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Surfing comeback king Owen Wright upsets Gabriel Medina to claim Olympic medal

Owen Wright. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)
Roar Rookie
27th July, 2021
7

Six years ago, Owen Wright feared he would never surf again after suffering significant head trauma in a devastating wipe out at Pipeline. On Tuesday, he overcame the disappointment of a close semi-final loss to edge world champion Gabriel Medina for bronze and become Australia’s first ever Olympic surfing medallist.

The achievement caps off a remarkable comeback journey for the Culburra Beach, NSW, local who lost narrowly to high-flying Brazilian Italo Ferreira in the semi-final, but recomposed himself to upstage the world champ.

For Wright it was the culmination of a difficult time where he had to learn how to walk and ride a board again, then targeted the Olympics as an avenue for competitive glory.

“Some of the detail is a little bit blurry still,” Wright told BBC Sport about the moment he suffered his head trauma.

“A wave landed on my head and it shook me so hard that then I just kind of lost my senses. It was a long road back from there.

“It was explained to me that all of it’s still in there, it’s just you’ve got to reconnect those brain patterns.”

Wright said at first he was acting “like there was nothing wrong” and his family had to get him to slow down.

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“I don’t think I fully always understood the seriousness of it because of the nature of the injury,” Wright said.

“If you ask my friends and family, I was trying to surf the whole time. They had to take my surfboards away from me. I could barely walk the length of the house, but I was still trying to go for a surf.”

Wright returned after a year out and in March 2017 he won the Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast – his first competition back on tour.

More recently he decided to focus on the Games.

“The Olympics was a big goal of mine,” he told The BBC.

“I kind of slipped off world title pace being with a head injury and my ability to spin and flip and do aerials was quite impaired, but I can still surf really well, and qualifying for Olympics was something that was a very real possibility for me.

“So I put all my effort into that and I ended up qualifying for the top spot for Australia and it was that moment for me where I felt like yes, I’m there and I’m fully back.

“I love achieving things in the sport and I felt a little bit that I wasn’t able to achieve what I’d like [after the injury], and being selected for the Olympics felt like I had that sense of a big win again and a big win for myself.”

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Speaking to Seven after the win, Wright said that some “long-lasting symptoms” made him ponder whether it was worth getting back out into the surf at all but the timing of the Olympics spurred his recovery.

“I was questioning whether or not I was going to be doing the sport again and the Olympics got announced and with that intention, then came in some extra funding and I got to the doctors I needed to get to.”

“I’m standing here with the medal and it really did change my life, the Olympics coming on board, and that’s why I’m really proud to be an Olympian.”

Wright started off the bronze medal battle as he had in previous clashes, surfing selectively as his opponent chased an early score.

On the other hand, Medina looked out of sorts as he uncharacteristically lost his form on his opening wave and the Brazilian’s board went skyward.

Meanwhile, the Australian saw something he liked, displaying a series of impressive turns to notch a 6.50.

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Medina could only manage a 5.43 for his aerial efforts on the next wave.

Taking to the air again, the Brazilian went for a massive score to take the lead but over-rotated and lost control.

Holding priority throughout the bulk of the clash, Wright remained patient as Medina posted five scores before the Australian would ride another wave.

The number-one ranked surfer in the world did improve his score with a more subdued ride at the halfway point, but still trailed the Aussie by the narrowest of margins, 8.60-8.50.

After a quiet few minutes, The Brazilian seemed to have taken the lead momentarily before Wright answered back with a smooth ride that earnt him a pivotal score of 5.47.

Medina turned garbage into gold late, executing an impressive aerial on a wave that originally looked fruitless.

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However, the judges did not reward his efforts as his score only marginally improved.

Desperately searching for a better number, Medina bombed out on his last wave as the Australian snatched the medal.

Ultimately, the goofy-footed Wright remained composed while the Brazilian favourite was said to have relied too heavily on his acrobatics in inconsistent conditions.

When Medina sensationally bowed out in the semi-finals to Japanese hope Kanoa Igarashi, the path to a gold medal looked on the cards for the Australian.

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“I’m hoping for gold, it’s just one of those dreams,” Wright told Seven looking ahead after the quarter-finals.

However, a bronze is just as astonishing for the 31-year-old considering his journey.

Learning to walk again was hard, learning to surf, harder.

While much of that experience remains fuzzy for Wright, the helmet he often dons during competitions is a stark reminder of his difficult path.

Now, an Olympic bronze serves as a more positive memento for the proud Aussie.

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