Walking on water: The surfer who came back from the dead
A promotional stunt gone wrong left Britain's best female surfer fighting for her life. Weeks later, she was back in the hunt for trophies. Emily Dugan hits the surf with Gwen Spurlock
Sunday 15 August 2010
Gwen Spurlock is in trouble. Britain's top pro surfer has forgotten to put petrol in the car and her mum, Rhona, is unimpressed. "But I reminded you twice yesterday," she tuts, picking up the keys and heading out to the drive. It is the kind of exchange that happens between parents and teenagers every day. The difference is that this is not just a snap at adolescent laziness, but serious concern.
Two years ago, just after she had taken home both the British junior and the British women's surfing titles in one season, Gwen suffered a brain injury that she was lucky to escape from alive. There is still a chance that some of the damage has been lasting. "I tease her about forgetting chores but we are worried," says Rhona, "She does seem to forget things all the time now. She's going to have some tests later in the year." '
The petrol row was sparked by my arrival at the Spurlock family home in Swansea, where we meet ahead of a tour of Gwen's local beaches. Two hours into a "quick chat" later, it soon transpires that filling up with petrol is the least of the day's delays.
With contagious enthusiasm, Gwen sustains conversation for unfeasible periods. Perched on the sofa in hot pants, a vest and Ugg boots, she talks so quickly that her words fall into each other in a constant stream. After one monologue in extreme fast-forward, her mum interjects: "Are you going to pause for breath?" She doesn't.
But then, she does have a lot to talk about. Aside from winning a mountain of trophies that spills over two chests of drawers, her remarkable recovery from near-fatal head injuries has given her more to discuss than the average 19-year-old.
In 2008, as the UK's new young face of surfing, Gwen was asked to launch Wales's first indoor-surfing centre in her home town. What should have been a simple four-hour promotion nearly killed her. After repeated falls on the machine – which forces a shallow jet of water over a hard plastic slope – she left with a splitting headache. Thinking nothing of it, she went home and took some painkillers. "I was hoping it was just going to go away," Gwen explains, "but all of a sudden it got really horrible."
Three weeks later, the headaches were getting worse and a GP's theory that she had whiplash and "stress" from the falls seemed increasingly unlikely. "At that point we went back to the doctor and finally persuaded them this might be something more serious," says Rhona. "She was put in for a CT scan and suddenly everything spiralled."
The scan revealed a major bleed on the brain that doctors believed had been caused by something akin to shaken- baby syndrome from all her falls. Within days she was being operated on and having two holes the size of 10p pieces drilled into her skull to drain off the fluid. Despite the seriousness of the operation, Gwen seemed to be recovering well, but this turned out to be only the beginning of her worries.
The headaches had not gone and fluid was seeping from the original cyst and building up on the edge of her brain. It needed an urgent and highly risky operation to redirect it. When the operation was over, Gwen awoke from the anaesthetic only for a moment before falling unconscious.
Her parents were told to expect the worst. "The neurosurgeon said, 'I want you to come in here, to the special family room,' and we thought, 'Oh no, not the special family room, when they take you there and make you tea,'" recalls Rhona. "Once you're in there you know they're going to tell you something nasty. It was as bad as we thought. He said, 'I don't know if it's been successful, I don't know if she's going to wake up and I don't know if she's brain-damaged.'"
Her parents and two older sisters were inconsolable. Then, right on cue, Gwen woke up. "We were staring at her, not even sure whether she was going to come round. Her face was all swollen, and her lips were all funny, then she opened her eyes. 'I want chicken tikka masala' was the first thing she said. At that point we knew she was going to be OK." In fact, it took a total of four nerve-wracking operations before the doctor gave her the all clear, with just one proviso: she was told never to surf again.
Three weeks later she was paddling out in the quarter-finals of the British junior surf championships.
"Looking back, it was a pretty full-on thing to do, but I wanted to prove I could still do it," says Gwen today. "My whole aim throughout the injury was to enter because I'd won it in 2007. I thought, 'If I don't turn up then someone else will get the title but at least if I do turn up I've got a chance.' I won my first heat. When I beat those girls I kept thinking, 'I've beaten you even though I've been in a hospital bed for the past six months.' That's what I wanted to do."
Luckily, the doctor had second-guessed her decision. "He knew the score. He looked at me and said, 'I just know you'll surf again even though we've told you not to, so at least promise to wear a helmet,' which I do."
Her helmet has become her trademark in competitions, where she has been a regular feature since 2008. Last year she won the UK pro surf tour – won by scoring the most points in aggregate over the country's seven or so major contests. Now she's gearing up to do the same this year, with three podium placements under her belt already.
For the past 12 months she has been on a gap year, spent half in contests and half travelling the world's top surf spots. Her main trip took in Australia, Fiji, the US and Bali and now she is just back from Sri Lanka, where the UK pro surf tour hosts a competition. In September, normal life will resume again. She is due to start a course in American Studies at university. "I'm not going far, though," she admits, which is an understatement: she's going to Swansea University, round the corner from her family's house. "I'm moving out, but I didn't want to go somewhere that was far from the sea, so it makes sense."
