CARLSBAD — Pro surfer Ricky Whitlock (no relation to the author) was laid up in a Hawaiian hospital in late January. He had just broken his back while surfing one of the most dangerous waves in the world.
But he competed last weekend against some of the best pros; names like Sunny Garcia and Dylan Goodale (who won the men’s contest), at the Bud Light Lime Surf Series at the Oceanside Harbor. Even Whitlock didn’t expect such a quick recovery.
“When I was in the hospital they tried to say I would be out for a year,” Whitlock said. “In my mind, wanting to prove them wrong, I was thinking six months. I dedicated my life to getting back in the water. But I didn’t expect to be back so fast.”
Earlier this year, Whitlock was practicing for a WQS event at Hawaii’s Pipeline, a spot that’s famous for powerful waves that break over a shallow, jagged bottom. He pulled into the barrel of an 11-foot wave. The lip of the wave, however, clipped Whitlock’s back foot. Sent hurling forward, the wave then slammed him into the reef. He landed on his tailbone.
“The only way I can compare it to something is if you were to jump off a two-story building and fall onto your butt,” Whitlock said. “This was even more powerful because of the added force of the wave.”
Tumbling underwater, Whitlock came up after about 15 long seconds, unsure whether he or the thrashing waves were moving his legs and feet. Agonizing pain set in. Worse yet, because it was early in the morning, lifeguards weren’t on duty yet. After friends on the beach helped him, lifeguards arrived and he was rushed to the hospital. The diagnosis: an L1 vertebrae compression fracture and T10 hairline fracture.
“I got my x-rays and cat scan,” Whitlock said. “I was less than a centimeter away from being paralyzed. If it would have broken any other direction, I would have been paralyzed.”
Prior to breaking his back, a string of injuries over the last five years slowed Whitlock’s surfing career. Last summer he broke his hand. Rather than dwell on another injury, the most serious of his career, he did his best to stay positive.
“I learned to be patient with my body,” Whitlock said. “If you’re in good spirits and your head is clear, you’re going to heal a lot faster.”
In keeping his mental health, Whitlock said he read a lot and steered clear of TV. He also did frequent exercises and followed a strict diet — anything to get back onto his surfboard faster.
“When I was doing my rehab, I tried to do what I was asked tenfold,” he said.
A generous family friend contributed to Whitlock’s expedited recovery time. At no cost to Whitlock, the friend provided him with Electro-Acuscope and Myopulse machines, a new technology that stimulates new cell growth with electric currents. Whitlock used the machines every day for three months, which he credits with accelerating his recovery time by at least a month.
“One doctor told me he couldn’t believe my progress,” Whitlock said. “He said I was strong, that I was healed.”
More than 100 days after hitting the reef at Pipeline, Whitlock went surfing. He felt healthy and was moved to paddle out by the death of friend Junior Seau, who enjoyed surfing. Whitlock paddled out on a long softboard in Carlsbad, where he grew up surfing and shaping under the wing of his dad, Rusty Whitlock, who owns RW Surfboards. Weeks later, Whitlock was riding his normal shortboards, which require more balance and paddling strength. Day after day, his turns were more powerful. His airs reached new heights.
When contest organizers heard about Whitlock’s back injury, they understandably assumed he wouldn’t be surfing at the Bud Light Lime Surf Series. But, in knee to waist-high waves, Whitlock took part in his first contest since the accident.
“The waves were small and weren’t cooperating,” Whitlock said. “I felt good out there, though.”
Whitlock said his next contest would likely be a WQS event in El Salvador in early July.
Many would consider a broken back to be a huge setback. But Whitlock seems even more motivated.
“Now it’s like I’m a pit bull on a leash that just got let off,” Whitlock said.