Some things you can’t explain, such as the fact that an activity like big-wave surfing is what brings happiness or meaning to your life.
When I was 15 years old, my sister was dating a guy from San Clemente by the name of Jon Walla, the best underground big-wave charger in Southern California. I convinced him to take me down to Todos Santos—a legendary break off Ensenada—for the first time. There I encountered the biggest wave I’d ever seen, and it changed everything for me.
What it demands of you to actually ride one of those waves—the thrill and sense of accomplishment—was far beyond anything I’d experienced before. It’s the greatest physical and mental challenge in the sport of surfing.
After winning the high school national championship, I became a big-wave free surfer. Ocean Pacific gave me a travel budget to chase swells to different corners of the globe. When I was 19 I won Dungeons, a big-wave competition in South Africa. That got me an invitation to the Mavericks surf contest. In between competitions I tried to find the biggest and best waves possible—North Shore, north Pacific or down in the southern hemisphere—and create a story around them that my sponsors could use to help build their brand.
For 10 years, surfing big waves was all I thought about, and I was prepared to accept the consequences. Then the worst-case scenario happened.
It was at Cortes Banks in 2012, on a very large day. I was trying to paddle it instead of getting towed in, and I had a wipeout that was too much to handle. The wind was knocked out of me before I was able to get a breath, and I was held down a really long time. Two more waves passed over my head, and then I lost consciousness. I was floating facedown in the water when my safety team located me.
In the aftermath, I realized I wasn’t taking time to appreciate the beauty of where I was in the world. My friendships and relationships at home weren’t what I wanted them to be either, and it was because I put all my time toward training or preparing for the next big swell.
When you break it down, the ocean is a beautiful and simple metaphor for life. It’s constantly in flux. The tide goes in, the tide goes out. The seas get stormy. Some days the waves are perfect. Other days the water is flat. In the end, no matter what the conditions, you have to be able to relax and move with the current. If you fight and struggle, you’re only doing yourself harm. That’s exactly what life is like on land. It’s a never-ending sequence of radical events. Sometimes things go in your favor, and other times you get knocked on your ass. People can ruffle your feathers or make life easy and bring you joy. You’re going to experience all of the above. If you learn to take everything in stride and look for the lessons in each event in order to become a better person and carry yourself with grace and love, that’s what it’s all about.
Now I have more fun. I travel less and put a lot less pressure on myself when I surf, and consequently I’m getting some of the best waves of my life. I surfed only two of the three big-wave competitions this past year but still managed to win the world title. It was a matter of finding that balance, and I look at it as probably the best year of my life—both in and especially out of the water.