The Big Sea
In January of 2006 (Age 33) I was diagnosed with Clear Cell Chondrosarcoma, which is a rare type of bone cancer that typically effects children and young adults. At the time of my diagnosis I was traveling the world competing at the elite level of the WSL World Championship Tour, in short, I was at the peak of my surfing career. It was obviously a life changing moment that would eventually force my retirement from professional surfing, but on a positive note, would open my eyes to new challenges and fulfilment in other areas of my life.
My cancer was located in the right femoral head, which would eventually be removed along with the top third of my femur shaft and some muscle tissue from my right thigh. My treatment didn’t include chemotherapy or radiation, however total excision of the diseased bone with generous margins was required for a positive prognosis. My surgeon, Dr Earl Brien, performed the operation at Cedar Sinai Hospital in LA, which in itself was fairly complex because he had to reattach some muscles to the prosthesis so I could retain close to normal movement and function in my leg. (I actually live in Australia but chose to have the surgery in the USA, that’s another story…)
Now throughout the course of my life I’ve faced some pretty monumental challenges; I nearly drowned as a young kid, I’ve had a run-in with a shark, I’ve been in a major car accident, I’ve overcome some of the most treacherous conditions mother nature could muster, and I’ve even been wiped out by a tsunami. Some people have called me the unluckiest surfer on the planet, others have said I could actually be the luckiest because I’m still here today. Either way, I’ve learnt a lot about myself, and life, along the way, and certainly my biggest challenge would come at the hands of a cancer diagnosis.
During my recovery and rehabilitation I had to draw on all my life experiences and really make a conscious effort to stay positive, stay focused, and make the most of the situation I was faced with… Looking back it would have been easy to slip into depression, and really mourn the life I had, but when faced with the ultimate scenario, the decision to fight is really not that hard. I decided early in my cancer journey to face my challenge with a glass half full attitude. I made a conscience effort to remain positive… I did that, and I believe it helped to facilitate a good outcome. Staying positive was definitely made easier with help from family and friends who gave me plenty of encouragement and support.
Directly after my surgeries the doctors said I’d be lucky to surf again, and if I did, it would only be on small waves with limited movement. Hearing that was a really big shock, surfing was my life, and I wasn’t prepared to give that up! Initially, I used what they said as motivation during my recovery to get as strong and physically fit as possible. Within a year after the operations I was standing on a board again, after a few years my surfing had improved immensely to the point where I started to compete at an amateur level again with varying levels of success. Eventually, I was able to competed in a professional surfing event at my local beach at Manly, it was a full circle moment, and one that was very satisfying after everything I’d been through. Since then my desire to compete in the surfing arena has faded somewhat, but my desire to surf, and do it well, remains stronger than ever. To this day, my desire to keep surfing is a huge motivator to stay fit and healthy.
Since leaving the surfing tour my life has obviously changed immensely, and I can honestly say now its for the better. I have an incredible wife who’s been by my side from day one, and two amazing kids who are my world. I’ve also been able to find satisfaction in my work life, and without trying to sound like a jerk, I currently hold positions at two major surf companies (Surf Hardware International and Global Surf Industries) under the titles of Product Designer, Sports Marketing, Content Presenter & Producer and Team Manger, just to name a few. I’m a Brand Ambassador for Hurley, Vertra, Electric, the NSW Cancer Council and also the Hannah’s Chance Foundation, which is a sarcoma awareness group. I’m also the author of a book titled ‘The Big Sea’ which I wrote with my good friend Sean Doherty. While I was initially reluctant, I felt compelled to share my life’s journey to help inspire others who’ve faced, or are facing cancer or some type of adversity, and to inject some positivity around what can be a very scary and uncertain time.
Now by no means am I trying to sell you anything, but if you’re interested, please keep reading below. Its a chapter from my book, and it’s around the time I start surfing again post hip surgeries. You might relate to some of the thoughts and feelings…
Stay Positive, Stay Strong!!
The Big Sea – Chapter 18 (Drop Me In The Ocean )
My gills were really starting to dry out. It had been over six months since I’d been in the ocean, and while for many people this mightn’t sound like a life and death situation, when you consider I’d been in the ocean pretty much every day for the previous 20 years, then you can imagine I was getting a little fritzed.
