"I was looking into my brother's eyes and thinking, it looks like he's dying."
That was Tyler Wright, describing to Coastalwatch's Sean Doherty the scene in December 2015 when he brother, Owen, was being rushed from Pipeline to the hospital in an ambulance.
"It looks like he's way gone. He's not there."
Owen Wright's victory at the Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast Sunday, however, proved that he didn't go anywhere, except back to the very top of the sport. Recovering from a serious brain injury, to World No. 1 has been described as one of sport's greatest comebacks. To check the veracity of the claim, or at least put it in perspective, it's worth remembering just how severely the injury affected Owen, his partner, and his extended family.
In the initial stages, that proved difficult to do. Owen, his partner Kita, and his family rightly closed ranks and put all their energy into recovery. There were no public announcements nor injury updates, as they attempted to assess what was needed for Owen to get his life back.
It wasn't until March, when Owen posted about his injury on Instagram, that the extent of his condition started to surface. "I went for my first surf a couple days ago. It was the funnest thing in the world. Funny thing is...I couldn't get to my feet," he said. "So I just laid there. It was about knee high and the drop was.. well there was none but it felt like I was dropping into 10-foot Teahupo'o."
That news seemed shocking at the time. In the space of just three months Wright had gone from being No. 5 on the Jeep Leaderboard and a contender for the performer of the season in Hawaii, to being unable to get to his feet on a surfboard. In that post he expressed nothing but gratitude and a positive vibe, but it was the first glimpse into the reality that Owen's career, and life, might never fully recover from the accident.
"In surfing, no one had ever really encountered a bad brain injury like this before," said Luke Munro, a former professional surfer and friend of Wright, in the Gold Coast Bulletin. "Unlike, say, rugby league or other sports, he had no one to really look to in terms of a road to recovery."
As Wright went down that new road, there was still little news made public. Most of the information came through Tyler, whose run to her first World Title was often framed by her experience of being by Owen's side for those first traumatic months. Through Tyler's tears the world saw glimpses of Owen's painful rehabilitation process.
After her win in the Swatch Pro at Trestles, Wright said, "You know Owen is coming into my mind right now. This is my fourth win, but he doesn't know I've won three. So I said, ‘I will try to win another three for ya.'"
In September, just as Tyler was marching to her first World Title, the first footage of Owen surfing appeared. It was only a few waves at three-foot Aussie Pipe, but the difference was incredible. Wright's style was unmistakeable. Given that it was fewer than five months since he was celebrating lying prone on a foam board, the improvement was radical. "Turned the biggest corner this week with the head injury," he said at the time. "It's good to be feeling a lot more like myself again. Can't believe how things change!"
Tyler would later recall that the moment was pivotal in offering real hope. "I know he's going to get better and it's just a matter of time, but we just don't know how much time," she said in October. "They're very intricate injuries and they mess with your mind. I watched that happen to my brother. To know he's going through that, I know that every corner he turns he's more like himself and…yeah, we're getting him back."
In another emotional twist to the year, Wright and his partner Kita Alexander had a baby boy, Vali, in December. By the end of January Wright was ready to dip his toe back into competition and announced that he would compete at the QS6,000 in Newcastle. He won his first heat back and, following an assessment by the WSL, was offered an injury wildcard for the 2017 CT season.
Even if the story had stopped there, it would have been a remarkable tale of a surfer coming back from an unprecedented injury. The fact that he went on to win the event, defeating Mick Fanning, Gabriel Medina and Matt Wilkinson, adds credence to claim that his journey was easily surfing's greatest comebacks.
"At the start of February I was sitting in the doctor's office and there was question marks on the year," an emotional Wright said on the podium at Snapper Rocks. "We just pushed so hard and confronted a lot of fear. There was lot of fear to get back in the sport and to get over something that could have taken me out forever."