“If it all goes amazing, this time next year I’ll be training to go surf Jaws in the Hawaii winter,” Australian big-wave surfer Mark Mathews tells GrindTV. “I’ve also got some waves on my bucket list. Mavericks is one, I have never surfed that and Nazaré is the other. Oh and I want to surf the ledge where I damaged my leg for some sick reason. I don’t want it to beat me.”
The ledge Mathews refers to is a dangerous reefbreak on the NSW south coast where (in November 2015) he suffered a potential career-ending injury not too long ago. “I hadn’t fully recovered from the other career-ending shoulder injury and that’s why I wiped out the way I did,” Mathews recalls. “Because I was hesitant about hurting my shoulder again, I crapped myself and jumped off way too early.”
Now, Mark knows injuries. In a 15-year big-wave career, he’s ripped, torn, broken, dislocated, pulled, ruptured and sprained almost every bone and muscle in his body. However, this latest one however has topped them all.
He was driven into the shelf with his right leg taking the full force of the lip. His knee dislocated and took most of the tendons and ligaments with it. However it was the damage to the leg’s major artery and nerve that would have the longer, life changing consequences.
It was the artery that required a helicopter medevac ride to Canberra Hospital, the internal hemorrhaging blood meant that without an immediate operation he could have lost his leg. The doctor would tell him later he came within a few hours of amputation. There was then a three-day wait to see if the operation was a success.
"When I got the first pulse in my foot, I was like ‘thank God, they don’t have to amputate,” Mathews remembers. “I was in a haze over those days, but you can imagine my girlfriend Brit and parents who were freaking out.”
In the nine months since the injury Mathews’ surfing career has been put in question. The surgeons saved his leg, but it turned out the nerve damage was irreparable. It meant he could only push his foot down, not up, and when he walked he was literally dragging his toes.
In August, he underwent another relatively new operation where they moved the tendon from the top of his foot and attached it to one from his calf muscles. The brain will need to adjust to totally new body mechanics, but if successful the operation should give him the ability to lift his foot.
“The doctor said, ‘I’m doing this so you can walk better and that’s it. Whether you get back to surfing is your thing, I can’t guarantee any of that,'” Mathews laughs.
Because Mathews wants to go surfing, that’s his sole driver.
“If I have to surf the way I am now, I’d be doing at one foot, and wiping out,” Mathews tells GrindTV. “But there is no doubt, whether I'm getting paid to or not, I want to ride the waves I did before.”
However, it is typical of Mathews that even with an ankle that has no nerves to stabilize it, a fully reconstructed knee he barely mentions and a foot he can only lift 20 percent, his goals are set at not just surfing, but surfing some of the heaviest, most dangerous waves in the world like Mavericks and Nazaré.
“This injury is different in that every other injury has been fixable,” Mathews says. “That is a shock to the system. I’ve done something that can’t be fixed. However there’s a way around everything if you put your mind to it. Riding big waves is my passion. It is the best thing in my life. There is simply no way that it won't have it in my world.”
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