An injury might be the best thing that has happened to me as a surfer

Returning to a basic love of the ocean might make me a better waterwoman than surfing ever could have.

 

I am a transplant surfer. I grew up in Michigan, USA, surrounded by water of the unsalted kind. As a teenager, I spent my summers lifeguarding for the city pools and my winters at the local snowboard hill. I always wanted to be a surfer, for as long as I can remember. In middle school, I told all my friends that one day I would move to California and learn to surf.

 

California Dreaming

I did eventually move to California in my 20’s. When I did, I immediately purchased a wetsuit (which fit horribly because I didn’t know the first thing about buying a wetsuit) and an 8’6” funboard. Being a strong swimmer and familiar with board sports, I began to teach myself to catch whitewashes and stand to my feet. I lived next door to a Hawaiian guy who encouraged me to try to surf every day for three months. Then, he said, I would be able to catch unbroken waves and go directional. 

By the end of that summer, just before I turned 28, I was hooked on surfing. You couldn’t keep me out of the ocean if you tried to. The ocean made me feel happier than I had ever known was possible (read this interesting article on surfing and happiness). But at the time I didn’t know it was the ocean who was making me happy, I thought it was just the surfing part.

Melanie Williams surfing

The happiest place on earth

 

Then Life Happened

That summer was seven years ago. Since then life dragged me through some shit that comes along with living. A messy divorce, a business partner failing out, an eating disorder and the discovery that I have a genetic mutation that makes me highly susceptible to breast and ovarian cancer. Let’s just say, shit hit the fan.

During that time I took my solace in the ocean. I began surfing more and caring about everything else less. It was like the ocean just opened up to me and said, “Here I am baby girl, I’m big enough to hold all your pain.”

 

I lost sight of why I surf

The more I surfed the more I began to make major life changes to accommodate the surfing lifestyle. I changed my job, my partner and my country or residence, all in pursuit of more and more powerful waves.  For the last three years, I have been surfing my way to the most joyful version of myself.

But somewhere along the line, I got distracted. Surfing became the next great challenge to conquer in my life, the next thing to achieve.

Melanie Williams Broken Surfboard

Pushing the limits of my surfing without proper respect was costly in more ways than one.

I began to find myself berating myself after a “bad” session. Surfing started to feel like a job or an obligation. I pushed my limits physically too far, too fast, because I wanted to accomplish some goal of being a “good” surfer, whatever that means.  I forgot that I originally went surfing because I couldn’t not surf.

And then an injury forced me to hit pause. I’ve now been out with a back injury for 11 weeks. The doctors say I have months more to go.

 

A side story, bear with me…

I studied math in college. Somewhere in my sophomore year, I had a bad professor and I missed a fundamental building block in my education. The more classes I took the more gaps were formed because of what I had missed. I went on to study math in graduate school, but I never could quite keep up because of that gap in my undergrad education. Many of my friends went on to get their Ph.D.’s. But I knew that if I really wanted my Ph.D. that I would first have to go back to my sophomore year and start all over. 

This injury is giving me the opportunity to go back to my sophomore year of surfing. Here is what I mean:

 

Getting back to basics

I’m living on the North Shore of Oahu watching how Hawaiian children play in the ocean. How they develop a comfort level with powerful waves in the shore break. From the time they can walk they are getting an ocean education. They are fishing, diving, paddling canoes, riding boogies in the whitewash and spending as much time as possible playing in the ocean.

They are learning to speak the energetic language of the ocean. 

becoming a waterwoman

And it goes deeper than that with the Hawaiian people. There is truly an energetic resonance the people have with their natural environment.  This is a place where people live in harmony with energies as old as time itself. There is an appreciation that is hard to describe for the rhythms of nature. If you’ve ever experienced this then you know exactly what I mean. People here just flow.

 

Becoming a kid again

For my injury rehab, my chiropractor advised me to spend as much time in the ocean as I could because it will decompress my spine. “Get your spine moving,” he said. “Do flips in the water, just be a little kid again.”

The other day I dove to the bottom of the ocean, I picked up a rock and placed it on my belly so I could lay face up, looking through my mask toward the surface. The sun was setting and the colors were being split open by the water. It was an incredible sight. I watched as a wave broke over me. The sun scattered golden light over the underwater bubbles. I traced them with my gaze as they raced to the surface and disappeared back into wherever they came from. I was literally breathless, I didn’t need to breath. It was so beautiful that I stayed there in my underwater reclining position until the second wave of the set crashed over me and once again dazzled me with the light show. Mesmerized, I waited to see one more wave do its show before I surfaced.

Clark Little photo of a breaking wave

This photo by Clark Little captures one of the most beautiful sights on earth – a breaking wave.

I would have never seen any of this if I had been healthy enough to surf. I would have been surfing, not playing around with the fishes. 

I was just goofing off in the water. The thought never occurred to me that what I was doing might be good training for a multiple wave hold down. Although, effectively, it is preparing me for that. I was just drinking in the richness of momma ocean.

 

Learning to speak her language 

Each day I take time to get down to the ocean the same way I would if I were surfing. Sometimes I read a book if my back is hurting me, sometimes I dive with a mask, sometimes I body surf, sometimes I fight the current and swim hard. But I always feel reborn.

In this season of rehab, I’m falling in love with surfing in a richer way. Truth be told, I’m not in a rush to get back on a surfboard. Don’t get me wrong, I was frothing while watching one foot Waikiki rollers this afternoon. But the ocean is teaching my body her steady patience.

 

The pain of my injury is a real and constant part of my day. The ocean is still the only thing big enough to hold all this pain. The moment I dive into her, all pain is erased from my body and I am free to move any way I like again. Each day she welcomes my achy body with open arms, she soothes me. Her joys are new every day, and so are mine.

 


How have you found solace in being injured? What lessons have you learned? Share the love and tell us in the comments below.

About the author

Melanie Williams

I am a writer and wanna-be big wave surfer. Surfing is my muse. I write about it and how it’s teaching me to live better. I hold certification as a nutritionist, personal trainer, yoga instructor, and lifeguard instructor. My story “100 Days in Mexico” of how a solo road trip surfing my way through Mexico changed my life can be found here www.melanielainewilliams.com

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