The Ricky Whitlock Story: Clawing back from a near career-ending injury

The story of California’s Ricky Whitlock starts out like many of surfing’s greats: a childhood at the beach, promising amateur career, followed by the leap into professional stardom. Then, just as Ricky was making a name for himself in competition, a nasty wipeout at the world’s deadliest wave nearly left him paralyzed. While warming up for the Volcom Pipeline Pro in January at Hawaii’s North Shore, Ricky fell on a big one, driving him into the reef on his back. News of the accident traveled quickly through the tight-knit surfing community, and most feared the worst. Spinal injuries generally don’t end happily, and Ricky wouldn’t have been the first surfer to lose everything at Pipeline.

Doctors would later tell him that although he had escaped paralysis by a 1 in a million miracle, his L-1 and T-12 vertebrae were fractured and a full recovery would be a difficult proposition.

Never one to back down, Ricky would prove the experts wrong and make a surprising return to the ocean only four months later.

Two days ago, Ricky made the ultimate comeback, facing the very wave that nearly killed him less than a year ago. With a flurry of early season juice from the northern hemisphere, Pipeline roared to life this past week. Ricky was among the pack in the gladiator pit. After a proper thrashing on his first set wave, he nabbed a couple smokers and made it back to the beach unscathed. Call it a comeback.

The following short film was put together by Timmy Ryan, a longtime friend of Ricky’s and the cinematographer behind Type G studios. Not even Timmy could have guessed that Ricky would make such a dramatic comeback.

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Ricky was nice enough to answer a couple questions the very day he returned to Hawaii and faced Pipeline for the first time since the injury.

Can you talk about the emotional roller coaster that you must have been on since the injury?

You would think that it would be an emotional roller coaster, but I actually stayed really level-headed throughout the entire injury. I knew from day one that “the body follows the mind; the mind doesn’t follow the body,” so I stayed in good spirits the entire time. There were some hard days, but when I would have those days I would sit back and realize how much worse things could have been.

What was your first surf back like?

Words can’t even describe the first surf. It was actually on a soft top and I was like a little school girl giggling and laughing. But the most emotional part about getting back in the water was when I got down to Puerto Escondido and got my first barrel. I got super emotional paddling back out. And again was giggling and laughing like a little school girl, but also holding back tears of joy and emotion. Everything from the prior six months just hit me all at once.

Are there any lingering effects from the injury?

Only thing that lingers is my back muscles. And that’s only if I start slacking on my stretching and exercising.

Are you planning to surf Pipe again?

Haha. I just surfed Pipe today for the first time. My first wave was a second reefer and it ended up closing out and my board smacked me in the face. Instantly I thought, “Here we go again.” But my next two waves made up for it and I got a couple barrels. I didn’t think that I would think about my accident as much as I did while I was out there. Weird how your mind and body react to situations. I’m excited to keep surfing and test the limits of myself.

What’s next for you?

From the injury I kinda had an epiphany. While I was in Puerto I realized how much I love surfing big waves and the satisfaction that I get in return. So from here on out I am dedicating my career to chasing big swells and always being prepared.