I knew I still wasn’t ready to jump in the ocean yet – my leg simply wasn’t strong enough – but I had an idea. I started walking on the soft sand at the beach. I figured the sand would be good for me because it would force my muscles to nurse and stabilize my leg on the uneven surface. The second upshot, of course, was that I was at the beach, I was looking at the ocean, and I was watching people surf. As I walked along I’d be able to start visualising myself back on the waves, and having the ocean right there would keep me motivated, so much more than swimming in a pool with octogenarians. I had to get back outdoors and I had to get close to the ocean, as much for my state of mind as for the good of my leg.
Soft sand walking became my vice, and I did it every day. I walked at Manly because the beach was flat and wide, and also it felt like home. I’d moved to Curl Curl which is a five-minute drive away, but Manly was still my home beach and I wanted to be around people I knew from the local community. The feeling of having my feet in the sand after such a long hiatus was incredible and it catapulted me back in time to when I was a boy. But of course I knew I wouldn’t be able to walk the beach every morning and not jump in the ocean sooner or later. As it turns out, it was sooner.
I knew the ocean would be the elixir I needed to get back to my old self. It was going to be a huge psychological moment, and after months of rehab I figured that physically I was ready to go. If I just dived in and went swimming in the surf there’d be a risk I could get knocked off my feet by a wave, but I knew that if I paddled out on a surfboard – and could stop myself from trying to stand up on it – I was in my element and would be pretty safe.
I arranged to borrow a longboard from a mate of mine who owns the Aloha surf shop at Manly. It was a beautiful sunny autumn day, and the water at Manly was crystal clear. A small swell was running, generating tiny little waves no bigger than a foot, peeling into the beach. I got changed into my wetsuit at the shop, which was no mean feat. I had to get some help to get it on because I couldn’t bend down and simply wrench it over my foot as I’d typically do. I had to carefully push my foot through the opening in the leg and slowly ease myself into the suit. But once I got it on I felt like I was transformed, like superman in his hero suit, it felt like I had my skin back on and I started to get really excited about getting in the water again.
The plan was to head straight down from shop at Mid Steyne, and I asked one of my mates Pauly, who was working in the shop, to carry the board down to the beach for me while I hobbled down with my cane. Just walking down to the waterline was an awesome feeling. I was back where I belonged, and with each step closer I took towards the water, it just felt like I was being brought back to life. The board I’d borrowed was this nine-foot Aloha malibu; a longboard with ample flotation and stability. I specifically chose that board because I knew once I got out there just paddling around wouldn’t be enough and I’d want to catch a couple of waves on my belly.
Pauly helped out and carried the board to the beach and down to the shoreline. Once I was in waist-deep of water he handed it over and I eased my way onto the deck of the board and started to paddle out. Off I went, and oh God did it feel good! It felt so normal, the water going through my fingers, everything about it just felt so right. It was truly invigorating to open up my shoulders blades and reengage muscles that’d been in hibernation for a long time. It sounds weird, but its as though there’s a healing property in the ocean and I could feel it washing over me that day. I felt so alive and exhilarated to be out there again. The wind was puffing offshore and the waves were only small but they looked so perfect, like they’d been airbrushed, and the whole scene just looked magic. I paddled for the horizon, and at that moment I could have paddled to New Zealand and back.
I paddled around for a while just soaking in the serenity of being alone again on a board, but then I started watching the waves and they were calling out to me. It was as though they were calling my name. It only took a couple of minutes for me to succumb to this desire to ride a wave, I could resist any longer. This perfect little one foot wave popped up in front of me and right there and then I made the decision to catch it. Paddling came easy and I’d lost none of my form so I stroked into the wave with purpose and the longboard gained momentum as the energy of the swell came closer. Then suddenly the wave picked me up and I started gaining speed, here we go. I’m back! I rode that first wave all the way through to the shore. The hardest thing about it was trying to stop myself from standing up. There was no one else around apart from a few guys down the beach learning to surf, who must have been wondering what that guy up the beach was doing just lying on his belly laughing. I had to fight to keep myself from doing something stupid; I knew I wasn’t ready to stand up, and so for the next 20 minutes I rode wave after wave on my belly. I started to trim along the waves, weaving back and forth, and even though I was lying down I felt like a surfer. It was pure stoke, and it reinforced that I was on the right track. I came in and Pauly gave me a high five then grabbed the board for me. I hobbled up the beach with a huge smile on my face. I’d had a taste and I wanted more.
