Raised By Wolves
Examining the miracle of contrast that is Mark Mathews.
Mark Mathews is in a bad way. I’ve arrived at his one bedroom unit overlooking the northern end of Maroubra Beach, and if it weren’t for the handful of painkillers he’d eaten this morning he’d be screaming in agony right now, he tells me.
Six weeks prior to when we talked, about five months ago from today, Chalk – as in, ‘chalky bones’ – as in ‘breaks easily’ – embodied his nickname again, sustaining what is one of the worst non-fatal injuries ever suffered by a professional surfer. While filming at a particularly evil ledge on NSW’s south coast, Mark was pitched over the falls, wearing a few thousand aquatic tonnes and landing leg-first on barely submerged rock. The impact was so severe that the limb was completely inverted at the knee, snapping all anterior cruciate, medial collateral and posterior cruciate ligaments; breaking the leg; causing significant nerve damage, and tearing an artery.
As Mark lay on the beach, barely gripping to consciousness through the pain, his leg had begun to balloon as the torn artery pumped blood into it, putting him in a race against time to save the limb. All he could think about, however, was the amount of time he was about to spend out of the water.
“I wasn’t even screaming in pain,” he recalls. “I was just screaming ‘cos I knew I’d gotten another injury.” Mark was only two months back from the shoulder-injury that nearly ended his career, suffered after sticking one of the most memorable drops of all time at giant Jaws on the day of the Big Wave World Tour event there in 2015 (which he wasn’t selected to surf in). He says the two back-to-back injuries are definitely linked.
“I was so hesitant because of the last injury, I freaked out and tried to dive off and push through the back, and I just got rolled over in the lip with full force,” he explains. Herein lies the catch with tow surfing, says Mark. While it looks easy and, in many ways, is easier than paddling into waves even a quarter of the size, humans are simply not built to withstand this kind of punishment.
“It’s not hard,” he says. “I could ride every wave and put myself in a position where it’s safe and I’m not gonna get hurt, but if you’re surfing shallow slabs and you wanna get back and properly inside the barrel, something bad is gonna happen when you fall.”
This is also one of the reasons behind the shift back towards classic big wave paddling.
“You’re forced to be more careful and you’re more aware of what you’re getting yourself into,” he says. “I think the direction tow surfing was heading in, it was just so dangerous, the consequences were so heavy if you fell.”
Back on the beach, a helicopter is summoned and Mark is airlifted to Canberra Hospital, where one of the best surgeons in the country is tasked with saving his leg. Initially, he didn’t think it was possible.
“(The surgeon) was telling my chick… ‘I don’t know if I can save it,’” says Mark. “She was like, ‘No, I think you’ve got the wrong person. My boyfriend is Mark Mathews.’”
It would take multiple surgeons working on him at the same time to save it and, in typically Australian fashion, at zero cost to Mark. “Three surgeries from the top surgeons in Australia for free, man,” he says. “It gave me a whole new appreciation for paying taxes – though since then, I’ve racked up a $65,000 elective surgery bill at the local private hospital. Thank god Red Bull are covering that.
”Mark now faces between two and three years of rehabilitation, with the very real prospect of never regaining full use of his leg, nor the ability to surf at a high level again. It’s the worse injury of his career by far, he says. Worse than the last time he broke his leg, worse than the broken ankle, worse than the dislocated shoulder, worse than the Shipsterns spinal scare, and worse than the time he was glassed in the face at the pub.
Yet, you wouldn’t know it. He remains pragmatic about his chances of recovery and shows little sign of the mental strain that surely accompanies an incident of this gravity.
“You see cases where doctors can’t believe they’ve come back from (this) type of injury, so I just focus on those ones rather than all the people who are still disabled from it,” he says.
Scenes from Mark’s current lifestyle: CBD oils and medicinal cannabis to deal with the (still) excruciating pain he’s in, a synthesiser to keep his mind creatively stimulated during the downtime, and a collection of surfboard shapes, perfected and refined over an extensive career, now sitting on ice while their owner is unable to use them. A dormant quiver during injury can both wrap like a warm blanket of nostalgia, and quietly mock, depending on your headspace.