It is easy to see why she wants to stay. Swansea seems like a completely different town through her eyes. First, there's the fact that Gwen and her friends spend every possible moment atop boards in the ocean; then there's their surf-blonde hair and even tans, of a deep-golden variety not normally seen outside of California. And that's not the only thing strangely Californian about the Spurlock version of Swansea. Her large family home also has an air of WestCoast privilege about it, with two shiny four-wheel
drives parked out front and an MTV Cribs-style outsize fish tank set into the wall in the kitchen.
Yet, this lifestyle aside, the Spurlocks are a surprising family to have produced a surf star. Gwen's older sisters never showed any interest in the sport and her mum, a batik artist, is more at home painting the sea than getting in it. The only person in the family with a hint of wave addiction is Gwen's dad, Grayson, a businessman who used to catch the odd wave in the Gower in the 1970s.
It was, rather, through a friend, Beth Mason, that Gwen got hooked. Beth's parents, who were old family friends of the Spurlocks, ran the Mumbles lifeguard club and encouraged the two of them to join. It wasn't long before their love of the sea had spread to surfing and, by the age of 12, they were entering contests. Now they have both gone professional, battling it out for the top spot in the UK.
"Beth and I cleaned up in all the contests from 15 to 18. We'd always get first and second. There was one contest where I won the women's and she got second and she won the juniors and I got second. That's how it would work all the time. And if I didn't win I'd want her to win. All the English girls would be, like, 'How are these Welsh girls doing so well?'"
In many ways, Swansea seems an unlikely place to produce two such credible British surfing hopes; Cornwall, Devon and Scotland are all better-known locations for the sport. But what it lacks in fame it makes up for in choice. Swansea perches on the edge of the Gower peninsula, which turns into a surfing playground when a good swell comes in, producing an array of breaks over beaches and rocky reefs. So Gwen is not too bothered by criticism of her local waves – it means there are fewer people in the water competing for them. "People say Wales is crap for surf and I think, 'Yeah, you can say that, just don't come here when there are good waves, then.'"
Pulling up at her favourite surfing spot, a reef break on the side of Langland beach, there is little more than a ripple where the wave should be. "You should have been here last weekend, it was going off!" she says, adding that the ripple in question means there will "definitely" be waves at the next beach along. "If you say so," I murmur, unable to disguise my scepticism.
In the meantime, we stop off at the beach's Surfside Café, her regular refuelling station, where everyone seems to be an old friend. A magazine interview with her is pinned to the counter and someone has drawn devil horns on the picture. "Who did that?" she asks, in mock outrage. As we walk back along the beach with our photographer, one of the lifeguards shouts, "Are you a model now, Gwen?"
Ready to test out Gwen's optimistic surf predictions we then pile into her car with our surfboards and cut across the winding peninsula roads towards Llangennith beach. Her driving style is certainly not that of someone who has had a brush with death. Haring around single-track bends at 60 miles an hour, she shouts over her full-volume hip-hop, "I HATE it when people go at 30."
Once we get to the beach, Gwen leaps out of the car, and seems to have her wetsuit on as if by magic, while I'm still struggling to get my first toe in. Up on the dunes, her optimistic predictions of surf are proved right, as evenly spaced peeling waves (albeit rather little ones) make their way up the beach. Grabbing her board and helmet, she leads the way off the dunes and up to the shore. I bend down for a second to strap a board leash on to my ankle and when I look back up she is gone, already sitting astride her board far out at sea, beyond the breaking waves. Assuming the route out must be easy, I run in and jump on to my board, only to take a wave straight on the head. Not very cool.
Eventually I make it out, by which point she's already had about three waves. With even the biggest ones not much beyond shoulder height, it is not exactly the best conditions to show off her moves, but as I struggle to catch anything she makes it look like the best day in Hawaii. Whizzing up and down the waves' face, flicking spray up with the tip of her board as she twists and turns, it's easy to see how she has become such a stalwart on the winners' podium.
There's no sign of any post-injury nervousness, either. As I paddle back out from another mediocre ride in the white water, she gets up on a wave and surfs straight at me before making a last-minute turn which sends an arc of spray over me. After flailing around, I roll off my board in alarm. Laughing and paddling over, she shouts across an apology. "Sorry! I was just joshing with you – that's what me and my friends always do in the water."
Despite a lot of talented boys in the water that day, she is easily the most skilled surfer out, ripping the sea into shreds with her board. She and Beth Mason were so confident of their abilities this year that they entered the men's category in the Welsh championships. Gwen didn't do badly, either: she made it into the second round before being knocked out in a heat against her coach.
The men's title might not be quite in reach, but Gwen is unlikely to be budged from the top of the women's game any time soon. "I think the tour is anyone's this year," she says, "but I feel my surfing is really good at the moment. I feel a lot stronger."
When I log on to Facebook a few days later, her status update pops on to my screen. "Surfed for the first time today without a helmet!" Foolhardy? Or a sign of her new-found strength? Either way, one thing is certain: the Spurlocks are going to need another chest of drawers by the end of the year.
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