Told to Ted Reckas by Strider Wasilewski
Strider Wasilewski was a top free surfer and Pipeline regular throughout the 1990s and 2000s, traveling the world, pursuing waves of consequence. His self-directed upbringing on the streets of Santa Monica and Venice, an area not known for great surf but rich in urban diversity, may have contributed to his unique and open approach to life, and his path to recovery after numerous injuries from his high intensity pursuits.
In 2003 Strider, a Kozm regular, was surfing a reef pass in Tahiti called Teahupoo, one of the world’s most intense surf spots. He rode a massive wave that almost killed him. After receiving surgery for a shoulder injury, and struggling through years of rehab, he found yoga and it changed his life. Here is the story in his words:
“It was one of those days that starts out pretty normal: just perfect four foot Teahupoo and everybody was psyched, getting barreled, smiles all the way around. We knew a swell was supposed to be coming but it came up so fast that the water was just sucking off the reef, where even a four foot wave was almost un-surfable. And then it got to a point where the six footers, and then the eight footers – so the waves were 15 foot face at this point – then it got to the point where you kinda needed assistance to get in, like a jetski or whatever.
“I jammed back and was looking through my stuff and Manoa Drollet came by and asked if I wanted to be his tow partner. By this time the water was moving so crazy through the channel I had never seen anything like it. So I was little bit like, “Whoa!” We got out to the lineup and the waves were already giant, like 30 to 40 foot face, and the full tow session was going on and he said, “You’re gonna go first.” (Laughs).
“You try not to look at it because you’re so intimidated just by seeing what waves that are that big and that gnarly do — seeing the wave kind of eat itself. I don’t know, a 40 foot wave that has no back and a 15 foot thick lip just doesn’t look inviting. But the thought of riding one and making a wave is the most intriguing part of it. After 10 days of really fun waves there you can imagine how much energy you’d get from riding something that much bigger.
“I got a couple waves to warm up on and I was super scared but I was also super excited. I made a couple of good waves but they were only like 25-30 foot face waves. Then we were sitting out the back and it gets a little bit competitive with the jetskis, and Manoa being somebody who lives there, was like, “I think there’s a set coming,” so I popped up. When we came over the top of the first wave, the set was so big we just saw this huge wall all the way to the channel. He looked at me and he was nodding at me, and I was nodding back and I couldn’t even speak, I was so scared.
“We were flying like 30 miles an hour into the corner of this wave and he just looked back and that’s when I had to make a decision: you let go of the rope or you don’t (laughs). I remember looking down into the bowl and I had already let go of the rope, unconsciously. It was the most bizarre thing because I had let go, but hadn’t decided to go on the wave yet. I cannot remember the time where I said “OK, I’m going,” and letting go of the rope. I just remember being half way down into it, already committed, and looking up and realizing that the wave was cornering on the reef, literally coming back at me like a closeout.
“It hadn’t broken yet but it completely sucked off the reef almost dry. So I started trying not to look at what was coming and focus more on what was around me, because – I don’t know – the wave has so much power that you almost have to turn away from it to make it. It’s one of the only waves in the world where you’re turning right to go left.
“It was just guttering to the point where – it sucked the reef so hard and the wave had so much volume in it – at the end of the wave, usually there’s a place where you can kick out. Well, the wave sucked up so much water off the reef that the right had already started breaking and coming at me, and there was nowhere to go except to pull into a closeout. I couldn’t go straight because I couldn’t get out in front of the lip. I couldn’t go through the wave because it was so thick. So I just had to pull into the tube, which meant running as fast as you could into a wall, basically.
“So I put my shoulder down because it felt like a logical thing to do, and I just got my bell rung. I don’t know if you’ve ever been knocked out before but I’ve been hit pretty hard, and the lights go out but it’s all white, its not black. When I regained consciousness I hadn’t sucked water – I was underwater – and I was going sideways across the reef with the current and above me was all black water and foam. And I was in this weird layer between the reef, which was a dark green, and there was clear water and then the turbulence above me. I couldn’t see really, it was really dark. And there were coral heads along the reef, so as I would run by them I would try to dodge them but they would scrape me and I would just lose skin, pretty much everywhere on my body: my shins, my legs, my shorts had a big rip in the ass where my ass got ripped open, my front side, my little guy got a scrape on him, everywhere got scrapes except my head because my arms were over my head the whole time.
