"It's a double-edged sword. On the one hand I'm really excited to go and surf Pipeline. On the other hand I'm nervous," Owen Wright said just after being eliminated from the MEO Rip Curl Pro Portugal. "Going back to the place where I had suffered my injury will be difficult. We'll just have to see how it goes."
As the dust settled after Supertubes, most of the talk centered on the various World Title implications. Following his Round Three exit Owen was out of that conversation for the first time since his shock win at the Quik Pro Gold Coast. Lost in all the Title noise, however, was the prospect of Owen's return to the wave that almost cost him everything he holds dear. He'll return to it next month at the Billabong Pipe Masters.
Back in 2015 Wright looked like the least nervous person at Pipe. The Hawaiian winter had kicked off with a series of back-to-back swells and he had established himself as one of the early freesurf standouts. He had been surfing the wave since he was 14 and, with a decade of experience in the lineup there, it seemed he had found a new performance level.
His strategy was ballsy and risky. He'd sit as deep as any surfer would in the lineup on the First Shelf, content to duckdive (Wright might have the best duckdive in surfing) any of the "roll throughs" or sets already broken on the Second Reef. When the water cleared he was often left alone in the right position for some of the shallowest and heaviest Pipe waves. Then his natural talent, incredible tube-riding and total fearlessness would do the rest.
That was until he was caught inside by a six-wave set. Such was the power of the waves they shook his head and body so hard that he suffered head trauma. The seriousness of the damage played out behind the Wright family's closed doors for the next nine months. In that period there were times when the worst-case scenario -- serious, lifelong brain damage -- was a possibility. We know now that in the last part of 2016 Owen recovered dramatically to the point where he surprised himself, and the surfing world, by winning on the Gold Coast in March this year.
Throughout the year Wright maintained that form, staying close to the rankings leaders right up until that early loss in Portugal. He performed well at both Fiji and Tahiti, but coming coming back to the wave that almost ended all his ambitions will be daunting. The mental strength required for that feat cannot be underestimated.
It may be a good thing that he doesn't have to deal with the added pressure of being in the World Title race and can simply get on with overcoming his demons. Wright, however, would vehemently disagree. After his Round One win in Portugal he said, "I'm going for a World Title, and I want it bad. I want it a much as anyone else." Having fought so hard to not only come back from a serious injury, but to have a World Title shot, he was bitterly disappointed to drop out of the race just before Pipeline.
Now it's unlikely that Wright will be able to reach the heights he had scaled in the winter of 2015, but his performances there should be fascinating to watch. While the Pipe Masters throws up endless World Title and CT relegation narratives, Wright's journey back to the wave has more personal resonance than most.