There was a time not so long ago when Owen Wright didn’t know what a spoon was, let alone how to use one or even find one inside his kitchen.
At a time when he was on the cusp of becoming the next big thing in Australian surfing, Wright was forced to learn how to walk and talk again after an incident at the Pipeline Masters in December 2015.
Wright’s blossoming career looked almost certainly over when his life hung in the balance inside a Hawaiian hospital after he suffered a serious brain injury far more common in the NFL or AFL than on the World Surf League.
The New South Welshman was left with a severe concussion and bleeding on the brain after he wiped out during a free surf session at the famous event and was hit by half a dozen ten to 12-foot waves, resulting in whiplash concussion that could have left him with permanent brain damage.
But now, four and a half years on from that career-threatening nightmare, Wright has completed one of the most remarkable comebacks in world sport. He is back inside the top-10 surfers in the world, back winning titles and set to represent Australia at next year’s postponed Olympic Games in Tokyo.
The 30-year-old was unveiled as one of Allianz Australia’s mental health ambassadors late last week – 12 months out from the starting line – and is drawing on the most tumultuous period of his life to help others navigate through mental health problems.
“Having an experience like that with a traumatic brain injury has definitely shaped me to who I am today. During that time, I can honestly say I was in over my head; I was not prepared to have an accident like that; I don’t think anyone is,” Wright told Man of Style.
“It made me learn how to deal with my vulnerabilities and fears and having so much chaos around you purely because your brain is in a state of chaos. It has given me a different perspective today on feeling so unstable is like, from the physical aspect – I struggled with balance and feeling dizzy – to a mental health aspect – I was up and down like a yoyo, bursting into tears at times.”
“That experience has given me a greater appreciation for mental health and wellbeing today. It has been a bit of a goal of mine to open up and talk about to try and inspire others (and show them) there are ways out of messes like that and things you can do to keep progressing through pretty full-on stages in your life.”
Wright is from a surfing family dynasty that grew up on Culburra Beach in southern New South Wales. His sister is two-time women’s world champion, Tyler Wright, who won both titles while he was on the comeback trail from his brain injury. And his brother is world-renowned free surfer Mickey Wright.
Mental health wasn’t a focus growing up in the 1990s and 2000s, and it didn’t feature prominently in his life before that moment on the north shore of Oahu. But now, Wright wants to help spark conversation and help others speak about their fears.
“Mental health was not part of my life prior to that. After that accident, it has been a focus, but it is only now with Allianz that I’ve been opening up and speaking about it, trying to show that there are these athletes out there that have these vulnerabilities and fears that they have to overcome,” he said.
“Prior to the accident, I was a bit gun-ho and [projected an image of] ‘there’s no such thing as fear’, even though I did have these fears. I think that’s what led to such a big accident. That’s what I hope to pass on by speaking up and opening up about my fears – it’s OK to have fears and to learn to adjust.”
“On my social media, I get hit up all the time about people with head injuries and what they are going through. They get really inspired by my story and my journey. But it hasn’t been until now that I’ve been comfortable to speak about it more broadly. I hope people can draw inspiration (from my journey); I think it is a really key thing for athletes to take that position in the community.”
With the coronavirus pandemic shutting down the surfing tour – and the rest of the world, for that matter – COVID-19 hasn’t been the only major health risk sweeping the globe. Suicide has skyrocketed in the past few months and has hit close to home for Wright.
“It has been a really hard time for everyone. I’ve lost a few mates to wellbeing during this time, which has been really sad,” he said.
“That’s why I want to get out there and help inspire people to talk to their mates and just help them through this period of time – I think there is a lot of people going through a difficult time right now. I hope I can touch a few people through this program.”
Wright has made the most of his second chance in his first career. And now he is making an even bigger impact in society.
Allianz Australia has partnered with the Australian Olympic Committee and Paralympics Australia on a wide range of mental health initiatives.
Wright is an official ambassador along with Cate Campbell, Nic Beveridge, Madison de Rozario and the Australian Steelers.
Cover Image Photography Credit: Corey Wilson