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Her Brother’s Keeper

After her brother, Owen, was severely injured surfing Pipeline, Tyler Wright made a promise to him that she’d bring the world title home

On December 8, 2015, Owen and Tyler Wright ate a late breakfast at Café Haleiwa. The door of the old Hawaiian diner squeaked on its hinges as Tyler walked in like she was stepping onto the set of a situation comedy. Her face was comically loaded and her eyes darted as if the single funniest thing in the history of mankind was going down somewhere in the room. Owen followed, filling the doorway like a spaghetti Western character, long and tall with a bushman's hat and a pair of dusty Crocs. He sat down and explained he'd bought the Crocs in honor of their late Uncle Mark, who was famous for wearing them into the exclusive country club back home in Australia where he held a $90,000 membership. Owen had been wearing the unfashionable plastic shoes for months and described them as "100 percent contraceptive."

Owen was coming off a "gap year without the gap." He'd surfed the Tour, but competition was less the focus and more an interruption to his program of exotic surf trips and good times. He had chased eight swells before July, including two strikes to pumping Tahiti, spending his days getting blown out of cavernous tubes and living just as large once the sun went down. Yet somehow he was still in the world-title race, which would be decided in two days' time at the Pipe Masters.

Meanwhile, Owen's younger sister, Tyler, had finished her 2015 season on the women's Tour rated fifth—a respectable result, but disappointing nonetheless for Tyler. She'd come close to winning world titles in the past, but admitted that she was mortified by the prospect, claiming to be "too young to deal with all the shit."

The wonder siblings were both at interesting points in their lives. Though they were still so young—Owen 25 and Tyler just 21—they'd been hamster-wheeling on pro surfing for over a decade, and you sensed they were both looking to shake things up. As the pair devoured plates of huevos rancheros and buttermilk pancakes, they talked plans to snowboard in Mammoth and drive a van through Mexico. With a mouthful of food, Owen joked that his mantra all year had been "I just feel a little…different."

The bond between Tyler and Owen Wright has always been as thick as blood, and after Owen sustained a brain injury at Pipeline at the end of 2015, Tyler was initially unsure if she'd be able to leave his side to return to competition. Photo: Grambeau

His year, it turns out, wasn't over. The following morning, surfing Pipeline, Owen was caught underneath a Second Reef set and was washed to the beach, dazed. He hadn't hit the reef, and it seemed totally innocuous for a guy who'd surfed nowhere else but Pipeline for the last seven Hawaiian winters. Owen walked back to the house, ate lunch, and slept, but when he tried to get up, he couldn't. His long limbs refused to obey all commands. The room rocked and Owen felt seasick. He could hardly talk. His sister only had to look into his eyes to know something behind them was gravely wrong.

"When they were loading Owen into the ambulance, I was standing there watching, not outwardly freaking, but inside I was just thinking, 'What the f–k?'" remembers Tyler. "I was looking into my brother's eyes and thinking, 'It looks like he's f–king dying. He's not there.'" Mick Fanning—who, in a cruel twist of fate, would lose his older brother only a couple of days later—hugged Tyler as the ambulance drove off. "Ty, you've got this," he reassured her. "You're going to be OK. He's gonna be OK."

Owen was diagnosed with bleeding in the brain, but doctors couldn't agree on exactly how bad his condition was. One cleared him to fly home immediately, while a second told him that under no circumstances should he set foot on a plane. He didn't make it home until after Christmas, and even then, the prognosis was still unclear. He might bounce back in weeks…or he might never be the old Owen ever again. Nobody knew.

Tyler took it hard. She dropped everything to be with him and scuppered all immediate plans; all of them had included Owen anyway. It's hard to convey just how close Owen and Tyler are, and it's hard to gain perspective on what Tyler managed to achieve without understanding just how traumatic Owen's injury has been for her.

