They start out like any other day – the days that change everything. It was 10 December 2015. Owen Wright was in Hawaii. It was a corker of a blue-sky island morning and the waves rolling in at Pipeline, a surf break in Oahu’s north shore considered to be among the world’s most dangerous, were immense – as high as he’d ever seen there. There were a couple of hours before the competition, and Owen decided to paddle out and catch a few early ones, get into his groove. He caught a “cracking wave, straight off the bat,” rode the barrel like a champion and was feeling “stratospheric, invincible”. A couple of rides like that in competition and he could take out the World Surfing League title.
Then his luck changed.
Owen turned in the channel and was paddling back out through the breakers when a 15-foot-high wall of water landed on top of him with the force of a falling building. He had maybe 20 seconds to catch his breath in the wave’s foamy aftermath, but this was just the first of a ten-wave set, and he was slammed by every one of them.
“They knocked me senseless,” he says.
As white as a ghost, dazed and shaking, the young Aussie surfer dragged himself back up the beach to his room at Rip Curl House, where he collapsed on his bed and phoned his girlfriend of three months, Kita Alexander.
“He was slurring his words,” she says, “and just kept repeating the same thing, over and over, ‘I got flogged.’”
Then the phone fell to the floor and Owen lost consciousness.
He was rushed to hospital where the doctors realised he had suffered a massive concussion and a brain haemorrhage. The injuries would affect his mobility, his memory, his ability to speak.
“I was so messed up,” he says, “and the doctors were saying I could be that way for years.”
When he regained consciousness, Owen turned to his sister Tyler, who was also competing in Hawaii and had been with him every minute since the accident, and asked if he could please see Kita.
Owen and Kita’s love story
For three months, it had been the perfect love story. Handsome champion surfer with his eye on the world title meets charismatic young musician who has just signed her first international record deal. She was 19, he was 25. They’d both grown up on Aussie beaches in coastal country towns. Their first date was a daylong walk through the Royal National Park, south of Sydney. They fell head-over-heels in love.
They met up again in Los Angeles. They hung out at Newport Beach, stayed in a log cabin in Yosemite National Park, lived the high life in a fancy record company mansion in the Hollywood Hills, while Kita wrote new music for her album.
Kita remembers the last time she saw Owen before the accident: “We were staying in that house in Los Angeles. Owen had to fly out to Hawaii. He woke me up. It was 4am. He sat on the bed and said, ‘Hey Kita, I’ve got to go. I want to say bye, but I also really want to make this official. I want us to be together.’ … Then off he went and got on an aeroplane.”
“Poor Kita,” Owen writes in his memoir, Against the Water. “She had no idea what she was getting herself into.”
When Tyler called from the hospital, Kita didn’t think twice.
“Tyler said, ‘He really wants you here,’” she remembers. “I was supposed to be writing for a week with different producers.” But she got on the first plane she could to Hawaii and ever since then, she’s been by Owen’s side.
“I feel pretty lucky she made that decision,” Owen tells The Weekly. And he acknowledges that he has Kita’s sister, Tash, to thank for it.
Kita had grown up, for the most part, in a single parent family. Her mother was a dentist, her father an airline pilot who’d left when she was young. Tash was four years older, also mad about music, and the sisters were close. “We did a lot of fending for ourselves,” Kita says.
Tash had passed away from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma just two years before Kita met Owen.
So when Tyler called, Kita says, “I still had a lot of PTSD from my sister’s death and I thought, ‘You can’t go on me too.’ All the adults around were like, ‘Are you sure you want to do this? You don’t have to.’ I said, ‘I know I don’t have to – I want to.’ I couldn’t let someone I cared about go through that by themselves. If they wanted me there, I was going to be there. And we probably do have my sister to thank for that because, without her, I might have done what a normal 19-year-old would have done – freaked out and run away.”
Owen Wright’s tough diagnosis
The doctors looked at Owen’s brain scans and likened the images to those of blast victims from war zones. There was no guarantee he would make a complete recovery, and the first year was especially tough. Aside from his physical disabilities he was riding an emotional rollercoaster from high anxiety through wild over confidence to plummeting depression.
Against medical advice, he flew home to Australia, where he moved into his mother’s house in Gerringong and was cared for by Kita and his family.
