Surfing Again after a Year of Injury Recovery Brings a New Set of Joys and Challenges

Recovery doesn’t just happen one day. You won’t just pick up where you left off. This article details those first steps to getting back in the water after an injury


Like many surfers, I have a spot I like to go to watch the sunset over the ocean at the end of a pleasant afternoon. My spot is Sunset Beach, Hawaii. It used to be one of the best parts of my day. But during this year of spinal injury recovery, on days when the surf is pumping, I sometimes avoid it. 

It’s not so much the sunset watching that I’m avoiding, as it is the question. That one question: “Did you surf today.” 

“NO!” I want to scream at them. “I’m fucking injured, I can’t fucking surf in these conditions anymore!” Of course, my friends and acquaintances are just talking story, wanting to stoke each other out. But after a year of not being able to surf any significant waves, it starts to feel overwhelming.


A Year After the Injury

Since my lumbar spine injury last January I took six months off from surfing completely. Then for a few months, I surfed only one the tiniest days and only for two or three-wave sessions. Recently, I’ve been able to surf very short sessions, in waves up to a few feet, friendly conditions, a couple of times per week. Paddling and duck-diving are the most compromising actions for me. So each time I surf, I have to gauge how strenuous the conditions look. If the offshore wind is strong, the swell is mixed up, or the waves are over a couple of feet, I have to sit it out. I stick to surf spots without strong currents and with a short paddle out. I have to end my sessions after just a few waves. After each session, I have to give my body two or three days to recover before I try again. 

But it is progress, and I’ll take it.


Testing Limits and Finding Them

I set myself up for this. I was charging pretty hard before I got hurt. I never missed a big swell nor an opportunity to talk/post about it afterward. I was pushing limits, and I guess I found mine. Injury recovery has taught me a lot about what I’m really made of. 


Big wave surfing wipe out
Going for it and learning from it.


Injury Recovery Has Been a Mind Game

My recovery has been touchy. Every couple of months a tiny wrong movement has caused a re-injury, each time worse than the last. It wasn’t two steps forward and one step back, it was the other way around. Finally, last month I took something called peptides and I’m making some positive strides at last. But now that I’m getting back out there, I have to deal with my own expectations on myself.

During the course of the last year, my surfs were so infrequent that each wave felt like the winning wave in a world title heat. Now that I have the green light from my doctors to surf within my tolerance, I find myself in a mental battle. “You should be surfing right now, you are just being lazy!” Says the devil on the left shoulder.

“But it looks kinda blown out and big. I don’t want to strain myself.” Says my more angelic right side.

“You are just wallowing in your sorrows. You are not injured anymore, stop acting like a victim.” The devil taunts.


Getting Back Out There

Last week I listened to the devil. I went out on a day it was kind of bombing. I caught five waves and had a fantastic time. It was one of the best surfs of my year. Then I listened to the angel who said to cut the session short before I was getting too worn out. The next day, it was even bigging and, having bolstered my confidence the day before, the angel never even had a chance. I grabbed my big gun and paddled out at Sunset Beach. It was my first time surfing there since I injured myself. Not only that, but it was my first time riding the 10’4″ gun that was shaped for me a week before I got hurt and I never got the chance to use it. This was my come back!


Alan SItt surfboard
What an honor to watch this Sunset Beach legend make my new toy! I waited a year to take it out due to injury.


The current was heavy, the wind was howling into the faces and the sets were triple overhead. My back was aching before I even finished the very long paddle out. I watched from the channel for a while until my confidence grew. I paddled over to some friends in the lineup. With a board that big you can’t sit inside and pick off the small ones, you have to go on the biggest sets of the days.“C’mon Mel, just hold your position, your wave is coming!” The devil assured me.

“Get the fuck out of here, here comes a set! Scratch bitch, scratch!”

I’m not sure which voice that was, but I obeyed! If it had been one year earlier I would have turned around and dropped in on a bomb.  I so wanted to see my friends that evening and tell them, “I surfed today, I got a bomb, I’m BACK!”. But I knew that was just my ego. I knew my body didn’t feel confident. I’m not sure if I was physically ready or not, but mentally I just wasn’t. And I had to accept that.


Waveless and Successful 

I paddled in waveless after over an hour of unsuccessfully trying to motivate myself. I was proud of myself for giving it a try. It was nice to sit in the lineup and feel that power, to chat with surfers I had not seen in ages. It was good to test my comfort zone without getting myself into a dangerous situation. But the truth was my back was very painful afterward. It’s now over a week later and I’m still experiencing mild symptoms. The paddle was a bit much for me. But how do you know unless you try?


The Inbetweenness of Injury Recovery

Recovery doesn’t just happen one day. I’m not really injured anymore, but I’m definitely not recovered either. I was told it would be a year before I would surf again, and I braced myself for that. What I didn’t consider was that “surfing again” did not mean after a year I magically just picked up right where I left off. It might mean after a year that I need to take several months more just to longboard on only small and perfect days. 


When my coach saw this recent photo of me he commented on how much more relaxed and stylish my surfing looked. He said I’ve actually come a long way.


I’m not really sure if I will ever return to the level I used to enjoy. I’m hopeful, but I’m trying not to be in a rush. I guess the key is finding the same level of enjoyment, no matter the size of the board or the waves. And if I can do that, I think I’ll be a very very successful surfer!


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


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