Shortly after arriving home from America I went to see my longtime chiropractor, Dave Steven. He was giving me regular check-ups for my alignment, and was also working on the muscles in my leg and around my hip, making sure they were all healing well. At that point Dave was convinced I was going to be back on tour; he wouldn’t take no for an answer. “Dave,” I said, “look mate, I don’t know if its possible, I’m not going to have the same range of motion in my hip, and my right leg might never be strong enough” And he replied, “I’m going to get you back on there, we can do it”. He’d taken me on as a case study to see how far we could go. I think secretly he knew I wasn’t going to get back on tour, nevertheless it was superb motivation to dangle that carrot in front of me, and it drove me even more to really work on my body and get it right.
I started ramping up my training and it wasn’t long before I was back riding a bike. I’d been on an exercise bike just to get the pedaling motion down, which then progressed to actually riding my bike every day. Bike riding has always been one of my preferred methods of training. Ever since I used to ride from Mosman every day, I just found it invigorating. It would also be perfect for me because it was low impact. Some of the advice I was given was to avoid any high impact exercise, anything that would jar or put sudden pressure on my hip. No more running, tennis or skipping rope for me. I purchased a variety of exercise equipment for home and began incorporating a really broad range of exercises into my program that would help stabilize my hip. I got creative with my training too. I’d do things like get a skateboard deck and place it on top of a small rubber dome, then I’d stand on it and perform squats, and being unstable it was almost like I was surfing, in fact I’d pretend I was. I stepped up my boxing and I started to get really fit. Once I lost the cane, the progress was quick.
Toward the end of August I had my first round of scans with Doctor Stalley. I had to have X-rays, a CT and a PET scan – the X-ray to check on the prosthesis and the surrounding bone, the CT and PET scans to check for any recurring trace of cancer, any metastic disease. They were my first big tests since the operation and in the week leading up to it I was nervous as hell. I’m sure most cancer patients will agree that its almost impossible not to think about the disease coming back. The threat of the cancer recurring just hangs over you like a shadow, and more so, its that first round of testing when you anticipate it either coming back or spreading to other parts of the body. I went to RPA hospital to have the PET scan done, back down into the nuclear medicine department and through the same big doors with the same black and yellow hazard signs. I was injected with a radioactive solution and made to sit in a room for an hour while the fluid traveled throughout my bloodstream. Before long I was lying back on a narrow steel bench sliding in and out of this big tubular machine. With each moment I’m wondering what the results will be, hoping that whoever was looking at the monitors in the room behind wasn’t seeing anything sinister. It was a really nerve racking experience, and to top it all off I had to wait a few weeks for the results of the tests. But I knew it was a necessary evil. I needed to stay vigilant for this thing coming back for me.
Two weeks later I went to see Doctor Stalley. He reviewed all the scans and said that everything was perfect. Man, I was almost expecting him to look down his glasses again and go, “Richard, I’ve got some bad news for you,” and pull a metal knee out of his drawer, but everything was fine. I looked over to Amanda, who’d been as nervous as I me, and we both cracked a huge smile and walked out of the room buzzing. If I could have jumped in the air I would have. In contrast our emotions were the polar opposite to the ones we’d experienced when we walked out of his office months earlier. That was a huge, huge, huge win at that stage. Any cancer patient will tell you the same thing; when you’re told everything’s fine after that first round of testing, its like a wave of relief rushes over you’re whole body. What it also does is allow you to start thinking further ahead.
We were on a high after the news, and it was only a day or two after that I went to see Dave Steven. I said, “I’ve got the all clear from Doctor Stalley… is it time?”
“Is it time for what?
“Is it time to go surfing?”
He said, “I was surprised it took you this long to ask.”
And so we did. We had to wait a few days because the conditions needed to be just right. It needed to be a nice, gentle swell with no wind. If the sun was out it was going to be a bonus. I wanted the waves to small, predictable and easy to ride, because getting up was going to be a delicate process. I’d also arranged for my mate Pete Crumpton to come down and video the whole experience, I wanted my second ‘first’ wave recorded. I’d known Crump for years, back then he was into making surf videos, and being from the same area and having a bunch of mutual friends we’d naturally developed a close friendship. A few years earlier Pete had been struck down with a heart condition and it would slowly progress to the point where he’d need a heart transplant. So at the time the pair of us were on these parallel journeys, although Crump’s big battle was still to come. In the meantime he was staying busy making short films, and he was also keen to document my return to the water.