“It’s been very tough, very traumatic,” Tyler told The Weekly 12 months later. “A traumatic brain injury is an injury that people don’t know a lot about … It’s a slow, hard, confronting recovery process. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve had to watch, and it was harder for him to experience … Watching Owen go through it has been heartbreaking, but I also know how strong he is, and I know that whatever he wants to do, he’ll do.”
Owen remembers spending most of the first month after the accident in bed: “The blinds stayed closed to keep the room dim. I wasn’t up to reading or watching television – not even close … I felt constantly fuzzy and listless. Following the doctors’ advice, I did colouring-in as a way of stimulating the brain’s pathways to heal. A few times each day, I’d get out of bed and take a few steps.”
“The blinds stayed closed to keep the room dim. I wasn’t up to reading or watching television…Owen Wright
A few times each day, I’d get out of bed and take a few steps.”
The toughest times, he writes, were when friends visited. “My speech was slow and slurred as if I were toothless. After staying for 10 or 15 minutes, my visitors would then file out, fighting back tears. The state I was in shocked them. They’d known I was unwell, but who was this wreck of a man who once rode the world’s most challenging waves?”
Kita coped, she says, by living one moment to the next. “If I ever thought there was a different version of him in the future, it would make the present seem heavy. But if I could love him in every moment – if I could think, if he’s like this forever, I can still love him, whether it was memory issues or walking difficulties or surfing difficulties or talking difficulties – then I could cope.”
Ultimately though, Owen knew in his heart that he could beat the odds.
“Everyone was saying he wasn’t going to surf again,” says Kita, “but his drive and his determination to prove everyone wrong was what got him out of it. He didn’t just heal. He worked hard at it.”
“And there’s no doubt,” Owen says, “that so much of that goes back to my dad and my upbringing.”
Owen was born and raised to win
Owen had grown up in the tiny town of Culburra, not far from where he was recuperating, on the NSW south coast. His father, Rob, a martial arts instructor, had a plan to raise a family of surfing champions, and he did. All four of Owen’s siblings were surfing from the time they could hold a board. They’ve won a swag of awards between them and Tyler has twice been world champion.
“From my dad, I learnt discipline and courage,” Owen says, and that success in the surf was as much about mental and emotional discipline as physical practice.
“Surfing forever and a day has been my measuring stick,” Owen explains. “If I wanted to get better at my surfing, my dad would say that I had to get better at my manners. If you go out in the ocean and you’re angry, and you haven’t had good manners or treated other people well that day, then most likely you’re not going to have a good surf. That’s what surfing was to me. It was about my relationship to myself.”
The long road to healing
Owen channelled that commitment and self-discipline into his recovery. He was on a mission.
“I worked hard every day,” he explains. “The routine was meditation, yoga, journaling, colouring-in early on. I was trying not to be on my phone or in front of a screen. Screens are over-stimulating.
“I went from just trying to walk out of my bedroom to walking along the hallway – just slowly, day-by-day, getting a little bit further until I was comfortable around the house. Then I decided to get back in the water. We started in the pool. That was just lying on a board in the pool. Then I was lying on the board paddling. Then we went to the beach – paddling a board at the beach.
“Early on, I just couldn’t surf. It was as if I just didn’t have the ability. Then I got to a point, about four months in, where I made a great leap forward in my recovery and I felt like I could surf again. I think my brain had come out of some of the trauma. I’d had a form of post-traumatic amnesia, and it had come out of that … I was still slow and I had lots of problems, but I knew I could surf again.”
“About 14 weeks into the pregnancy, I did start getting scared. I did think, ‘What have we done?’”Kita Alexander
Around that time, something else happened that was entirely unexpected.
“We didn’t take it slow,” Owen chuckles. “I’d just been home for a few months and we were pregnant with Vali.”
At first, Kita says, “I had the beautiful naivety of a young adult: ‘Everything’s going to be fine. I’m having a baby, that’s so exciting.’” But then came the challenges, the “ups and downs”.
“There were times,” she admits, “when we didn’t think we were going to make it. I was hormonal as f**k. He was forgetting who I was – he was forgetting who everyone was. It wasn’t easy.