With unwavering composure in the water, Tyler made it difficult for those on the outside to decipher how heavily her brother's condition weighed on her. Those closest to her, however, saw a woman in turmoil amid the best competitive season of her career. Photo: Glaser

"Owen acts all tough, like he doesn't care, but really he's a big, cuddly, anorexic teddy bear." That's how Tyler summed up her relationship with her brother back in 2010, just before they took off together on the world tour. At the time, the Wrights were all living under one roof at Lennox Head, having left the sleepy town of Culburra as the talented brood chased surfing greatness. It appeared a foregone conclusion that the family would produce a world champion; it was just a matter of how many, and how many titles. The Wrights surfed together, they traveled together, and the five kids poked good-natured fun at each other all day. It seemed perfect, almost too perfect, and the years since have not been easy for the Wrights. Their parents are no longer together and the family is spread between the Gold Coast and the south coast. But Owen's condition was something else entirely.

"I looked at him for so long and I didn't recognize him," says Tyler of those early days at home on the south coast, where Owen recuperated. "I'd talk to him and I didn't recognize his voice."

Tyler doesn't like talking about it. Not even now, over a year later and with Owen making steady progress. Brain injuries are cruel conditions, and Tyler had to face the prospect of her brother never quite being her brother again, at least not in the way she'd always known him. "Processing what had happened to him was a massive trip for me," says Tyler. "It was crazy, and there were times there when it trickled in and I started to feel…something I was in denial of at the start."

For the last year, Tyler has juggled a tumultuous private life with a very public world-title campaign, and she's "kept my private life very private" to protect her brother. Still, stories managed to filter out. Owen had tried to get up one day and go surfing, forgetting he was struggling to even walk. He tried to swim a lap in the pool but sunk halfway, and when he was pulled to the surface he asked what the problem was. Tyler won't relive what day-to-day life was like in those early days, not until Owen is his old self, back on his feet and paddling out at Pipe again. But what's clear is that there wasn't a lot Tyler or anyone could do. The family was left with only time and hope.

With a repertoire of heavy-footed hacks, Tyler's been a world title contender since she first qualified for the World Tour six years ago. But her drive to finally clinch the title only came when she decided she'd compete for her injured brother. Photo: Moran

The Wrights—along with Owen's girlfriend, musician Kita Alexander —  rallied around him. But Tyler saw herself as her brother's primary caretaker. She was always going to be there. It helped that Tyler had watched Fanning deal with his personal dramas the previous year—his shark attack, the loss of his brother, and the media frenzy that followed—and learned from his ability to maintain control in the chaos. "I'd go home and there'd be a full hectic situation happening and I'd have to handle it, but I'd think of Mick and say to myself, 'OK, stay calm, work through this, this is what you've got to do.' What I learned from him was just to be steady."

Tyler had hardly been surfing when the 2016 world-tour season rolled around in March. She was underprepared and overwhelmed. Before the injury, Tyler and Owen had been planning to travel together on Tour and enlisted Glenn Hall as their coach. In the lead-up to Snapper, Hall started working with Tyler and discovered that her lack of warm-up sessions was the least of her issues. "I didn't try to tell her that everything happening out of the water didn't matter, because clearly it did," remembers Hall. "[Her brother's condition] was real life, and it was infinitely more important than any heat, and for me it seems counterintuitive for a coach to tell an athlete to block out real life. Every day we'd walk from our hotel to Snapper, and every day we'd talk about Owen. Some days she'd be crying and other days she'd be fine."

Once she hit the water, Tyler was more than fine. She won the contest. Her other brothers, Tim and Mikey, carried her up the beach, into the surfers' area, and straight into the arms of Owen, who'd flown up to surprise her. He looked weak and a little spectral, the crowds and all the attention spooking him, but Owen wouldn't have been anywhere else.

That embrace crystallized Tyler's predicament. She was torn. She could stay at home with her brother after the Australian leg of the Tour, put her life on hold to help him get back on his feet, or she could keep competing, channel her emotions and distill this tragedy into something truly great. In the end, Owen made the choice for her. Owen said "go" and Tyler promised her brother that when she came home, it'd be with the world-title trophy.

"I was numb for the first six months of his recovery," says Tyler. "I don't think I processed any of it until halfway through the year, when it became clear that it was in Owen's best interest, for his recovery, for me to go and do what I had to do. I didn't want to leave, but I knew it was the best thing for him and the promise I'd made to him."

