By Hugh Forward
Excerpt from SW419, buy here.
The drizzling rain has stopped, the clouds have thinned and a cool, winter sunshine washes the west. The air is uncharacteristically still for this time of year. Just out of town on a large block, Shaun finishes his coffee and replaces it with a glass of water. He’s steadying himself to tell the story of what went wrong. A confusing two-year journey with no answers that had him seriously considering life without surfing. He’s told some close friends bits and pieces of it, more than he intended. Shaun prefers to face personal challenges on his own, retreating into himself to deal with it. It’s an approach he learned from his at-times painfully stoic father. There’s a hint of agitation in his body language. Telling this story in detail for the first time is a daunting prospect. He’s ready to let it go.
Shaun, on the back of his growing profile, was invited to a wavepool in Texas for the Stab High air event. It was a big deal. Despite all the work he’d done that year and the confidence he was feeling, doubt was creeping in. He was scared of the prospect of failing in front of so many important people, both peers and industry heads. It was a pressure he’d not felt before. Was he good enough? Or would he be exposed as a wasted talent? Two days of surfing in the pool was not make-or-break, but his mind had given it a gravity he could not shake. It triggered self-sabotage, drinking and staying up all night for four days straight. He fell into that tired old cliché of pretending not to care to protect himself. It was an immature response to a challenge that loomed larger for him than he probably should have let it.
He’s reluctant to go into details of his behaviour at the contest but shares an anecdote from the last day. Everyone involved had been staying in rooms around the pool, surfing and partying together. At the end, when people were packing up and leaving, Shaun had his belongings spread out by the pool, drunkenly trying to get everything into his board bag. Stab’s Sam Mcintosh watched on as he was leaving and said goodbye. Shaun looked up, a fumbling mess, mumbled incoherently, tripped and fell onto his boards, snapping out fins in the process. Vaughan Blakey was nearby and ran over to help him up. Blakey finished packing Shaun’s bag and bundled him into the back of the van, bound for Dallas airport. Shaun was too far gone to feel embarrassed. He spewed in the van on the way to the airport, and was soon alone, out of his mind, waiting for his flight. In a moment of clarity, he realised he was in the same airport in which his idol, Andy Irons had died almost a decade earlier. A strange woman helped him find his gate and board his flight home.
On the flight home from LA, Shaun found himself overcome by a steadily increasing pain in his left hip. By the time he was halfway home it was excruciating. He knew it was something serious. Thinking back over the preceding four days, he couldn’t remember anything that might have done it.
Back home at the farm cottage he rented in Talofa, outside of Byron, he was in agony. He couldn’t stand, couldn’t walk and was having trouble sleeping. Surfing was out of the question. Over the course of the next few weeks the pain spread steadily from his left hip, up his side to his shoulder, then down his arm to his left hand. His right side meanwhile was fine.
He saw a physiotherapist who gave him a diagnosis of bursitis, when fluid in the hip joint becomes inflamed enough to cause pain and restrict movement. The physio prescribed rest and some physical therapy. For three months there was no improvement. Shaun started seeing Chris Prosser, the WSL’s Medical Director, who concurred with the bursitis diagnosis. Chris got Shaun on a strict diet, high in protein and low in carbohydrates. He also got Shaun to give up drinking, smoking and to minimise the amount of walking he was doing. He started surfing again but was in agony and was a shadow of himself.
The lifestyle shift improved his general physical health, but the pain barely waned. Jake Vincent was living with Shaun at Talofa and saw it all unfolding. “To come off the back of a good run of momentum, he had done the highest air anyone had ever done and then being like, ‘Fuck, I can’t do airs, I’m just trying to do turns’ at that point in your surfing career must have been scary and stressful,” he laments.
Shaun pressed on, going on trips to Western and South Australia to film. Long spells in cars and on planes were excruciating but he pushed through. He was selective of when he would surf, being careful only to put stress on his body if the waves were firing. It was a strangely considered approach. A measured summation of probability and sacrifice were required whereas normally his approach would be to surf and surf until his bones were dust and the waves had gone to shit.
An interesting pattern emerged. Shaun would spend the first hour of his sessions warming up, surfing gently as he loosened up the hip and built momentum. Then once he felt some confidence, he’d start to surf with the power and explosiveness he was used to, throwing himself into large sections with little thought of his debilitation. With his mind freed up and his confidence on song, he would make a wave good enough to be included in the film. Immediately after finishing that wave, the pain would return and bring his session to an end. This pattern was not apparent to Shaun at the time but there was a vague suspicion in his subconscious that this injury was not normal. It was a deep, almost imperceptible feeling that something did not quite line up.
