Jamie Mitchell on Breaking his Back at Nazare

Matt Rode

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Updated 128d ago

Nazare has been on the pump for the past week, with all sorts of heroics and amazing rides. Jamie Mitchell arguably got the best of it, placing second in both the individual and team events at the Nazare two contest and paddling one of the biggest waves of the week. But there’s a price of admission at the world’s biggest wave, and Jamie ended up paying it with two minutes left in his second heat of the tow event, when he packed a beast of a barrel and broke his back.

Fortunately, he’s all right—safe in his Airbnb after a few days in the hospital, able to walk and waiting for a green light from the spine specialist in Nazare to fly back home to his family. We caught up with him to chat about the swell, the event, and his injury.

Jamie, I just heard about your accident at Nazare. Glad to hear you are alright (relatively speaking)! Tell us how you ended up in Portugal. Were you scheduled to do the tow event?
No, not at all. In fact, I had no intention of coming to Portugal this year. But the season in Hawaii has been pretty slow in terms of giant swells—there have been a lot of good waves, but not many big days.

But my friend Clint Kimmins, who is an excellent waterman and lifeguard from Australia and also a semi-professional triathlete, he was in Barcelona training on the bike and called me up to see what I thought about the forecast for Nazare. And the same day, Jojo Roper called me up to see if I wanted to go. So I had a look and the forecast looked really nice for a week—five days of swell and light winds.

Jojo and I met up in Newark and flew over together, and we actually didn’t surf the first day because we couldn’t find a safety ski and didn’t want to push it. So we didn’t surf Monday, but Tuesday was beautiful—great conditions and 12- to 15-foot Hawaiian. And Wednesday was a weird one, because it started out around the same size, but we knew it was going to get huge midday.

From the time we looked at it from the top of the hill to the time we got into the water 90 minutes later, it had doubled in size, from 25- to 30-foot faces to 50- to 60-foot faces. We knew it was borderline to try to paddle—we were the only crew out and it was actually pretty scary—but Jojo and Clint and I gave it a go and took turns running safety on the ski for each other. I got a couple of smaller ones, and then one that felt really big. And then by that time a few tow teams started to come out and it sort of turned into a tow day.

The thing about the tow contest is that I wasn’t actually scheduled to compete, but all week you could see the forecast getting bigger and bigger, and I figured I was there to surf, so if I could get into the event, I might as well be out there. A number of teams couldn’t make it, so there was room in the event, and I ended teaming up with Rafa Tapia.

You actually had a pretty good run in the event, before your accident, right?
Yeah, coming into our final heat we were in second for the team competition and I was also second in the individual event. I knew that I needed to do something special to try to catch Chumbo, and with two minutes left in the heat Rafa whipped me into a gnarly one.

It was a big wave and had a lot of ribs in it, but I figured I needed a barrel or at least a deep pocket ride to get the score, so I took a pretty aggressive line and pulled in. But the thing just flopped on me and fully compressed me into my board. I immediately felt like my back was broken. I was seeing stars when I came up and it was hurting so bad. The rescue ski got me and I was sitting there on the ski trying to see if I were okay and could try to get another wave, but I pretty quickly knew that I was done. The ski ran me to the harbor and I went straight into an ambulance and to the hospital, where I eventually found out I had a compression fracture of my L3 vertebrae.

The safety teams there at Nazare are known for being some of the best in the business. It sounds like you were picked up pretty quick and had medical care almost immediately?
Actually, my time at the hospital was probably the worst part of the experience. I was put into this sort of COVID-style emergency room with around 60 other elderly patients. I didn’t get an x-ray for around six hours, didn’t see a doctor for 10 hours. I didn’t get a CT scan until 2:00am the next morning. So that wasn’t the greatest experience, being in the hospital with the language barrier.

Thank God for Jojo and Clint, they were there helping me and trying to get all the information. But it wasn’t a very good night! I was glad when I got out of the hospital and could get back to my room and just deal with things myself.

It must have felt good to get word that your prognosis was good and there wasn’t going to be any long-term issues from the injury.
Yeah, well Cassie and the family back home has been pretty worried that I was going to have long-term stuff, but when I saw the specialist two days ago and got MRIs, he told me that I was super lucky and it could have been worse. I will have to wear a brace for a couple of weeks, but eventually should be back to 100 percent.

Once I am cleared to fly, I’m going to head to Orange County to see my specialist, then I’ll head home as soon as I can and spend time recuperating with the family and hanging with my girls! All things considered, it could have been a lot worse.

Yeah, we are definitely glad to hear that. How long do you reckon you will be out of the water?
It’s hard to say. Being in another country, the language barrier has been a tough thing. From what I can gather and from the research I have done…the spine specialist I talked to the other day said two months.

But I was talking to Cotty—and mind you his injury was worse than mine—but he said it took nine months before he was able to surf something of consequence. But until I get back home and talk to the people I trust, the doctors that I trust who have seen a million different sports injuries and who know me and my body, I don’t know. But I’m hoping a few months.

Well hopefully the recovery goes well and we see you back out there soon. Thanks for the chat, Jamie. Heal up, and congrats on your performance and result before the accident sidelined you!

Cover shot by George Piedade.