For someone known for bringing a fun, carefree approach to surfing, Tyler seemed recast as a steely competitor last season, signaling to everyone around her that she was on a mission greater than herself. Photo: Grambeau

After winning two of the first three events, Tyler went to Brazil and dropped like a stone. She was sick; a doctor was called in the middle of the night, and it looked like she wouldn't surf the event. She not only surfed her heat the following day, but won it, and again went on to win the contest.

"She got to Brazil and I could see there was a really heavy energy around her," recalls friend and fellow competitor Stephanie Gilmore. "I could tell her emotions were boiling away and she was channeling it into this fierceness. She went, 'This is bigger than me. I'm going to do this for my family; I'm going to do this for Owen.' She was so headstrong. She was on a mission." It became clear that Owen's injury was no longer the thing that would hold her back from a world title; it would be the thing that would win it for her.

Tyler wasn't winning on pure emotion, however. Her surfing had transformed. She already had the biggest turns, but they often seemed like independent, angular thoughts. As the year went on, the space between the notes started to sing and her surfing flowed. In many ways it mirrored her approach to life on Tour. "It felt smooth for me—very even-keeled, in a professional sense," she says. "Compared to my personal life, which was so hectic, just going surfing and catching two waves felt easy. It wasn't the hardest thing I was dealing with at the time."

Tyler's promise to Owen weighed heavy. The carefree kid who'd once danced like Elaine from Seinfeld before her heats was now shadowboxing. Around contests, there was a ruthlessness to her. "It wasn't until she got to Fiji and lost to Bethany [Hamilton] that she realized she wasn't invincible," remembers Gilmore. "I thought it was perfect, because it brought balance into her year and I think she needed that."

Gilmore convinced Tyler to hang in Fiji for a week and decompress. "Tyler would have rushed home and stressed about the result, about everything going on at home, and in the end we had an awesome time," says Gilmore. "I think Tyler really found clarity in Fiji. She was like, 'OK, cool, I still need to be myself, be the playful grommet that just loves to surf.' It's amazing what a few piña coladas can do."

Like most world-title runs, there were milestone freesurfing moments throughout the year that bedrocked Tyler's heat wins. There was her backhand tube in Fiji—a wave she never would have considered taking, except that she "had these voices in my mind—Mikey, Tim, and Owen—just saying, 'You're going!'" The following week, back at home, Tyler had the real Mikey beside her, calling her in. "I was looking at Mikey and he was looking at me, and I'm like, 'Not it, mate!' And he was like, 'F–k off, you're going!'" The wave was a mineshaft—a mile long and a mile down—and a disbelieving Tyler came flying out the end of it. It was the best wave anyone, man or woman, rode during the best swell of the winter on Australia's east coast. Mikey described it as "OK."

Mikey kept it real. The youngest of the Wrights, sporting a party mullet a year after the party, Mikey was the spirit animal of Tyler's year. Mikey helped her reconnect with a time when the Wrights were all about surf, before Owen got hurt, before it all got so serious. If Tyler dared to claim during a heat, she'd walk back up the beach knowing the message was waiting on her phone: "What the f–k was that claim all about?" Even when he was injured, Mikey led dancing flash mobs at Tyler's place, throwing away crutches to dance on one good leg. Mikey and Tyler messaged each other photos of themselves flipping the bird for no reason.

When the Tour took her half a world away from Culburra, with the title and Courtney Conlogue looming, Tyler felt every mile between herself and home. She'd spent four days in four months back in Australia and found herself fighting urges to buy a one-way ticket back. "Things were crazy back home, and there were definitely times I just wanted to go 'F–k it, f–k this' and just get on a plane and go home. I'd have moments where I just felt like my legs were getting taken out from underneath me. I'd feel weak, and that happened so many times this year. But each time, I had to just say, 'Nah, we're doing this. I'm doing this. I need to.'"

Despite plenty of distractions on land, Tyler managed to not only win a world title, but also put on some of the best freesurfing performances of her career. Case in point: this jaw-dropping Cloudbreak cavern was one of the most talked about waves all year. Photo: Glaser

From a distance, you'd never know just how much she was struggling. Outwardly, she never lost her lovable, smartass attitude. She did everything her own way. She had dedicated "fat bitch days," when she'd sit on the couch in tracksuit pants and a basketball jersey eating ice cream from the tub and watching TV, before knuckling down into "skinny bitch mode," surfing and training before events. She danced and joked and cleaned up dog shit in her backyard with a shovel while wearing a bikini.