Chris Prosser saw that treatment so far was having little effect and suggested Shaun try a steroid injection. It was going to render him fairly immobile for four weeks. His time at the farm cottage in Talofa had come to an end and he had no fixed address, but Toby and Kel offered him a room at their place in Bangalow for the duration of the recovery. He booked the appointment for the injection.
Creed drove Shaun to the clinic in the morning. The procedure was finished in five minutes and they drove home. Between trips filming, Shaun had been seeing a girl from Sydney. Down at the beach that afternoon, he realised he was at the spot he’d taken her on their first date. He felt an urge to be affectionate. He whipped out his phone, took a photo and sent it to her with the text, “First date vibes haha.” She replied, “Are you alone? I need to talk to you.” Nervous, he went back to Bangalow, sat on the veranda and called her. She explained in detail how she had been out drinking the night before and had hooked up with her ex. He hung up the phone, grabbed cigarettes from inside and began chain smoking.
He left the house in anger and walked down to the Bangalow Pub. As he was about to walk in the door his phone rang. It was Chris Prosser. “How did the injection go mate?” he asked. “Aah yeah dunno… I’m about to walk into the pub.” Shaun told him about the phone call with the girl, but Chris said he needed to go home immediately, and that’s where the tears started flowing. Rock bottom. Pain, confusion, helplessness. No path out.
In the weeks that followed it became apparent the steroid hadn’t worked, adding to the maelstrom of misery. He had been following a strict protein diet, no drinking, no smoking, almost no surfing, daily stretching and rehabilitation. Still there was no improvement to the pain in his hip, only deprivation from the things that made him happy.
In the space of only a few months, Shaun’s life had flipped. He had gone from a golden feeling of invincibility, glowing with love for his life and taking ground in his career with ease, to house-ridden heartbreak with a mysterious and crippling hip injury, a whole lot of doubt, and questions he had no answers for.
Filming for RAGE 3 wrapped up in October 2019. Shaun had banked some quality surfing footage before he injured himself and managed well-enough to push through the pain to bank some more after. He’d gathered enough footage to compile a section he could be proud of. He had no answers for his injury but for the time being he had the film release to look forward to. A premiere tour of Australia and the US was due to kick off in April 2020.
The pandemic broke, the tour never happened. The film was released online instead. With the world’s surfing population unable to travel, it provided a lens to live vicariously through. There was the boat trip to the Mentawais, road trips down the coast, beer drinking escapades, impressive surfing in all kinds of waves and through it all a thread of good times with good friends. Shaun’s surfing and demeanour stood tall. He was happy with the reception but angry at his inability to heal and get back in the water.
Shaun decided to shake things up with a move down to Wollongong. The borders between New South Wales and Western Australia were shut, but he was eyeing a potential move west and figured Wollongong would be a good place to lie in wait. He had mates there and the waves suited his surfing. Little did he know the intended short stay would blow out into almost a year.
Living in Wollongong, a sense of disenchantment grew and his adherence to a healthy structure started to fall away. He returned to bad habits; partying, sleeping on couches, not surfing. He’d then take solo trips away from the coast to camp, reflect alone and recover. He would pack his car, drive up to a secluded spot in the Blue Mountains and set up for a few days. Playing guitar, writing down thoughts, drinking beer and whisky, smoking and thinking about anything except for surfing. Once he felt he had cleared his head he’d roll back into town and do it all again, burning the candle at both ends until the flames met in the middle. The pain in his hip, the mental toll of dashed hopes and his destructive lifestyle plunged him into depression. His career in surfing was over before it had really got going. In his mind, all he was capable of moving forward was to work at a petrol station. He was done. Dark and done.
His first panic attack sent him to hospital, hallucinating. Another unhealthy relationship with a girl isolated him further. More panic attacks followed. There was no improvement in his hip, nor was he now looking for any. He was strung out, hardly surfing and not knowing when – or if – he would surf again. In low moments he harboured dark thoughts of ending it all. “After I realised I couldn’t do it, I was like, ‘If I can’t do it abruptly, I’m gonna do it slowly.’ But it got more twisted because I would drink and get more spirally and more panic attacks would happen.”
This was late 2020.
Full story in SW419, available here.