A Pro Surfer Who Nearly Drowned Explains What It Took to Get Back on the Board

Like many extreme athletes, professional big wave surfers may seem invincible. They chase massive storms to surf towering waves that would make most people nervous just looking at them. But all the muscle and endurance in the world doesn’t make them immune to life-threatening experiences.

Take Greg Long, one of the top names in big wave surfing. A big wave surfer since the age of 15, Long grew up on the beaches of Southern California with a dad who was a lifeguard. For as long as he can remember, the ocean was in his blood.

Then in 2012, Long wiped out in Cortes Bank, an area off the coast of southern California where the waves can climb 30 and 40 feet high, and was pulled under a series of massive swells. Unable to reach the surface and get air, Long blacked out underwater, but was eventually spotted by his team of rescuers. He began to regain consciousness as he was pulled back onto their boat, in shock and coughing up blood.

As Long lay on the deck, surrounded by his friends, waiting for the arrival of an emergency medical chopper to fly him back to the mainland for treatment, he knew the experience had changed him forever.

“If I were to really distill down the aftermath of my accident and what it did for me, it forced me to slow down and reflect on what mattered in my life,” Long said in an interview with MensHealth.com. “I had built so much of my existence around big wave surfing… [I was forced to reflect on] what I had been pursuing and the reasons why. What was the motivation behind this drive that I had to push myself and consistently be seeking out the biggest waves in the world?”

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Dream weaver ?✨ photo: @cacaneves

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Surprisingly, Long returned to surfing mere weeks after his accident, competing in Mavericks, a northern California big wave surfing invite-only competition. In retrospect, he says he doesn’t quite know why he paddled back out so soon after his brush with death. He considered quitting competition and pondered what the consequences of that decision would be.

“[Surfing] took a 100 percent commitment. I was training 6 hours a day and always monitoring every single swell across the globe, and dropping everything to go chase it,” he says. “I was constantly on the go. There were expectations from sponsors and the media.”

So he decided to take a step back. “I took some time, threw on a backpack, and went to parts of the world away from the ocean to tune back into what was going to make me thrive in this next chapter, whatever it was,” he says.

“The ocean has given me so much in life and has been my greatest teacher.”

Long traveled to a secluded location in the Peruvian Andes. When he returned to the United States, he went back to school for a while to take EMT courses. But he eventually realized he could use his status as a celebrity in the surfing world to educate people about environmental issues in the ocean conservation space. “It was something I enjoyed doing and I liked being able to be of service in that way,” he says.

Long is currently working with Parley for the Oceans, the Surfrider Foundation, Save the Waves Coalition, and Patagonia, among others, to promote environmental awareness and conservation. On a recent trip to Bali, Indonesia, one of the world’s most popular surfing destinations, he saw plastic washed up all over the beach, prompting a state of emergency in the region.

“The ocean has given me so much in life and has been my greatest teacher. I’ve seen a lot of changes to it in my 34 years on this planet, 30 of that down at the beach, and a lot of them have not been for the better. If we continue to neglect it, overfish, continue to pollute it with plastic… I feel it’s my responsibility to help [change that],” says Long.

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Occasionally, Long will compete or surf big waves for fun. While he hasn’t forgotten his brush with death, he says he no longer struggles under the weight of his fear.

“When I paddle out in the big wave lineup and see my friends who I haven’t seen in months, it is great. I don’t think that there’s any such thing as being fearless so much as it is understanding fear as just another emotion you can control and using it as a positive motivating influence in your life,” says Long.

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