"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."
Adventure: What inspired you to transition from normal surfing to surfing big waves?
Greg Long: Coming from a lifeguard background, when I was younger, I probably had a confidence level in the water that exceeded [that of] other kids my age. I’d find myself, on the biggest surf days, having so much fun. The excitement, and the thrill, and the challenge of it just really captivated me. So, like anything in life that you love and are passionate about, you want to continue to challenge yourself. For me, that was riding larger waves and pushing myself to the edge of my comfort level. Next thing I knew, I was 15 years old and I realized I want to start trying to ride the world’s biggest waves.
A: You say you train mentally. What do you mean by that?
GL: Understanding your thoughts—these ideas of fear and doubt that you often feel when you’re out there in the ocean when it’s at its biggest, wildest state. Learning to understand those thoughts and emotions and what they actually are—if you’re just reacting to certain circumstances or if there’s real validity to them.
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A: Why do you paddle in to waves rather than getting towed in?
GL: When you’re towing in, you’re essentially eliminating the most difficult task in big-wave riding, which is catching a wave and making that initial drop. When you’re paddling, you’re sitting in the middle of the lineup and in a place of imminent danger, and it’s up to you to almost intuitively read these swells as they’re coming in and adjust yourself only the few feet so that you can paddle that distance in a short amount of time. You’re relying on a life’s culmination of learning how the ocean moves. When you’re dropping in, you’re literally looking over the edge of a 40- to 50-foot dropoff—in a way, a cliff face. You get to your feet, and it’s that weightless feeling of free-fall. And in those few moments it’s really this complete, total presence in what you have to do in order to make that wave.
A: Did you consider not going back to surfing—or at least not to big-wave surfing—after your accident?
GL: I swore that I would never do it again. It was one of the lowest moments of my life. It was almost as if the rug of everything I’d built had just been yanked from underneath me. From the age of 15 to 30—basically 15 years—there was one path for me, and that was this road of riding big waves. It was my life’s work.
When all that settled, and I was able to kind of remove myself from that emotionally traumatic stage, and view it from a more rational place, I began to really rethink and reflect on why I was doing this in the first place. It’s always been my passion to explore this, and where I really feel alive. 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.
I’m still sorting through the pieces and the aftermath of my accident. It’s almost a daily or weekly contradiction of how I feel. There’s a lot to contemplate when you come that close to losing your life. When you start to think about your friends and family. I know that I’m always going to ride big waves in some form or another. How, when, why, what’s my motivation—is still settling into place. I’m happy with however it comes to be, what feels right in my heart.