“About 14 weeks into the pregnancy, I did start getting scared. I did think, ‘What have we done?’ That’s when things got a bit rockier between us. I was wanting more, needing more from Owen, and he couldn’t give it … But I focused on the good. To be honest, I’m a bit of a goldfish – I forget things as well – and I definitely try to see the good in the world.”
“You saw the best in me,” Owen adds earnestly.
Back on the board after brain injury
Defying everyone’s expectations – except, it must be said, his dad’s – Owen’s return to competition was at Snapper Rocks, in Queensland, in March 2017.
“Just stay on your board for two waves,” his coach, Glenn ‘Micro’ Hall, told him. And he did. Actually, he did a whole lot more. Owen won his first heat, though he came in afterwards “dog-tired, dizzy, legs shaking”. Then he made it all the way to the final, and won that too.
Mikey and Tyler met their brother wading through the shallows after the final wave, boosted him onto their shoulders and carried him aloft to Kita, who was shouting: “We did it!”
It wasn’t all smooth sailing from there – far from it – but Owen persevered. He fought off his anxiety to ride the big swells at Pipeline again, and then Teahupo’o in Tahiti, where he also proposed to Kita.
His next goal was to represent Australia in the Tokyo Summer Olympics, and after the games were postponed for a year by COVID, he gave it his all and came home with a bronze medal.
Owen began speaking out about the danger of concussions in surfing. It’s evident now that he has suffered multiple concussions throughout his surfing career but, raised to roll with the punches and get back on his board regardless, they’d largely gone undiagnosed and untreated.
He also began wearing a helmet in serious swells. “Paddling out in my helmet, did I feel self-conscious? Not at all. I felt like I was taking back my life.”
What does Owen Wright do now?
This year, Owen has retired from the professional circuit, published a memoir, and signed up to Rip Curl’s freesurfing team, The Search, travelling the world on a quest for the perfect wave. He’s also working towards a documentary about the risks of and solutions to concussion in sport.
“I would love this film to be like a hub for people who get concussions,” he says. “Informational and inspirational – a bit of a light at the end of the tunnel.”
As Kita moves back into her music career (she’s released three singles so far in 2023: Queen, 7 Minutes In Heaven and Date Night featuring Morgan Evans), Owen is also looking forward to spending more time with Vali, now six, and Rumi, two and a half.
Both the youngsters are grommets at heart. Vali is already competing and Rumi, Owen says, is keen to “wear a pink rashy like her aunty Tyler and win at Bells”.
That doesn’t mean that Owen, like his dad, plans to raise a family of champions.
“I came from one of the hardest of blokes,” he says. Rob has, for some years now, been battling dementia and lives next door. “He believed that if you could go through some kind of physical endurance, that would create discipline – it would bring character and strength. I’m the product of that but now I can see there are other aspects to life that you need – the things I got from my mum, like care, enjoyment and an understanding of emotions.”
Owen doesn’t regret the upbringing he had, but he’s already becoming a very different kind of parent.
“He’s the best dad. I love that he has the energy to go out and take them surfing and play with them.”Kita Alexander
“He’s the best dad,” says Kita. “I love that he has the energy to go out and take them surfing and play with them. And he’s also got a really logical mind. He knows how to have a deep, meaningful chat with the kids – how to read emotions and talk through them. I love that connection they have.”
Owen recalls, not long ago, pushing Vali into a wave at a local kids’ surfing comp. He rode it to the shore and didn’t say a thing until a couple of days later when, out of the blue, he burst into tears and said, “Dad, that was a really big wave.”
“I’m like, ‘Oh man, sorry, I didn’t know,’” says Owen. “And he’s, ‘It’s alright Dad, I know you were just trying to get us to win.’ And I was like, ‘Sorry.’ I was thinking back to my dad … I feel good that he felt safe enough to tell me how he was feeling, and now I’ll listen to that.”
This little family has been through such a lot in these few short years, yet their house overlooking the cliffs at Lennox Head is filled with love, and they carry a spirit of indefatigable optimism.
“It just keeps getting better,” Owen says with that infectious surfer smile. “We’ve been through a lot, but we’re here now, and this is good.”
“I don’t regret doing what I did,” says Kita. “If I’d stuck with work, I know I’d be in a different place in my career right now, but there’s no part of me that wishes I hadn’t come home to look after Owen.
“I look at the world now, and I think we can get through anything. Nothing can break us, and nothing is more important than family.”