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Dusty Payne on Coming Back from the Brink

Six months after his near-fatal wipeout at Backdoor, Payne discusses the hard-won progress in his ongoing recovery and the new film chronicling his return to the water

A few months ago, Dusty Payne was in a much different situation than he is today. In a hospital bed with fresh metal plates in his head and a jaw wired shut following a horrific wipeout at Backdoor, it would be understandable if Payne succumbed to feelings of despair and hopelessness. In that moment, however, when asked what he thought we should title the surf movie chronicling the months leading up to his injury, and the subsequent road to recovery, he grabbed a piece of paper and wrote one word: "Relentless."

There couldn't be a more apt description for a surfer who has been dry docked numerous times due to injury in the past, and nearly killed in his most recent accident at Backdoor. But for Payne, after every setback, he's been unflinching in his commitment to come back stronger than ever.

Tomorrow, our new film starring Payne, called "Relentless," will be streaming on our site. In the meantime, we recently caught up with Payne to see where he's at in his recovery and to discuss his ceaseless drive to return to peak form.

How are you feeling right now?

I'm feeling good. Slowly getting back to normal life, you know? It's been a process, just trying to take steps forward every day and get back to being 100 percent. Getting back in the water was a big step after taking the time to let the fractures in my skull heal, and just dealing with all the symptoms that come with having a severe concussion. There have been a lot of hurdles, but you just gotta take it one day at a time. But I'm getting close to where I want to be. I'm probably surfing at like 60 or 70 percent right now. But every day I paddle out and try to get 5 percent better, and even if it's just 1 percent better, it's still progress, and that's what matters. It was a pretty serious accident, you know? So as long as things are moving in the right direction, that's all I can ask for.

Photos: Wendell Payne

I heard you actually got a chance to surf Slater's wave recently. What was that like?

Yeah, I was the biggest kook to ever surf that wave [laughs.]

I donno about that. I think Drew Brees or Charles Schwab can probably claim that honor.

[Laughs.] I'm sure they had the time of their life doing it, though, and that's all that matters, right? I had a really fun day there with my family and Kai Lenny and his family. It was actually the first session I had on a shortboard, so it was a pretty special day--although I was nowhere near where I wanted to be, physically. I caught a bunch of waves, but my legs were still really weak. I'm still not physically back in the shape that I want to be in, but I'm getting there.

Photo: Tom Carey

When you go through something so traumatic with such a long road back to health, obviously a lot of that process is physical, but how much do you think your attitude and general headspace play into recovery?

I think that no matter what you're going through in life, whether you're struggling in your work or your personal life or whatever it happens to be, I think the most important thing you can do is approach those struggles with a positive attitude. It's so important for recovery to want to improve and to believe that you can improve yourself and your situation. You've gotta keep that positive outlook no matter how dark and tough things may be. That might be the most important thing to remember in life.

Photos: Wendell Payne

Do you remember when we reached out to your family to see what you wanted to call the film, and you were still in the hospital with your jaw wired shut, but you took a piece of paper and wrote the word "Relentless" on it? What was going through your head in that moment?

Yeah, I remember that. I was thinking about the number of injuries I've dealt with--not just recently, but my entire career--that I've had to come back from. The goal has always been the same, which is to get back to what I love--to get back to surfing. You can't stop fighting, you have to be relentless in those situations. So I thought that was fitting for my story and my goal to come back from this as well.

Photo: Tom Carey

In the film, we see you ride your first wave since the accident, and the look on your face kind of says it all--just that feeling of standing up on a wave again seems like such a relief and a joy for you. How did it feel to ride that thing?

I hadn't been in the ocean since the accident, so that was probably one of the longest stretches in my life when I wasn't able to just go down to the beach and enjoy getting in the water. So for me, to be with my family at the spot that I learned how to surf as a kid, where I caught my first wave that I remember clearly, it was a really special day. That moment took me right back to being a kid, getting that first feeling of gliding on a wave. I'm sure you remember the first time you felt that feeling, but it was like that all over again for me on that wave. Even when I was walking out to the water, I was having these crazy flashbacks to when I was a kid and got that first wave that made me so excited about surfing.

Photos: Wendell Payne

Do you think that the accident and your recovery have changed the way you look at surfing? Do you feel like you get more from those moments in the water, even if it's not pumping surf?

Yeah, you just have to be grateful for every opportunity that you have to do what you love. When I was in the hospital, I remember talking to my mom and asking her, "Will I ever be able to surf again?" And she's like, "Yes, you're going to surf again." And I was like, "OK, then it's fine. I don't really care if I come out of this looking like Frankenstein, as long as I still have surfing." So to get that first wave back...it's kind of hard to explain, to be honest, but it was just incredibly special.

Photo: James Lugo

So you were just at the first premiere for the film, which was at home on Maui and there was a huge turnout there. How did it feel to be there and see that community come together to support you?

For it being a Tuesday night, it was pretty incredible [laughs.] I remember being in the car driving over, getting nervous, just thinking, "Man, is anyone even gonna show up?" But the turnout we had was amazing. We had to do two showings because there were so many people that we couldn't fit everyone in the first one. Maui's the best place in the world, and I'm just so grateful to the whole community for coming out for that and for supporting me through everything. That was probably one of the highlights of my career, just being there with all of my friends and family and everyone. It was a pretty special thing to experience. I'll never forget that.

Photo: Wendell Payne

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