Australia’s Most Injury-Prone Hellman
Checking in with Mark Mathews.
Mark Mathews didn’t make the guest list for the 2015 Peahi Challenge, so he decided to crash the party.
On the morning of the event, Mark paddled out on sunrise. While he wouldn’t be allowed to surf in the competition, the Australian hoped that one memorable ride would help win favor with the WSL, perhaps earning him a spot for next year. Such is the culture of big wave surfing.
For a man who can barely walk, and whose leg looks something like a shark’s chew toy, Mark is in surprisingly good spirits.
Minutes before the first horn, when all freesurfers would be cleared from the lineup, a worthy lump swung from the northwest. Mark turned, paddled, and did everything he could to survive the wind-induced airdrop. Despite his efforts, the compromised takeoff left Mark in a vulnerable position under the lip. Before he could develop an exit strategy, Mark’s board was engulfed by water and his body launched forward. He hit the Pacific like a rock and his shoulder tore on first impact.
This injury resulted in nine months out of the water, multiple surgeries, and the inability to compete at two of the most important events in Mark’s career – The Eddie and Red Bull Cape Fear – both of which had historic conditions in 2016.
Mark returned to surfing too early, as athletes tend to do.
“I couldn’t stand watching my mates getting massive pits all around the world,” Mark explained. “On top of that, I have a career. It’s my job to surf big waves, and at the time, I had contracts coming up, so I definitely felt pressure to overlook my injury and perform.”
That ended up being a mistake.
While most of his leg is numb, Mark is certainly not immune to pain.
While surfing a shallow-water wave in Australia, Mark found himself unusually afraid of falling. The surf wasn’t all that big – maybe six-to-eight foot – but Mark knew that one tumble could reinjure his shoulder and leave him sidelined for another lengthy period. That fear caused Mark to make a near-fatal error.
“I was a little too deep on this wave,” Mark said, “and normally I would just pack it and cop the beating. But because I was favoring my shoulder, I tried to avoid it by pulling through the back, which led to getting sucked over the falls. I dropped straight onto the reef, feet-first. Thank God it was feet first.”
What Mark means is, had it been his head that hit the ocean floor, he probably wouldn’t be here today. Hell, he almost died anyways.
“As soon as I hit, I knew my leg was broken,” Mark explained. “It wasn’t that painful at first, but I was screaming out of anger. I couldn’t believe I’d hurt myself again. Once the boys got me on the ski, the pain started to set in.”
Mark’s pals brought him to the beach and called for an ambulance. The first responders, in a decision that would ultimately save Mark’s life, radioed for an airlift. His wound was too severe to take any chances.
Sadistic readers, do not fret. There's a closeup of that scar coming soon.
“The doc said if I’d reached him an hour later, I wouldn’t have made it,” Mark explained. “The impact tore everything in my knee – ligaments, tendons, muscles, even the main artery. That artery was just spewing blood internally, so my knee looked like a bowling ball by the time I reached the ER. They performed an emergency surgery to stop the blood loss, but the doc wasn’t sure if it would ever properly heal. He said that if the blood didn’t start flowing within the next three days, they’d have to amputate.”
After sixty-odd hours of bedridden anxiety, Mark’s girlfriend felt a tiny pulse in his right foot. Just enough, the doctors deemed, to save Mark from becoming unipedal.
“That was an incredible relief,” Mark said. “From that point on, I’ve tried to have a really positive outlook on this whole ordeal.”
This is your leg (background). This is your leg on slabs (foreground).
I caught up with Mark at a Redbull rehabilitation facility, where he was being poked, prodded, and cryogenically frozen by the world's best physical therapists. For a man who can barely walk, and whose leg looks something like a shark’s chew toy, he was in surprisingly good spirits.
Stab: (Blatantly staring at leg) Holy shit. That looks… really gnarly.
Mark: Yeah [laughs]. The scarring is from all the surgeries – I’ve had six thus far. The doctors had to repair just about everything in there.
And how many operations remain? Just one, I hope. Right now my Achilles is completely stuck, so I’m not able to raise my toes or push down on my heel, which is obviously really bad if you’re a surfer, but I also can’t walk properly without that movement (Mark currently walks by swinging his right leg out and around with each step, as opposed to lifting it up and placing it in front of the other). The operation will essentially take a tendon from the side of my foot and reattach it to the top, so that I have more vertical movement as opposed to lateral.
Strength and mobility are surely, but slowly, returning to Mark's wonderleg.
Are you expecting to get back to 100 percent? Nah, too much damage has been done. On the whole top of my leg, from my knee to my toes, I have no feeling whatsoever. The nerves were totally destroyed. Luckily I have feeling in the bottom of my foot, so I can tell what’s going on beneath me. All said and done, I’ll be happy to get back to 60 or 70 percent.
And if you do get that far, will you continue surfing big waves? Or have you been deterred from that path? At the moment I can’t even imagine surfing big waves. The thought of it is terrifying. But if I can get to a point where I’m physically able, I’m definitely going back for more. There are still a few things I want to do in big wave surfing.
Do you ever think about what drives you to continue on this path, despite all the injuries? Is it the adrenaline rush? Addiction? It’s definitely that. Having not surfed in the last nine months, and having spent the majority of the previous year out with my shoulder injury, it’s such a hollow feeling. You’re so used to getting that rush from something, so when you can’t get it from surfing you’re forced to look for it somewhere else. I’m lucky that I get a similar feeling from the public speaking thing, otherwise who knows what I’d be doing. I could definitely go down a dark alley.
Do you know what it feels like to have -190 Centigrade liquid nitrogen sprayed on your calf? It's cold.
Have you surfed at all since your injury? Yeah, I’ve been getting out on a Mal whenever possible. Because I can’t lift my toes, they always drag when I try to pop up, so I’m almost spraining my ankle every time I go to stand. Still, it just feels so good to be in the water. I take so many painkillers for this shit, that if I don’t do something to engage my mind and body I can just fall into a rut. Surfing puts me back in a positive state of mind.
Have you considered embracing the drag? What, bodyboarding [laughs]? I’ve done it already, yeah. It’s actually really fun when it’s barreling, I can see why they do it, but it’s soooo boring if it’s not hollow. It’s pretty humbling though -- there’s probably a bit of karma involved for torturing bodyboarders when I was young.
Do you know what it feels like to have you shin touched from the inside? Mark Matthews knows.
What sort of timeline are you expecting in terms of recovery? I’m hoping this time next year I’ll be surfing half-decent, and then by Hawaii I’d hope to be surfing some real waves. Basically I just need the final surgery, and then about nine more months of recovery and rehab. Luckily for me, RedBull has the best trainers and technology in the world.
What kind of goals do you have for yourself coming out of this injury? I’ve been desperate to surf in the Eddie my whole life, it’s like a childhood dream, you know? I wanna one day be in it, and have my dad there for the ceremony. And the year I did my shoulder at Jaws, that was my year. I was in it, and then I got hurt, and then they had like the sickest event ever. Hopefully I can get another invite to that. I still wanna get a few more massive barrels at The Right as well. And realistically, if I can get three or four more years out of my career, I’ll be stoked.