If anyone can do it, it’s Mark Mathews. You might say his whole life has been a preparation for this. Growing up in working class Pagewood, the suburb inland of Maroubra, Mark describes the early part of his childhood as “perfect.” His father was a surgeon who put himself through medical school driving taxis and his mother was his secretary. At 12, the family moved closer to Maroubra beach and a few doors up from one of the wildest and most talented families in the city at the time, the Abbertons. By Mark’s estimate, Maroubra in those days was made up of up to 60-70 percent public housing residents form the nearby projects; the large housing estates reserved by the government for those most in need and often sought out by people fleeing violence, dysfunction and/or issues of substance abuse in the family home. The Abbertons were one such family. Eldest Sunny had already overcome their traumatic origins to blaze a trail through professional surfing during the 1990s, middle brother Jai had shown competitive and freesurfing promise, and Koby was just beginning his ascent through the professional surfing ranks when Mark moved in.
“Koby was my hero,” he recalls. “He was so driven. He just wanted to change his situation, growing up in the housos, having a shitty family life.” As far as public housing went, the government’s idea was that by putting the poor, working, and middle classes together, they would feed off each other for the better, which is exactly what happened in the beginning.
“All the good things about Kobe rubbed off on me,” says Mark. “We were training so hard, he didn’t touch alcohol, no drugs, nothing. There were so many occasions where he made sure no one offered me drugs.”
But the influence went both ways. Brawls, stabbings and the occasional shooting were all pretty par for the course in Maroubra in those days and Mark found it “impossible to avoid.”
“It still terrifies me,” he says. “I go out thinking something is gonna happen all the time, which sucks.”
Mark’s 21st birthday party remains one of the most peak Bra Boy moments in the history of the Bra Boys, not to mention an immortal chapter in pre-gentrified Sydney folklore. A scheduling hiccough saw his party held alongside one being held by off-duty police officers in an adjacent room of the Coogee-Randwick RSL. When the two groups, who were pretty well known to each other, attempted to squeeze into a crowded elevator together, a wild brawl kicked off that would involve a nucleus of 30 to 40 people and 200 more caught in the crossfire.
By the time it was over, helicopters were hovering overhead and the place was surrounded by police and television news crews. It didn’t stop there. Several of Mark’s friends would be forced to defend various charges of assault and affray over the coming months in court, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees, none of which was reimbursed by the state despite everyone being cleared. “What people don’t know is the cops who were involved had been in trouble for it before, for having fights out of uniform,” says Mark. “They weren’t your average coppers. They were tough bastards who weren’t not looking for a fight, if you know what I mean.”
If Cape Solander is a pillar of Mark’s career, and Shipsterns is another, then WA’s The Right is the final piece. Wild as it is, much of the initial shock of the place has worn off after such detailed coverage. This angle, however, still snatches the breath of the viewer (and the surfer, should things go south – which they so often do here).
It was classic old school Australian thuggery and just one of the several chapters in Mark’s early life where violence, toughness and anger were the metrics by which your manhood was judged.
On another occasion, Mark almost blinded a police officer during a drunken brawl. The officer intervened to break it up and Mark, thinking the cop was an attacker, dug his fingers deep into his eye. Mark ended up on charges of assaulting a police officer, which carried a maximum prison sentence of five years, only to be pardoned on a technicality after the police failed to submit their witness testimony on time (it may also have helped that Mark had the good sense to turn himself in at the police station the following day and explain the confusion as well as apologise profusely to the officer in question).
“After that, I was like: I’m never getting into a fight again. I’m done.” While violence and drama were constants throughout his youth, as he got older the combined stress of it all became debilitating. A month after swearing off violence for life, Mark was glassed in the face at the pub. He had objected to a football player harassing his girlfriend and the injuries sustained were horrific, requiring 70 stitches to put his face back together again. “I was already done with it but that was the icing on the cake,” he says.
