission of the book and the simple exercise that is inside it. My beautiful boy Mathew made a rash decision, a terrible mistake that cost him his life at 15. Kids at his school wore ties and he tried something called the choking game and it killed him. One bad decision made on the spur of the moment and my boy was gone. And my life and my wife’s life was destroyed. The pain is beyond awful, indescribably dreadful, an unending sadness that stretches out endlessly with no horizon, no end point, an ongoing journey on a ship to a destination of hopelessness and despair. I wrote the book for Mathew and other young people to tell them they are not invincible, to let them know that decisions have consequence.
“My beautiful boy Mathew made a rash decision, a terrible mistake that cost him his life at 15. Kids at his school wore ties and he tried something called the choking game and it killed him. One bad decision made on the spur of the moment and my boy was gone. And my life and my wife’s life was destroyed. The pain is beyond awful, indescribably dreadful, an unending sadness that stretches out endlessly with no horizon…”
Shaun and Mathew, photographed by Bruce Weber.
Was the book written out of a sense of hopelessness and desperation? This book was written from a place of hope . Every chapter begins with I Will – the book is about the future – the sun will rise tomorrow and darkness will give way to light. Mathew read me a school essay that he’d written about becoming a man and riding inside the tube two hours before he died. One of the lines he wrote was the light shines ahead. Those lines have become a mantra, a prayer for my heart and soul, a connection to him that transcends time, space and physicality. It is a spirit-to-spirit connection. When you lose a child and suffer you receive a knowledge and an understanding that you do not want but you get it anyway, and you live with it because that is what keeps you alive. I know that the light does shine ahead, I know that the sun will rise tomorrow. I know that life is not futile, that we are not just particles in Brownian motion.
After my loss I had no desire to surf again. My stoke was extinguished, gone, no desire to ride a wave. Surfing seemed pointless, irrelevant, meaningless. An old schoolmate kept on at me, I gotta take you, I gotta take you. Eventually I went to a spot I’d never surfed before. Just the two of us, perfect four-footers as the sun rose up out of the Indian Ocean. I paddled out into the salt and when I cried the water washed it all away until I was crying no longer. It felt like there are no tears in the ocean because I was paddling through an ocean of tears that eventually became the medium I was accustomed to. I floated and waited and took that first wave and it started to get a little bit better. Hopelessness started to get replaced by little shards of hope, wave by wave, turn by turn. After an hour I paddled up to my pal and asked him the name of the break. “Sunrise,” he said.
Sunrise. I knew I had been taken to the right place. Surfing was showing me the way forward, back into the light.
Was it a cathartic experience? Writing is a cathartic experience. Contemplation and then bringing your thoughts to life in letters and words is a positive release of pain in some way. The knowledge that perhaps what you write might help someone is also a motivation.
How’ve you been received after the book? For example, are you stopped by parents thanking you and explaining their own tragedies? People like the book – parents and young people. People who have suffered speak to me and write to me – we are part of a dreadful club, a brotherhood of shared pain – and talking helps. Everyone handles pain and loss differently and everyone is on their own journey – sometimes words help and it is good to help. Many people helped me and it is good to help others on their path. The book is a small book still. It still has not resonated at a mainstream level but I am hoping that it will. The message is pure and from the heart – it is what I believe and what I stand for. Perhaps it will inspire people, perhaps not. I sincerely hope that it does. If a young kid somewhere reads it and thinks about it, and when he is confronted by that life changing decision, thinks twice, and reconsiders, then I have achieved my mission.
How big an issue is death by preventable accidents? In the USA 12,000 young people between the age of 12 and 19 die from preventable accidents including drugs, drunken driving, suicide and risky behaviour. This age is the most dangerous time of their lives. Twelve thousand deaths is a lot of broken hearts: 24,000 parents, 48,000 grandparents, 24,000 brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles, friends. Over a short period of a few years millions are effected with the terrible sadness of loss caused by one bad decision.
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