After winning the first ever Olympic medal in surfing history, Australian Owen Wright said he felt like he was “walking on a cloud”.
Five and a half years ago he couldn’t even walk.
The 31-year-old’s bronze medal, obtained after beating two-time World Surfing League (WSL) champion Gabriel Medina of Brazil in rough seas on Tsurigasaki beach, is a historic triumph. But Wright’s Olympic success is all the more remarkable considering what he had to endure.
In December 2015, the Australian surfer – born and raised on the south coast of New South Wales – was free surfing during a famous Hawaiian break, Pipeline, ahead of the season finale. Wright flew to Hawaii for the WSL title, having claimed victory earlier in the season at the Fiji Pro. He was in good shape: in Fiji, Wright had won two perfect 20-point heats (surfers are rated out of 10 by a jury, the two best waves counting). Only a handful of surfers have ever surfed perfect heat, let alone two.
But suddenly, in a split second, Wright’s world – and his title hopes – crumble. When Wright took off from Pipeline that day on a 15ft wave, there was nothing out of the ordinary – the surfer faces waves of consequence every day. Only that day something went wrong. Wright collapsed with a traumatic brain injury – with bleeding and concussion.
Back home in Australia, Wright had to relearn how to walk and surf. He had to sit at home while his sister, pro surfer Tyler Wright, won his first WSL crown. It took Wright four months to return to a surfboard and over a year to return to competitive surfing. He described it as the worst year of his life.
âI have been through bloody battles, and all of my close friends and family stood by my side,â Wright said after winning the bronze medal on Tuesday. âFrom there I had this goal of staying here with a medal around my neck and I had no idea what color it was going to be and that definitely pushed me through those tough times a few years ago now. “
Wright returned to the WSL in 2017, having obtained a generic entry. Remarkably, he won his comeback event, the Quiksilver Pro, on the Gold Coast. Two years later, he won another major victory, at the Tahiti Pro de Teahupo’o, one of the heaviest waves on the WSL circuit. While Wright is yet to regain the form that saw him compete for the world title, his post-injury consistency has been impressive – Wright finished sixth in the WSL overall in 2017 and 2018, then ninth in 2019 (the WSL 2020 has been canceled and the 2021 circuit remains in progress).
Yet Wright has also been busy off the waves. After his sister helped Wright recover (she almost left the WSL to take care of him), the tables turned when Tyler Wright suffered from post-viral syndrome – a form of chronic fatigue. The younger brother was left bedridden and out of competition for over a year. âIt broke me, and it broke me every day,â she said of her illness.
Owen Wright, the eldest of five siblings (all surfers), was at his side. âWe had a lot of moments to share and a lot of things she was like, ‘I have this’ and I was like ‘Yes, I have that too,'” Wright explained in a 2019 interview. While Tyler Wright was ineligible for the Olympics after missing the qualifying window due to her illness, she won the very first WSL event held at Pipeline at the start of last season. Victory was in the same place that had sent his brother to its darkest depths.
In March 2016, when Owen Wright first returned to the water following his brain injury, he couldn’t even stand on a wave. “It was the [funniest] thing in the world, âhe wrote on Instagram at the time. âThe funny thing isâ¦ I couldn’t get up. So i come [laid] the. It was about knee height and the fall wasâ¦ well, there wasn’t, but I felt like I was falling 10 feet from Teahupo’o. I finished the wave and was so glad I let out a scream and claimed it and gave Kita a high fived [Alexander â his partner]. “
Five years later, Wright won the inaugural medal as his surf sport – his love, his career, his life – made his Olympic debut. Safe to say there were a lot of boos on Tsurigasaki beach. In Japan, Wright wasn’t just walking on a cloud. He was riding it too.