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Big-Wave Surfer Greg Long
After nearly drowning, a big-wave surfer comes back to win his sport’s biggest title.
"As I was dangling from the basket of the Coast Guard helicopter, being lifted from the middle of the ocean in huge seas after basically drowning, I said to myself, 'There’s no way. I’m done. Thank you for this second chance at life. I don’t need big-wave surfing anymore,' " remembers 30-year-old Greg Long. That day, he vowed he would never surf big waves again.
On December 21, 2012, Long had just dropped into a massive 25-foot wave at Cortes Bank, 100 miles off the coast of San Diego, when fellow surfer Garrett McNamara unknowingly dropped in on top of him, cutting him off and causing him to fall. The inflatable bladder, essentially an airbag in the back of his wetsuit, failed to deploy when he pulled the cord that activates the CO2 cartridge. He managed to hold his breath long enough to crawl up his leash to the tail of his surfboard, but the board was still submerged in aerated water, which prevented him from catching a breath before he blacked out. Three consecutive waves pinned him underwater.
Despite his initial reaction to the accident, not only did Long go back to riding big waves, he went on to earn the title of Big Wave World Champion less than a year later when he won the 2012-'13 Big Wave World Tour, a yearlong competition in which the world's top 12 big-wave surfers get as little as 72 hours notice to buy a ticket to sanctioned big-wave competition sites around the world. They surf waves a minimum of 30 feet high. Long put a lot of thought into his decision to return to big-wave surfing, but ultimately, he came back to the reason he started in the first place.
"It's always been my passion to explore this, and where I really feel alive," Long says. "I wanted to find my physical and mental potential as a human being—that was the avenue by which I was exploring it. So I decided I was going to go back."
"We grew up in the water," Long says of himself and his older brother, Rusty, also a pro surfer, and sister, Heather. They were raised in San Clemente, California, by a beach-enthusiast mother and a lifeguard father who started taking his kids out on the front of his surfboard before they knew how to swim. Long started surfing at ten years old. He fell in love with the excitement and challenge of big-wave surfing. By 15, he knew he wanted to ride the biggest waves in the world. He’s spent the second 15 years meticulously training his body and mind to do just that.
Long tracked swells obsessively. He swam, ran, or biked every day for cardio fitness. He did breath-holding drills in pools. Under certain conditions, he can hold his breath for up to five minutes. He practiced yoga for strength and flexibility, and to better understand and control his thoughts and fears.
"Everything revolved around me being physically prepared, mentally prepared, tracking the swells, traveling, going from one place to the next and continuing to push myself. If you ask any of my friends or family, it was 24/7. It literally consumed my life," Long says.
Long's all-consuming and thoughtful preparation earned him gold medals at the 2003 Red Bull Big Wave Africa, at Mavericks in 2008, at the 2009 Eddie Aikau event, the 2013 Big Wave World Tour, and more category wins at the Billabong XXL Global Big Wave Awards than any other surfer. It also saved his life that day at Cortes Bay—from the physical abilities and mental composure he had developed, to the rescue team he had assembled. The same thoughtfulness now guides the way he is processing the aftermath of the accident.
"I got right back into it thinking, Okay, I’m going to pick up where I left off," Long says. "And to the outside viewers, it may seem like that’s exactly what happened. At the same time, I will openly admit, I’m not the same person with the same mindset that I was prior to that accident. Some days, I’m motivated and inspired to pick it up with that same intensity. Others, I’ll stop, and think, Hang on a second, did you miss the big picture of the world trying to tell you something through that accident?"
"I’m at a place where I just respect the process," he says. "I’ll find my way to where I’m meant to be in the big-wave surfing world."
|GREG LONG is up for NATGO'S "ADVENTURER OF THE YEAR". Go to National Geographic and Vote.|