Baptiste Gossein simply refuses to quit. In September 2009, Baptiste, a well-regarded surfer and windsurfer originally from France, suffered a horrific injury while surfing at Teahupoo that left his legs paralyzed. Now 32, he can be found prowling the waters around Teahupoo as part of an unusual tow team, piloting the ski for Raimana Van Bastolaer on tow days. Between sessions, he found the time to tell us his remarkable story.
Can you take me through what happened the day you broke your back?
I was with my teammates from Oxbow and a few other friends that day. We knew the waves were supposed to pick up, so we woke up early to go surf Teahupoo. When we arrived it was very west and had a really low tide. I caught a few waves and I told my friend that it felt like a good day to hurt yourself. Two waves later, I took off and went over the falls headfirst. I knew something really bad was going to happen. It was just so shallow. I hit my head and then lost it until I had a special flash (I think it was Malik Joyeux), which probably saved my life. From there, Teiva Joyeux and the Walsh twins took me out of the water.
What happened in the months after your injury?
The month after my injury was basically a nightmare. I had to have two surgeries because the first one they put some screws in that were too long. And then I got a bad infection after the second surgery and lost 30 pounds.
Did you ever think that you would be able to get back in the water after your injury?
Even though the doctors were really pessimistic, I always believed that I was going to get back in the water no matter what. Even now, I’m not losing the hope to walk again one day….
Can you describe what it was like the first time you got back in the water?
The first time I went back in the water was a really special moment. It was nine months after my accident and I went with my friends from the Oxbow team—Duane DeSoto, Levi Siver, Rico Leroy—in a Hawaiian canoe to catch some waves. To share this moment with them will always be in my mind. We’re more than a team; we’re a family.
When did it occur to you that you might be able to drive a Jet Ski with your disability?
It’s funny because even though I couldn’t move at all for a few months, I always knew that I was still going to be able to do a lot of stuff. So as soon as I could, I was going to the pool every day and swimming. When I got out of the clinic I rode an ATV with my girlfriend. Once I got back to Tahiti I went straight to the Jet Ski. And then when I knew that I could stay on it, I had no doubt that I was going to be able to tow people.
Can you describe what it was like getting back in the water at Teahupoo again?
It felt so good. Even though Teahupoo took my legs, I still love this wave so much—it’s such a special place. When Raimana Van Bastolaer called me to try out the ski with him, I was super stoked. During that first day no one was out and it was really clean 8 feet so he jumped on the back of my ski and did some step-offs. After that he said “Okay, next swell you are towing me.” And next swell we did it and he got a bomb. Raimana probably knows Teahupoo better than anyone. He taught me a lot and I’m so stoked to tow with him now, especially when he kicks out with a big smile on his face.
Do you ever get scared being back in the lineup out there again?
To be honest, no. I feel comfortable, and it may sound weird but I trust her [Teahupoo].
Where do you go from here? I heard that one of your goals is to get barreled again.
When I was at the clinic I couldn’t stop thinking of surfing. One day when I was cruising on the Internet I found a waveski. I ordered one and had it sent straight back to Tahiti. But unfortunately it was too small so I met a shaper here and we are working on a second one…I can’t wait. I really want to go get barreled again; once you know the feeling of it, well, it’s the best ever. I really want to have that vision again. Wait and see…I also really want to say that I’m really lucky to have the support of all my friends, family, Oxbow, and of course my girlfriend, Thi Lan Joyeux.