Stab Magazine | Tom Carroll Shares The Psychological Advantage Of Injury
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Tom Carroll Shares The Psychological Advantage Of Injury

“It was calling me back into my body to understand what was going on.”

style // Jul 3, 2017
Words by Stab
Reading Time: 4 minutes

The year is 1981 and Tom Carroll is sitting in a doctor’s surgery on Sydney’s Northern Beaches holding back tears. “He said you won’t be competing again,” he recalls of surgeon’s bad news.

“I remember every time I woke up I’d be crying. My whole world was coming down,” he says.

Four years earlier, Tom had suffered a severe injury to his right knee while attempting a drop on a stepping east-coast slab on a single fin. He didn’t know it at the time, but he’d completely snapped the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and tore the medial ligament–a serious injury, which in 1977, was little understood and beyond medical repair. He surfed through it, managing to get within a whisker of qualifying for the World Tour and forging an early reputation on the North Shore of Hawaii, all without the main ligament holding the top and bottom half of his leg together. Every few months his leg would dislocate in the surf and he’d be forced to frantically knock it back it in.

“I’d just straighten the leg out and hold it really really straight and work the muscles so that the patella tendon was holding position, and just let the body settle. It’d take about ten or 15 minutes and then I’d be ready to go again. Sometimes it would be a little bit worse than others but as I got more used to it I’d be able to pop it back in in the water and sit out for a bit then go back surfing,” he recalls. 

He received surgery for it in 1981 but was never really able to use his body the way he wanted to.

“That’s why, if you watch my surfing, I’m favouring my back foot so heavily. I wasn’t confident in my front knee. It was always a bit weaker because of the injury,” he says. 

In his bid to keep himself fit and keep his pro surfing dreams alive, Tom went deep into the galaxy of eastern medicine and physiological self-help, developing a superhuman sense of body mechanics that has stayed with him to this day. Tom is philosophical about the “handicap” he surfed his entire career with. 

“I see it as a physical handicap but I think it was more of an addition mentally,” he says. 

“Even though there was a lot of other stuff I did in my life that took me out of my body, this thing was really like, ‘fuck, back here buddy, back here, back here,’ all the time. It was calling me back into my body to understand what was going on,” he says. 

Up there with the snap under the lip at Pipe, the two world titles, and the signature back-foot power jams, Tom’s formidable comprehension of health and wellbeing is his other great trademark – ironic, admittedly, given his well-publicised battle with drug addiction during his career.

The endless array of exercise routines, fasting programs, cross-training, de-acidifying water machines, and immune boosting nutrients and supplements he’s used and continues to use have formed the backbone of a surfing career that is peerless in terms of its longevity (Kelly might have something to say about that. Let’s check in when he’s approaching 60). 

Finally, after two decades of intermittent pain, minor surgeries and breakdowns, Tom got a knee replacement this year. He’s still in the rehabilitation phase and likens his experiences at the Aged Care Facility to the Hollywood film Cocoon, in which aliens disguised as senior citizens find eternal youth in a special indoor swimming pool. 

“It’s funny, all this older crew, they’re classic people but I’m generally the youngest person in there,” he laughs.

With his well-publicised demons occasionally rattling away in the recesses of his mind, Tom is predictably vigilant when it comes to mental health during this trying phase of physical rehabilitation. A career plagued by injury has given him a deep wealth of knowledge when it comes to mental wellbeing and he’s keen to share it. Staying challenged and surrounded by like-minded, enthusiastic types is one of the fundamentals. Guys like Max Stewart, a local shaper formerly of Hayden Shapes now Eye Symmetry, who he’s spent the morning with talking designs and turning blanks is one such individual.

“Max was super available to look at new things and fresh things and is an incredible finisher too, like the best, top of his field at finishing boards. He’s already there, he’s a master of that. When you get that combination of being fresh and open and having that finishing touch it’s pretty ripe territory to play,” he says. 

The pair have been working together on and off for several years now and Tom says staying in touch with the energy and optimism of youth is crucial to his mental wellbeing. 

“Keeping fresh and doing stuff with younger guys who’ve got that energy…I like being engaged with fresh new blood that are doing things and just watching the young guys surf too on tour, I get a lot of freshness from that,” he says. 

It’s timely to be having this conversation with Tom. Barely a month goes by without depression or suicide claiming another high-profile celebrity or sports star, the vast majority of whom are older males. It’s a struggle Tom understands better than most and one he’s committed to helping others avoid. 

“I think we’ve just gotta watch out for cultural traps, especially around alcohol,” he says, “I know the results of not doing that (now) and actually having my health and having my ability to engage and…the amount of energy you can actually bring to your life without it,” he says.

He also lays blame on the proliferation of invasive marketing via smartphones and social media, and a culture of quick-fix solutions for deep fundamental problems. 

“From the time we wake up in the morning we’re marketed to so heavily that we forget who we are,” says Tom.

“We’re sorta wobbling going I better be this, I better be that, I’m not good enough, I’m better than that person, I’m bigger than that person, so you’re just wobbled off the axis before you even get out of bed in the morning cos you’re looking at your phone and your phone is telling you this and that. My smartphone has outsmarted me already, I think it’s classic. You gotta be really careful,” he says.

The saving grace for surfers at least is that the solution to many of our problems is staring us in the face most days.

“Just being aware that you can go out and enjoy nature and let nature bring us back and I think that’s what surfers really are blessed with,” he says. 

“We can go out in the ocean and be brought back on a moment to moment basis. You can just drop this thing for a moment, get your board and go get pounded. It’s gold. It’s a bit of gold in our hands and you can’t buy it,” he says.

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