An Australian surfer has braved the world’s heaviest break to win the Tahiti Pro at Teahupo’o, a village in French Polynesia whose name loosely translates as ‘the place of broken skulls’.
Owen Wright, who wore a helmet to protect him from the razor-sharp reef below, dominated the solid swell to score 9.17 and 7.90 rides in Wednesday’s final.
The 29-year-old’s combined score of 17.07 was too much for defending world champion Gabriel Medina’s 14.93.
Home to aggressive tiger sharks, Teahupo’o is one of the most dangerous surf spots in the world because of the size, power and speed of the waves caused by the sudden change in depth from 300m to 50m just 50m from shore.
It is widely known on the surfing circuit as the heaviest wave in the world – and one mistake can lead to a fatal wipe-out.
Owen Wright from Australia practices ahead of the Tahiti pro surfing trial at the famous break Teahupoo in Tahiti, French Polynesia
This image shows Owen Wright catching a wave to win his heat and advancing directly to round three of the competition
Wright, who wore a helmet to protect him from the razor-sharp reef below, dominated the solid swell to score 9.17 and 7.90 rides in Wednesday’s final
Although a questionable fashion choice, pundits were not surprised Wight wore the helmet after he suffered a head injury in 2015 at Pipeline which nearly killed him.
That wipe-out and the near-fatal brain injury he suffered is something Wright admits is always on his mind when surfing a treacherous wave such as Teahupo’o.
‘Four years ago since that accident I definitely am a more tame human,’ said Wright, from Culburra, New South Wales.
‘Definitely when the waves get this size I take all the precautionary measures.
‘Having that helmet option, it just really quietened it down enough for me to just go and see these huge waves coming through and going ‘I’m going, I’ve got a helmet on, I can do it’.
‘It just allowed me to go harder. For me it was a real blessing.’
Wright wasn’t the only surfer to take on Teahupo’o’s monster waves with added protection.
The world’s heaviest wave: Surfing horrors at Teahupo’o
In one of the first competitions in the early 2000s the contest boat carrying all the marshals and judges capsized – but luckily no-one was killed.
In 2011 surfer Keala Kennelly was almost killed as she wiped out and hit her head and face on the reef, leaving her with an enormous deep gash.
In 2013 Hawaiian surfer Bruce Irons was smashed onto the reef. His trunks and much of his skin was torn off as he was pummeled like a rag doll against the rock before he was rescued.
The same year a Brazilian photographer broke three vertebrae after the boat she was in got air from a wave and crashed back on to the water.
Spectators on boats watch as surfers compete during the 2019 Tahitian Teahupo’o surf trials at the famous break Teahupo’o during on August 19
Australian surfer Ryan Callinan competes on the second day of the 2019 Tahiti Pro at Teahupoo, Tahiti, on August 25
US surfer Kelly Slater competes on the third day of the 2019 Tahiti Pro at Teahupoo, Tahiti, on August 28, 2019
American Sebastien Zietz donned the headgear during his heat against Michel Bourez while wildcard and trials winner Kauli Vaast wore a helmet in his upset of then-world No.1 Kolohe Andino.
Wright said injuries, such as those he suffered four years ago, are making surfers more conscious of choosing safety over style at dangerous waves.
‘This is one of the gnarliest waves there is and it just takes a split moment for it to go wrong, and you really don’t have any control when you’re in those wipeouts; you can’t cover up or anything like that,’ hesaid.
‘It’s an easy thing to put on. It might not look the coolest but it’s definitely for sure a life saver.’
Photographers take underwater pictures as a surfer wipes-out in the water and is almost thrown on to the reef below
Tahitian surfer Matahi Drollet rides the swell on August 24, 2019, in Teahupoo, Tahiti, during a freesurf session at the 2019 Tahiti Pro event
Australian surfer Owen Wright celebrates after winning the 2019 Tahiti Pro at Teahupoo, Tahiti, on August 28, 2019
After missing the entire 2016 campaign as he recovered from his injury, Wright famously returned to the tour with victory in his first event back at Snapper Rocks in 2017.
Wednesday’s win was Wright’s first since then and he feels his health is better than it has been at any point before the 2015 accident.
Victory lifts Wright to eighth on the world tour rankings and, as the leading Australian male on tour, in the box seat for one of the two men’s spots for his country at next year’s inaugural Olympic surfing competition.
‘The Olympics is a huge motivator and, for me, just like my general health is a huge motivator,’ Wright said.
‘I’ve been just trying to regain that and regain a good performance in the WSL Tour.
‘That’s how we get to the Olympics, just the performances, so that’s what I’ve been focusing on.’
Portuguese surfer Frederico Morais competes on the second day of the 2019 Tahiti Pro at Teahupoo, Tahiti
Tahitian surfer Kauli Vaast competes on the third day of the 2019 Tahiti Pro at Teahupoo, Tahiti, on August 28, 2019