This past January, 25-year-old pro surfer Ricky Whitlock of Carlsbad, California waxed his board and hit the waves as part of warm-up for the Volcom Pipeline Pro surf championship on Oahu’s famed North Shore.
Moments later, a simple error in monster surf turned everything upside down.
As crowds watched set after set of waves topple the world’s best surfers along the ferocious Banzai Pipeline, Whitlock paddled hard for a small eight-foot wave, popped upright on his board and headed back up into the barrel.
Slightly behind the swell, he was crushed by the wave’s lip, and abruptly tumbled into dangerously shallow water.
Wipeouts are nothing new to big wave riders, but as soon as Whitlock fell headlong into the reef, and got crushed by the wave, he knew something had gone terribly wrong.
“I thought, 'Oh my gosh, I'm paralyzed,'” Whitlock says.
Two fractured L-1 and T-12 vertebrae, and months of rehabilitation, left him with an uncertain future in surfing. Courage and dedication restored him.
The story of his recovery efforts, and miraculous return to surfing in just a few short months, are the subject of “Ricky Whitlock: L-1, T-12” – a new documentary film by creative agency Type G, directed by Timothy A. Ryan.
Whitlock learned to surf at the age of 3, and hails from a family of two other pro surfers. He believes his recovery from injury last winter owes to year-round surf training and diligent focus on developing core strength for the sport.
Sports medicine specialist Dr. John Flores agrees, but also says Whitlock was very lucky.
"Given that type of activity, an injury like that doesn’t (usually) turn out very well," he says. "Had he been leaning to one side more than the other, it would have collapsed his back and (he might) have been paralyzed.”
In May, the 2010 Monster Energy-San Diego Pro/Am Surf Tour Champion began paddling around on flat water in a hometown lagoon. A few weeks later, he began to longboard in small waves. Not long after, it was rides on his preferred shortboard.
Puerto Escondido is the Mexican equivalent of Hawaii’s Banzai barrel, and can produce waves three to four times taller than a man standing on the sand below. In August, Whitlock headed south – as he has since the age of 12 – to ride the area’s 20 foot waves.
Commitment to a full recovery, and return to a sport he loves, makes this year’s pilgrimage ever more important. But ongoing support from family, friends, and peers has also played a roll.
Longtime sponsor and local Oceanside supplement manufacturer MRM helped Whitlock access the necessary nutritive support for a more rapid rehabilitation.
“Ricky Whitlock: L-1, T-12“, due out October 31, 2012, features footage of the popular southern California surfer as he makes one of the most miraculous and gusty recoveries this brutal ocean sport has ever seen.
“We wanted to show a side of the sport that is rarely seen, how hard these guys work, and what it means to be a professional surfer. ” says filmmaker Timothy A. Ryan.