“When I came up and I was backward. I realized I was looking in at the channel but it was all blurry. You know how when you have lack of oxygen things get blurry? I turned around and I was standing knee deep on basically dry reef. And this other 20 foot face close hit me again and I just had to turn around. There was nothing – I couldn’t do anything. I took it in the ass so to speak. I got annihilated across the reef again. Then I was kind of out. After that one I was spitting bubbles and I fell off a little waterfall where water was draining from the highpoint of the reef into the lagoon. And was laying on my back, holding onto my life vest and I couldn’t really see and I remember still breathing which was all I cared about.
“Manoa came on the jetski and found me. He thought that I had died. A lot of my friends thoughts I had passed away. They never saw me after the wave. Manoa kind of jokingly asked me if I wanted to get another one. He pulled me up on the back of the jetski and I remember getting to the beach. Chris Ven Lennep, this photographer, was walking up and I think he was taking pictures of me and when he got closer and realized how fucked up I was he put the camera down.
“You know when you cut yourself surfing and it’s just white, the blood hasn’t surfaced yet? Well after a couple of minutes of standing on the beach all the white scrapes turned to red and I was bleeding from my whole body. Just blood running down my arms and my shins and my knees and my ass, and I sat there and tried to pull it together. I kind of had the chills and the shivers. I sat on this bench at this house I was staying at there, right on the point, literally right in front of the waves at Teahupoo and it was gigantic – Malik caught his giant wave that day – and the guy who was there helping at the house came with a bunch of limes and they cut them all up and they just limed me down to kill all the bacteria, you know? That’s what they do to kill everything, and it was such a shock that I threw up. I remember just throwing up. It was so much, you know. I was overwhelmed.
“I put antibiotic ointment all over my body and just laid in bed. I woke up in the middle of the night and I couldn’t feel the right side of my body. I couldn’t move. It was the weirdest feeling in the world and I was screaming. Everybody woke up in the cabin and was going, “What’s wrong?!” and I was like, “I can’t move!” and they were moving my leg for me, trying to get me to move. Then all of a sudden it moved my hips and a nerve or blood flow or something opened up and I could move again.
“My shoulder was in pieces. I had ripped my rotator and my labrum really bad. I didn’t even know that was hurt because I was in such shock. Everything hurt so badly already that I didn’t even know. Warren Kramer put me back together. I had surgery. My rotation and everything was so bad, my range of motion.
“They had done so much constructive surgery and my muscle had gotten ripped in half on my biceps just prior to that, so by the time I came out of it my whole right side was just tweaked. My neck was smaller, my biceps, my muscles, everything – it was bad news. I needed to find a way to get myself back and the best I felt was from a few of the stretches they gave me in rehab, but they weren’t enough to make me feel 100% so I checked yoga out. Now I’m better than I’ve ever been.
“You start doing yoga and it’s like, “Why doesn’t everybody do this? Why didn’t someone tell me this in the first place?” It just makes so much sense when you do it, but nobody’s telling you that it’s the way to go. Medicine, and all the crap that is put into you and said to you, and all the crap that you do, is all you’ve ever really known, and then all of a sudden you’re doing this other stuff and nobody told you it was the way to go. It’s bizarre man.
“Literally my metabolism changed, my body changed, everything changed back to where it should have been. It was such common sense – after restricting your body, to open it up and let it flow through – you really open up the vein of life. Like pumping energy back through your body and clearing out all the crevices where blood wasn’t moving. That clears out all the disease, everything that was accumulating, cancers, you name it.
“That’s why people who do yoga are so healthy. It’s not just because they’re stretching. It’s because they’re actually promoting the blood flow in places it wasn’t before and that’s what heals you and clears you out and processes all the crap that’s in your body.