She hid it well, but if you knew her well enough, and you watched her closely enough, you'd see just how much emotion was pent up. A call home or an offhand comment might bring the dam down. "I've cried more in one year than I've cried in my whole life," says Tyler. "I used to be that kid who didn't cry for a whole year, but after this last year in particular, if I wanted to cry, I just would. I wouldn't hold it in anymore. I'd cry and then get on with it. I've had so much going on I couldn't hold it in anymore.

After making the semifinals at Trestles, she was asked in passing how Owen and the family were doing, and that was enough. She found a quiet corner of the surfers' area, sat on a couch, and bawled her eyes out. Then she got up, pulled herself together, and won the event.

A week later, a clip of Owen surfing Aussie Pipeline was posted on social media, and he was looking and surfing very much like his old self. It began to seem like Tyler's competitive success and Owen's recovery were cosmically tethered. Owen had turned a corner at home, and Tyler could now clearly see a world-title trophy at the end of the tunnel. A lightness immediately came over her.

"After she lost the final in Portugal, we went straight to this little bar on the cliff at Cascais at lunchtime and had a few drinks," recalls Hall. "Tyler had to go to the prize-giving presentation down on the beach at 6 p.m., by which stage we'd had a few. She put her rashie on backwards and walked straight up on stage for her interview, and we're all thinking, 'This is going to be good.' She got through three questions and then just lost it laughing. She came off stage, walked straight down to the water, and jumped into the ocean in her jeans and T-shirt."

The following week she was in France with the title in range, although no one told her just how close. She walked down the beach on finals day "ready to go to war," only to be crash-tackled by Gilmore, who informed her she'd already won.

After surfing the final wearing Owen's No. 3 jersey and riding a wave goofyfoot in his honor, Tyler's podium speech was something grand. You never quite know what you're going to get with a Tyler Wright speech: the inner monologue that accidentally becomes a conversation, or the off-topic thought bubbles spoken aloud. But here was a woman who'd matured a decade in a calendar year, calmly, eloquently, beautifully laying it all out there. "I just promised him I'd do it," she said. "And that was my thing, my way—something I knew in a small way could be my gift to them, to him. It won't take away their pain, but it was my way to give back."

Tyler has never been afraid to venture above the lip before, during, and after heats. With a consistent air game and some of the most beautiful carves in the business, it was never a question that Tyler would eventually win a title. Photo: Grambeau

This time everyone else cried, but Tyler didn't. Back at home, Owen cracked his first beer in a year to celebrate, while Mikey drank his 10th beer that morning and posted to Instagram, "F–k yeah Tyler! You f–ken [sic] stuck it to 'em all and now you're the mother f–king world champ, f–ken [sic] oath big sis!"

"We were partying the night after she won," recalls Gilmore. "She'd had a few strawberry daiquiris and just kept saying to me, 'I can't believe you've won six. But…how?' She was genuinely baffled. Then I had a voicemail from her the other day: 'What the f–k?! I can't believe you won six!' You kind of forget how much goes into one full year, all the emotion and all the experiences and all the living everything that happens, let alone a year like Tyler just had. I think Tyler finally had a moment where she realized what she'd actually done."

We'll never know whether she'd have won the world title without the hardship at home, but you can bet she'd hand the trophy back in a heartbeat to get Owen back exactly as he was. "With Owen, I know he's going to get better and it's just a matter of time," she says. "But we just don't know how much time. They're very intricate injuries and they mess with your mind. I watched that happen to my brother. But I know that every corner he turns, he's more like himself. We're getting him back." She pauses for a second. "I just love him so damn much."

Owen is on his way back. He's back to training, surfing daily, and surfing well. When he'll be back on Tour, or when he'll be back to surfing Pipe, is impossible to say. But in the meantime, he's got his new baby boy, Vali Wright, a little blessing of arms and legs who arrived at the end of a tough year. The contraceptive Crocs? He lost them nine months before. And Owen's got his little sister, Tyler, and the world title she promised him.

Photo: Grambeau

[This feature originally appeared in our April 2017 Issue, “Evolution,” on newsstands and available for download now.]

[Title Photo: Grambeau]