The crew down at Aloha had organised for shaper, Doug Bell to make me a custom 8’6” longboard especially for this day. It was yellow and they’d sprayed an abstract set of “RL” initials onto the deck for me. They’d delivered it to my house a couple of weeks before and I’d been staring at the board at home wondering when it would be having its maiden voyage, it had been driving me crazy. So the day arrived and again we went down and got set up at the Aloha surf shop. I put my wettie on and it was a little easier than last time. It was such a beautiful, sunny day and if I’d been excited just to go for a paddle in the ocean a few weeks before, I was a hundred times more pumped about heading out and actually surfing.
I knew I was ready; I was fit and strong, yet there was still this gnawing thought about what would happen if I fell off? What if I fell awkwardly? I still had reservations in the back of my mind, but it was time to annie-up and break through my feelings of anxiety. It was time. I’d taken off on 20-foot waves in my life, and here I was about to take off on a knee-high wave and I had the same feelings of trepidation.
I walked down the beach, and this time I carried my board all the way from the shop. Amanda was there along with Crump, but nobody else. It was great that everyone was showing me so much support and encouragement, but this was something I needed to do alone. I walked down the beach close to the water, stuck the nose of my board in the sand, and started to do some light warm up exercises, the same routine I’d done a million times before I went surfing. I got halfway through the routine and thought screw this; I can’t wait any longer, I’m out there.
I jumped on the board and paddled out. I was down at Mid Steyne again, and again there weren’t too many people in the water, just a couple of desperate surfers trying to make the most of the small conditions. I’ve made my way out the back of the waves and waited, and soon a little wave stands up in front of me. By this stage my anxiety has been washed away so I’ve swung the board around and started paddling as the swell rolls closer towards me. Within a few strokes I pick up speed and the board starts to plane and everything is happening without me even thinking, I’m running on pure instinct. My hands pushed down on the deck of the board and I’ve lifted my body up so I’m in a downward dog position – my legs hadn’t moved yet and this is where I had to be careful. I managed to swing my left leg up underneath my chest and I plant my foot on the board so that it takes all my weight on it. I anchored my right foot then slowly, gingerly, my hands gradually leave the board and I start to stand up. The energy of this little wave is carrying me all the time toward the beach, and I’ve looked around and I can see the water flying by and I’m seeing water spraying off the rails of my board and it’s struck me… I’m surfing. I’m standing tall on this surfboard and I’m flying along this little green wave. It’s everything I’d dreamed of for eight months and it’s everything I’ve ever dreamed of since I was 10 years old. I’d caught waves in Hawaii, Tahiti and Indonesia, I’d caught waves 20 times the size of this one, I’d caught waves in front of 50,000 people, and I’d caught waves that had won me $30,000, but this was the single most significant wave of my life. It was a pinnacle moment for me, and this tiny, insignificant little wave that only two people had seen me ride marked the end of a dark chapter and the start of my new life. The wave slowly petered out in deep water close to shore, I slowly lowered myself down onto the board, raised my arms in triumph to Amanda and Crump, and was thinking only one thing… more. I paddled back out for another one, feeling like the ocean had said, welcome back, boyo.
There was no way I was going to catch only one, so I paddled straight back out and caught another, and then another, and with each wave I got more and more confident, I surfed better and better, and I was stoked beyond belief. Trying to explain how that felt for me is almost impossible. Think of the most important thing in your life, then imagine having it taken away from you and then handed back a year later. I had all those feelings coursing through my veins and I felt so alive and energised after that surf. That moment was a focal point I’d spent a long time working towards, and it was the start better things to come.
The truly great thing was that I was surfing the same sandbank I’d first surfed as a 10 year-old boy. It was the very same part of the beach where Pa had pushed me into my first wave 20 years ago on that old green surfboard. It was pretty symbolic; I’d come full circle. I’d started surfing again on the very same strip of sand, and it made me think. Over those years that simple feeling, that sensation of magically floating across the water, I’d lost that. I’d started taking it for granted. Over those years I started looking at waves differently; I sized them up like I wanted to dominate them, when I surfed I hunted for the best section to slice and perform fast, aggressive turns. Waves had become vehicles to score points or impress people or advance my career. But now I’d gone from sixth gear back to first and I had time to stop and smell the roses. I was 10 years old again, and the smile didn’t leave my face for weeks.