Stab Magazine | Here's How Owen Wright's First Heat Back Unfolded:

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Here’s How Owen Wright’s First Heat Back Unfolded:

Whatever was going on behind the scenes didn’t matter, because it was a world class surfer who competed today. Jed Smith reports from the beach…

news // Mar 21, 2017
Words by Jed Smith
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Either Owen Wright was out to make a statement on his first wave back in a competitors jersey, or we just forgot how good he is. He wasted no time in showing the surfing world that he was back, opening with a deep bottom turn into a drifted frontside fin throw on a three foot wave. The turn, which he followed up with several linked manoeuvres all the way to the rocks for a 6.10, was just the beginning of what would be a remarkable (and emotionally-charged) display from Owen.

His appearance in the Maitland Toyota Pro QS6k today marked his first surf in contest since suffering a severe head injury at Pipeline in December 2015. The event is as scrappy as it gets; Short-period Australian summer slop, while the 6000 point rating ensures a high quality of opponent. Proof? Defending champ, Matt Wilkinson, lost in his first heat of this year’s event, before taking a place in Owen’s support crew as he prepared to take to the water.

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The mood was serious in the lead-up. Owen and surprise super-coach, Glen ‘Micro’ Hall, stood surrounded by the half dozen people that make up Owen’s inner-sanctum, adjacent to the contest structure, and away from the competitors area. Micro and Owen spent long periods focusing on the lineup, discussing potential strategies.

Amazingly, considering his high profile and the dramatic, nature of the accident, the exact details of Owen’s injury still remain unclear (and he wasn’t taking questions from reporters following the heat). What we do know is that he suffered a serious brain injury after copping a number of huge sets on the head at Pipeline at the beginning of last winter. The main complication was bleeding on the brain, which can easily prove fatal if treatment is not sought immediately.

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“He came in and felt weird and couldn’t really speak or anything… It was like his body was completely out of fuel, it was pretty scary looking,” Wilko told us in the moments afterwards.

The concern for Owen continued over the coming months as reports emerged he was showing signs of speech impairment, a sign of possible longterm brain damage.

Whatever else was going on behind the scenes will remain a secret for the time being and is largely irrelevant anyway, because the core ingredients of a world class surfer were on show for all to see today.

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For his return to competition, he chose a peak all on his own about 100m from his competitors. He was the first competitor in the entire contest to opt for Ladies (in front of the lady pool at Merewether) and it proved a stroke of genius as he applied his brutal forehand attack to a series of head-high punchy lefts, unopposed.

He backed his opening 6.1 up with a smaller right, his backhand clearly not lacking any of his pre-injury zest and control, for a 5.8. Then he really got going. With trailing Brazilian Luel Felipe in second, Owen lit up a solid left with the deepest of bottom turns and most vertical of hits, capping it with a series of linked turns and a small fin throw on the end for a 7.43.

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Then, the piece de resistance: A razor wind-up into huge frontside gouge to tail-drop, followed by enough turns to clock him a 7.90, his total of 15.33 the third highest of the day (behind Ryan Callinan and Jack Freestone).

I watched the entire heat from the packed competitors area, where there was little doubt about what we were all seeing.
“How is this guy? First heat of the year and he’s killing it!” said Mitch Crews, as he prepared for the next heat.

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The first person to reach him after the win was Wilko. They hugged, laughed, and looked visibly moved. Then it was Micro who offered Owen some sobering post-heat analysis, before he saw his partner Kita and their newborn child. Finally, the emotion of it all began to show. In scenes reminiscent of Mick Fanning after he survived the Great White Shark encounter at J Bay, Owen looked on the verge of tears as he buried his hands in his face and embraced his girl and their child. He’d regained composure by the time he fronted the post-heat interview:

“That felt amazing… No doubt the hardest year of my life and a big rollercoaster but once I got through with that I’m on the other side of that now and I feel better and stronger, and I’m excited to have this rash shirt on again and compete again. There was nothing I wanted to do more than go out and smash a few waves, and I got to do it. I was so stoked.”

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Before leaving, he made sure to thank the legions of fans who’ve expressed their support for the stylish, gutsy 20-point heat-owner via social media:

“It’s been absolutely incredible all the people writing in, and just all the fans, to realise how much love is out there in this sport and how much was sent my way to push me through. I’m just so stoked to realise how much there is still and to be able to compete and be back doing what everyone loves seeing me do and what I love doing as well. I’d like to say a big thanks to everyone who stuck by us and knew that I would be coming back and getting into it.”

When it was all done and the cameras were pointed elsewhere, he took a deep breath and headed in the direction of Rip Curl team manager, Ryan Fletcher.

“Did I do alright?”

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