Rip Curl Blog
Tyler Wright Opens Up
2x World Champion opens up about her illness, her recovery and her competitive goals moving forward.
Just last week, 2x World Champion Tyler Wright pulled on a competitive jersey for the first time in over a year-and-a-half. She was clear from the start that this was not her comeback – her performance in Maui was simply the next step in her rehab. But, in true Wright form, she surfed her way to the Final and put on a display of surfing that only a 2x World Champ can live up to.
But Tyler’s story is much deeper than just one event. One return to competition. Here, she tells that story…
Can you talk us through, as an overview, what it took to get from where you were to where you are? The abridged version…
Yeah. It took 365 days of being sick. It took a doctor named Brett Jarosz to figure out what was wrong, and why I was still in the condition that I was in. Brett was the doctor who figured out why I couldn’t move, couldn’t talk, couldn’t go outside, couldn’t do all of the things. And then once he found me, it took three months of intensive neuro rehab and cardio and physical training to get back to where I am today.
Are you happy to share what the doctor, Brett, discovered?
Essentially, he discovered that my brain didn’t work. That my brain wasn’t functioning, and different aspects of my brain and my cognitive ability didn’t work the way it used to. My brain needed neuro rehab.
What did that involve?
A lot of exercises. My eyes were really messed up as well. I had to re-train all of it. I had really hectic gut issues as well, along with other things in my stomach. But most of my improvement came from my brain, and how much the virus affected my function.
When you started to physically train yourself how to move again, what did that feel like?
Well it kind of started at 20 minutes a day with a really calculated heart rate. And then it increased slowly in a really calculated physical way, doing certain movements that would help my brain. It was all pretty stressful.
Did it feel good though, when you started being able to think and do things with a bit more normality?
I think so. It’s layered. I think when you’re ill for so long, it comes with a fair amount of trauma. So getting back, you don’t have to get back just physically but you also have to work through a year-and-a-half of trauma. Which I’m still working more on now. Physically I feel fine now, but the rest of it… there’s a lot of clean-up to do.
Physically I’m great. I’ve been able to surf for quite a long time now. And even train and do all of those kinds of things. Those aren’t the hard things for me. The harder things for me now are things like the social interaction, the daily normal life interactions… the driving, the shopping, the thinking, the talking, the people… people approaching me. So that has been more hectic than the physical side of things.
When did you first start thinking about competing in Maui?
After eight weeks with Brett I had my first surf, and he told me that I needed to just pick an event and aim for that. Because eventually at some point the next stage of my recovery would be competing – it’s about reintegration and exposure therapy. Slowly re-exposing me to things. Because I mean, essentially I was alone for a year-and-a-half. I haven’t seen anyone for more than about an hour, except for those people who were there the whole time. A lot of it is about re-integrating.
Did Owen help you at all with that, because he went through a similar sort of re-integration after his brain injury?
I guess his was a bit different. Alex did a lot of it, and Brett helped. But I think that Owen noticed that I had a lot of the same things that he had, and that’s why he thought I should go and see Brett. He was the doctor that Owen saw.
Going into Maui, you were very clear that this event was not your comeback – it was simply a part of your rehab. When you pulled the jersey on for that first time, how did it feel?
I felt like a deer in headlights. That’s why I was so clear with people that it wasn’t a comeback. If I’m coming back, I’m going to be 100%. And I’m not 100%. That’s the difference.
I think the further I got into the event the more I could enjoy. Physically I wasn’t the fittest person there, so it took a bit of a toll on me. Purely because three heats in one day is hectic, and it was six-foot plus every heat and you got flogged multiple times a heat.
Did you have fun?
Yeah. I enjoyed it. Probably more the second day than the first, because the first day was really intense. I think it was fun having Alex there, it was fun being in the water with Glenn, I think it was fun surfing a heat with Steph. There were parts of it that were fun. But a lot of it was recovery, and there are a lot of things that I have to think about rather than simply just going and surfing a heat and doing the things. It’s a different ballgame from what it used to be. Being in a heat is the simple bit.
