Interview: The Return of Mark Mathews

Jason Lock

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Updated 136d ago

A few years back, Mark Mathews suffered a horror wipeout on a slabby wave in Australia. Dislocated knee, artery transfer, severe nerve damage and docs saying he'll never surf again - read original article HERE.

Well, Mr Mathews defied medical professionals and made his return to Shipstern Bluff recently, pulling into one of the heavier waves throughout the day. Ok, he may have broken his foot in the process – more down time, more recovery, but that isn't a problem – given where he's been, mentally and physically, prior to that.

Of course, Mark's been notably (and understandably) absent from hucking into stupidly heavy slabs for a few years, but seeing him back in the big stuff is a remarkable tale of resilience.

We checked in with Mark to talk about his return to Shipstern Bluff, recovery, his headspace and how to keep calm when paddling out to face your demons.

Hey Mark, congrats on smashing Shippies! How did it feel to be out there?
It was so special. That first barrel in the morning felt mental. One of the best waves of my life. Not best wave, but after all the rehab and thinking I would never get to experience that again just made it feel so good. And to have all the boys out there and lots of close friends with me was so good, Richie Vas, Mick Fanning, Tai Graham, Whippet, Lozza, the local boys, everyone was so stoked for me. I love getting to share those moments with good friends.

The wave that clipped Mark's big wave wings, with Leroy Bellet behind capturing the action.

The wave that clipped Mark's big wave wings, with Leroy Bellet behind capturing the action.

Did you break your foot in the tow strap though?!
Yeh I broke it on the third wave. I knew it was broken straight away, but I figured if I was going to be out of the water for the next couple months I'd love to at least get one more barrel, it was painful but at least I found one more barrel before the heat was over. 

What was going through your mind before heading back out there?
In the days leading up to the event I was super nervous about towing in straps. I was scared I was going to get my bad foot stuck in the straps and destroy all the work the surgeons had done to fix everything. I ended up over compensating and making my back strap extra loose and front strap really tight. In hindsight I should of just paddled the whole heat. 

That's a smashed up toe. The joys of strapping in.

That's a smashed up toe. The joys of strapping in.

And catching that first wave, what was going through your mind? Was it all instinct, was there any shred of ‘oh shit, this is happening, it could go wrong’, any hesitation?
Yeah waiting out the back behind the ski there was lots of "oh shit this could go wrong” but the excitement was stronger. I just couldn’t wait to get that vision again. Instinct probably did take over as I was coming into the wave because I was planning on taking a wider line that day, not going too deep and just being a little safer that day.

But I ended up putting myself in a really good deep spot without really thinking about it. When I was younger, I used to be more scared of shoulder hopping a good one than I did of wiping out. A bit of that probably crept back in.

It was definitely way more never racking than all the other waves I have surfed down there, even though it really wasn’t that big. But the extra nerves just makes it feel better when you make it. 

Mark negotiating with that infamous step at Shipstern Bluff.

Mark negotiating with that infamous step at Shipstern Bluff.

© 2019 - Andrew Chisholm.

And the post-show, when the crowds are gone, few tinnies down, back home how were the emotions then?
It was awesome and annoying at the same time. I was so stoked I had proved to myself that I can surf good enough again to go back to getting some big barrels. But that just made me more pissed about not surfing for the next two months [laughs].

I remember when we spoke in ohhh, 2017? Just after your injury, you told me “I may not surf how I did before, but I will surf”, how do you feel about your surfing now?
I think I love surfing more than I ever have. It's like a new lease on life. It's reset so much of my surfing so that everything feels so much better. Just doing a decent cuttie feels nuts. And everything is more nerve-racking and exciting, 5ft barrels behind the rock at snapper feel like 10ft backdoor. figure I fix them up, and it will make up for the limitations with my leg. It's just fun to keep learning

There are moments of frustration when I blow good waves because of my leg, but they are happening less and less. Now I have just got a new goal to surf small waves better than I ever did, and I think it's possible even with my leg the way it is, I had so many flaws in my technique any way so I figure I fix them up, and it will make up for the limitations with my leg. It's just fun to keep learning. 

Think it’s safe to say one of your top fans is young live wire (and ripper) Sabre Norris. How does it feel being an inspiration to that next gen?
I love Sabre and her family. They are such legends and I'm sure I get more inspiration from them than they do from me. I love being around people who are just really excited about surfing and life in general.

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The first time I met @markmathewssurf was the same day that I decided I was quitting surfing forever. I had watched my hero Mick and the at Jbay that morning and it really scared me. I was about 20 mins into my retirement and our friend Dan Ross sent us a text and said let’s surf and he had his friend Mark with him. Probably due to the fact we had watched Marks movie fighting fear so many times we knew it by heart I stuffed my retirement plans and within 30 minutes not only had we met Mark but also somehow convinced Mark and Britt (his wife) to take us to all you can eat Pizza Hut that night. (He didn’t even get mad when we put on our ————————————— When all the good things started happening for me (going on Ellen, Sally’s event etc) it seemed lots of bad things were happening for Mark. Injury after injury. I remember visiting him in hospital after he almost lost his leg. It was pretty scary. But it didn’t matter what bad stuff Mark was dealing with he always made time to help me and cheer for me. To see what Mark did today and to know what he has overcome was... well I have no words just a feeling. So so so stoked for you Mark. YOU DID IT! Yes you broke your foot.... but you did it.

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How’s your head space about surfing right now?
I just ordered a second foot brace moon boot thing to wear in the water so I can go out on a Mal and catch waves sitting down. So it's pretty safe to say I'm frothing [laughs]. I really want to get back down to Shippies for a big paddle session. No more riding tow boards with straps.

If you could go back a few years, with your mindset now, and tell freshly injured Mark Mathews one thing to get him through the injury process, what would it be?
Be grateful, it could of been so much worse. I learnt that when I was still in hospital about a month after I wiped out. I met a young guy called Jason Apps who was in hospital at the same time.

He had broken his neck snow boarding and is now dealing with being a quad. It's impossible to fathom how hard that would be, and he was powering. From that point on, I refused to wallow in self pity. I was so lucky I only had the injury I had. And having that mindset helped me heal better than any other rehab I was doing. 

Thanks Mark, hopefully that broken foot heals up real fast so we see you back at Shippies asap.