Surfing was always the escape but there was little respite there, either. By this stage he and Koby were travelling the world surfing the heaviest waves they could find. In 2001, Mark was on the first ever magazine trip to Shipsterns Bluff in Tasmania. “That trip to Shipsterns was a game-changer for me,” he says. “When rolls of film came back and I saw just how big the waves where, I felt like I could take on anything after that.” And that’s just what he did: In the following years, Mark helped spearhead the Bra Boys takeover of Cape Solander (renaming it Ours), before going on to win three consecutive Oakley Big Wave Awards and rack up over 20 magazine covers.
The feeling of skipping across glassy steps into the widest, mutant barrels anyone had ever seen was like nothing else, he says, but the intensity of the experience also left him “burned out.”
“It’s hard in the way that you’re kinda constantly nervous,” he says. “That takes a toll eventually. You can be motivated and keep going but eventually, if you don’t manage the stress and learn how to take time away and rest, you just burn out – and that’s what happened to me.”
So Mark developed a way to deal with it all. Through extensive reading of everything to do with the psychology of fear, and talking to various experts in the field, he developed a series of “stress management tools” which allow him to clear his head of anything counterproductive. Those close to him say the transformation has been remarkable.
“I know he had some rough moments in his earlier years,” says close friend and regular travel partner, Taj Burrow. “But I think he will be the first to tell you that staying active in and out of the water by surfing, training, etcetera will pull you away from that. He chose to put everything into surfing and that immediately changed his path. He’s so happy and positive.”
In recent years, he’s even managed to turn his newfound mindfulness into an income, travelling the world delivering 45-minute keynote speeches to various corporate clients on the topic of “Fighting Fear.” The routine features the kind of wisdom you’d expect from a guy who has spent his whole life tangling with some of the world’s heaviest waves and characters, and has been delivered to everyone from Mastercard, Google, Hewlett-Packard, the Commonwealth Bank, and even the US Military, who flew him to Guam to deliver a speech to Marines the day before they shipped out for Iraq (the colonel surfed and stumbled across an article on Mark in Surfer Magazine).
“It’s about life beyond fear,” he says. “Like, what your life could be like if you could get through that fear barrier. How different it could be if you didn’t let your anxiety control you. What’s possible.”
But he’s had to sacrifice some things get to this point. Namely, the Bra Boys. “I just started saying no to going out all the time,” he says. “You cop shit for it, but I just never went.”
Over the past few years he has drifted away from certain elements in the community. Meanwhile, a divide has also developed in the suburb between the more working class types, and those seeking to live the criminal underworld, standover lifestyle popularised, Mark says, by the Bra Boys hit 2007 documentary.
“Overall (the film) had a pretty bad effect,” he says, pausing as he figures out a way to put what he’s about to say as delicately as possible. “I thought it gave a message that was really good, that showed how multicultural Maroubra and the Bra Boys were. I felt that was amazing, especially at a time after the (2005 race) riots happened. I love that message from the movie.”
“But I also think it made the young generation of kids growing up here think that it was all about fighting at Maroubra and causing trouble. So many kids wanted to be Bra Boys because of how famous the doco was. Way more kids wanted to be a Bra Boy that thought it was about fighting and getting in trouble. That was kinda shit.” He remains as tight as ever with the core crew of Bra Boys he grew up with, and grew up looking up to, but now, as he confronts the biggest challenge of his life, he has no room for extra drama.
When a physio friend of his arrives to put him through some light rehab work, you begin to see just how much of a toll this has taken on his body and just how long the road to recover is going to be. The difficulty Mark has in even getting to the side of his bed is confronting. He is gaunt and the muscle wastage is significant. He also confides in me that he’s having serious trouble lowering the dosage of heavy, opiate-based painkillers he’s been on seemingly forever now. As the physio attempts to get mark to move his leg, even a millimetre causes him to wince and puff. Once it’s done, he lies back in his bed and resumes his calm, contemplative demeanour.
“They say it’s a millimetre a day, so it’s about a year to get any sort of recovery from a nerve injury,” he says matter-of-factly from the specially-installed hospital bed in his living room.
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