Did you feel a competitive drive?
No. Not really. I just did my things and if you can do those and stay in your lane, then you’ll end up where you end up. It wasn’t about winning. And I think that’s evident in how much I have going on in my head – there’s not a lot of space for wanting to win a heat. That’s probably the last thing that I’m thinking about. I think the expectation of me wanting to come back and win, after what I’ve just gone through, it’s a bit far-fetched.
It’s my job to win. Competitive drive isn’t something that’s required, exactly. Winning is just something that I’m meant to do, because it’s my job. I’m always out there to make the choices to win the heat. It’s almost factual.
Are you excited for next year?
Yeah I think next year is a long way off. I think I’m still in the midst of processing all of the things from last week. It mean, it was a really rough year-and-a-half and I think there are still a lot of things I need to work through.
A lot of people were commenting that you were surfing better than ever. How does that sit with you? How do you feel about your surfing right now?
I didn’t really listen to people. But I feel great in the water right now. I don’t know if the right terminology is rusty, but I definitely know there are parts of my surfing that have improvement to go. Being smaller and lighter I don’t have the same forceful and powerful abilities that I once did. It’s more about precision and timing and those aspects, which are entirely different elements that I haven’t really played with.
Do you think your style will change?
I don’t know, there are already bits of my style that I’m like, where the hell did that come from? I’m doing these weird hand things now… they just appeared… which is weird. But there are definitely aspects of my surfing now that I can appreciate differently. I don’t know. I could try put on five or ten kilos and get back to where I was by March next year...
Do you want to?
No. No I honestly don’t think I can. It took me eight years to put all of that muscle mass on, and I started with a huge base to begin with. People say that I look fit now, but I’m not that fit. I’m not. I’ve looked fit throughout the entire sickness… it looked like I was more ripped, actually. I just got very, very skinny, but I had a full six pack. I also had black eyes constantly. They’re actually a bit dark now, over the last couple of days, just purely from what I’ve done competing.
Did competing wear you down?
Look I’ve been pretty sassy, and probably irritable. But that’s a normal response for me. I wouldn’t say that it cooked me but look, six heats in two days with an extra half-an-hour, plus the hill and everything… it was a lot in two days. I just really want to cruise and chill now.
Between now and next year, what happens?
I’ll go home. I’ll get re-assessed again to upgrade my neuro rehab. I’ll probably train a bit. Probably go on another holiday… maybe Fiji. I think there are heaps of things that I’d like to do for my surfing before next year.
Will you have a goal for next year? Or is your goal to just get back on Tour and see how you go?
The way I would put it is that I understand my job really well. I understand that my job is to win heats and win World Titles. I have a deep appreciation for that job. How I do that job moving forward will be different, but that’s sitting here now – I won’t know until I actually go and do it. But ideally I would like to do that job differently, while still doing it efficiently and successfully. I think my energy will go into a lot of different areas, than the areas it once did. Prior to this illness I think it was a lot more of a childlike approach to my career… not that I wasn’t an adult, but when you’re on the road from 14 years old you don’t really slow down. This illness, well, now I’ve slowed down.
A lot of athletes look back on their injuries and say that adversity has made them stronger, or better. Does that resonate with you, at all, in this situation?
I think that it was so fucked up, that not really, no. I’m still recovering from the entire process. There’s no doubt I’m different. You can’t go through that and not be. Am I better? I don’t know. It hasn’t made me a better person. Physically am I better? Oh yeah, I’m better than where I was before I got sick. I understand more about my body now, more than I really needed to. Technically I’m healthier than I was when I first got sick. I don’t know, maybe that’s an overstep. But no, all up… after this experience I don’t believe that adversity like this makes you better. I think there’s maybe a certain level of challenge that is good for you, and a certain level that is just ridiculous.