Not too long ago, Owen Wright looked absolutely unstoppable. It was 2015 if you recall? Fiji. One of the best barrels in the world at Cloudbreak. When it's big, there's no place that takes more skill to navigate. And Owen Wright made it his play thing, scoring a pair of perfect heats that year, looking like he'd easily become the next Australian World Champion. But then Pipeline happened in December. Early in the morning ahead of the Pipe Trials, Owen was getting some work in when he wiped out on a wave and took several more on the head. He'd suffered a traumatic brain injury. He says he's still just starting to fully recover.
Owen's surfing has been on again, off again since. He's had some fantastic wins (2019 at Tahiti, and 2017 at Snapper most notably) but hasn't quite been able to maintain the consistency he showed pre injury. Things might be coming around, though. From my vantage point on the beach at Tsurigasaki, he looked as good as he has since that fateful day at Pipe. In fact, he looked like he just might be able to make a run at that title. Among the throng of reporters on the sand at the Olympic venue, I was able to squeeze in a few minutes with the Australian after he won bronze and felt like his answers were honest enough to deserve more space than just a few nuggets in an event recap. Aside from the other medalists, perhaps, you couldn't have found a more stoked surfer on the planet.
How was the pressure out there, being the lone Australian left in the final rounds?
I felt the whole country behind me. I didn't feel it as pressure, absolutely 100-percent support. I had the coaching staff here, I knew how much it meant to them. I knew how much it meant to me personally with all I've been through and also Australia so I really dug deep for that one.
You slid into that underdog role well.
I definitely embodied the team name, The Irukandjis. (A species of jellyfish.) You can't see them but they've got a deadly sting on them. I believe that's me. I really am not the person that you counted on for a medal position coming into this event but if you'd have heard me after each heat, I didn't count myself out, and when I sting it's deadly and I took it out.
Man, I feel like this is the best you've looked since 2015. Do you feel the same way?
Mate, I get chills when you ask questions like that, thank you. I've been on a crazy journey and haven't been in great form for years. I've struggled with some bad symptoms behind the scenes of TBI recovery. My first diagnosis was it's going to take 5-10 years to get back to my best and I'm six years in now and I feel like I'm just starting to show the form I've shown in the past. I've had some wins on the WSL tour and I've had some moments but it's another thing to keep having performances and I feel like they've started to come. The wave pool, then here, the ISA event, I'm definitely starting to feel a lot better.
How do you feel going into Mexico and then Tahiti? Do you feel like you can maybe make that WSL Final at Trestles?
This is just the start. I've got a big job ahead of me in those two events. I've been in this form since the ISA games. The team Australia coaches really pushed me to open up and really get to that performance level again. There's a lot of work that goes in behind the scenes and I'm ready for the last two events. I think you see that form here. I feel like, "look I'm in form and I'm competitive with those guys." Maybe I don't have the full-rotation, massive airs, but rail-to-rail, I feel that I'm as good as anyone.
Easy question here, how does it feel to be the first Australian Olympic medalist?
It's such a special moment. I had all the top guys sending me messages, Mark Richards, Mick Fanning, "Rabbit" Bartholomew, we have a very rich surfing culture in Australia and I know they're all watching today and I'm just super proud. To get a medal and bring a medal home to Australia and be the first Olympic surfing medalist for Australia, that feels incredibly special. I did it for Australia and beyond that I did it for all the TBI survivors and to give them a glimmer of hope as well to be like, "Hey guys, keep striving, never lose that light at the end of the tunnel." I didn't count myself out and I'm standing here today. There's a lot of battles but there's a lot of good support.
Talk about those battles a little bit.
The journey, not going to lie, it's been an absolute nightmare, the start was something I never want to do again. But it's changed me. It's given me a fire inside. I want to keep striving and moving forward. There's some weak moments for sure, and vulnerable moments and I couldn't be here without the support team, without Team Australia. Without the Olympics coming on board which brought a new attention to the sport. It brought new doctors and new information, a wealth of knowledge. With that I got to the right doctors, and I'm standing here today. Those battles that I went through I wear them with pride. I believe that's why I got the medal. That's part of the strength I've gained. I've been through some gnarly shit and I'm proud of it.
What's going to get you over the top to win a world title?
I've not been well for years. I've had moments here and there. But to win the CT you have to show up, event after event, heat after heat after heat. I've had restrictions because of some of the struggles I've been going through but those are disappearing. I fully believe that my best is yet to come, I'm just starting to get to better health. I'm just starting to see it. I did 11 heats back-to-back at the ISA Games. I scored 16 points every time. I feel like those performances are coming. That's what it takes to beat the (Brazilian) Storm.
What's bigger for you, a CT win or the medal?
For me this medal is the biggest moment of my career. It stands for a lot of things. (There's) the personal battles, (doing it for) the rich culture in Australia, all those guys really behind us. I've had wins around the world but this is my biggest moment. The Olympics meant so much to me and it means so much to all Aussies too so for me this is it.
What about winning against Gabriel Medina. You know him so well.
I feel like I was the Aussie underdog and Gabby was expected to get a gold medal here. Honestly he's won everything that any surfer has ever wanted to win and he missed out on a medal (after losing to Kanoa in the semis). Maybe that's part of his journey but he's gonna still be here in three years time going for the next one. I love Gabby so much but I'm super stoked for myself.