Surfing’s New Comeback Kid
Owen Wright’s Incredible Return to Form
When Owen Wright paddled out at Pipeline 15 months ago, he had no way of knowing that the session would nearly cost him his career—let alone his life. Wright came into the final event of the year in 2015 as a contender for the world championship. He was widely acknowledged as the hardest-charging surfer on tour, having put on heroic displays at Teahupoo and Cloudbreak, and a win at Pipe and an early loss by a few big names would see him win the title that many thought was inevitable. But instead, he ended up with a traumatic head injury and brain bleed that would see him spend much of the next year in a post-concussive haze, his family unsure if he would ever be back to normal.
More than a year later, Owen is back—and in a big way. Over the past 15 months, he has done extensive rehab, learned how to surf again, come to peace with the months and memories lost, and had a child with his pop start partner Kita Alexander. Considering where he’s come from, that was more than the Wright family could have hoped for—but Owen wasn’t done. Despite the doubts, the difficulties, and the long road he’s had to travel, Owen knew deep down that his recovery wasn’t complete until he had also regained his ability to compete.
Last week, Owen completed his recovery—and in doing so accomplished one of the greatest comebacks in sports history. Recall that Owen could barely get to his feet on a longboard half a year ago. When he posted a picture of himself re-learning how to surf on a soft-top in ankle-high waves on Instagram, the entire surf world cheered him on, while also mourning the loss of one of our greatest heroes. But when he pulled on the jersey at Snapper Rocks in front of a capacity crowd of fellow countrymen, it was as if Owen had never left. His surfing was razor-sharp the entire event, and with every heat that he won, the whispers got louder. What if he actually pulls it off? What if he can come back from one of the worst surf injuries of all time, and win his first event back?
Owen was pitted against best friend and Rip Curl stable mate Matt Wilkinson in the final, and by that time it didn’t matter who took home the trophy—we as surf fans had already won. Two goofies in the final at an event that up until a couple of years ago was always won by regularfoots. Last year’s event winner and Cinderella story Matt Wilkinson, who had won multiple events and led the tour for half the season despite never having had real competitive success on the WT level before, versus everyone’s favorite nice guy, a hell-charger they called the Avatar who had incredibly returned from a massive brain injury to contest the final in his first world tour event in over 15 months. Both Australians, both from the same stretch of coast a few hours south of the Goldie. This was the stuff legends were made of, and just to see it happen was enough to make people believe in miracles again. There were literally a handful of tears being shed as the heat started.
When Owen came in victorious, winner of the Gold Coast Pro and new leader of the world tour rankings, the impossible had been accomplished and miracles were possible. The handful of tears had turned into torrents, commentators were stumbling over themselves to describe the experience, and despite all of the other rotten things that were going on around the planet, for a moment, everything was right in the world.
At the end of the day, that’s why most of us surf—for those short moments where everything feels right. Sometimes they come from a barrel or a noseride, or from simply getting to our feet and making it down the line. Last week, they came from Owen Wright, the man who, one event into the year, is now the favorite for the world title. Comebacks don’t get better than that.