Helmets Becoming More Common On Local Beaches
Ted Badgery never wore a helmet in the ocean until recently. Now, he rarely surfs without one.
The 12-year-old suffered a serious head injury while surfing near his home at Palm Beach on Sydney's Northern Beaches. He wiped out and was impaled by his surfboard, shattering his skull and leaving him in ICU with a bleed on the brain.
"It was just a normal day, [the surf] wasn't that big," he said. "I went to do a turn and the board came off the back [of the wave], I landed on the bottom and the board just came straight down and hit me in the head."
After a week in hospital and a year out of the water, he returned to competition last weekend at the Junior Kirra Teams Challenge on the Gold Coast. He won his first heat and his club, North Avalon Surfriders Association, finished fifth overall.
Unlike other sports where protective gear is commonplace, it's rare for surfers to wear helmets.
Ted admitted it was nerve-wracking getting back in the surf, but said his helmet made him feel safe, even if it meant attracting unwanted attention.
"I don't want to get injured again, so when it gets a little bit bigger I will always put it on," he said. "My local crowd all know about my injury and why I'm wearing it, but when I go away to Snapper [Rocks] and stuff, it's a bit weird wearing it."
The gift of confidence
Former world champion Tom Carroll coached Ted and was there on the day of his injury. Carroll pioneered a whitewater rafting helmet at the 1987 Pipe Masters after Floridian surfer Steve 'Beaver' Massafeller suffered a brain injury hitting the bottom during the 1983 Pipe Masters
"I will never forget it," Carroll said. "It was really impactful seeing him in that state — it shocked me."
Three years ago, Carroll came unstuck in a barrel and one of his board's fins sliced his forehead down to the bone. Against his better judgement, he wasn't wearing headgear that session, but he believes it may have saved his life twice before — once on the North Shore when the reef gouged a large chunk out of the back of his helmet, and another time at Teahupo'o when his board penetrated his helmet but he didn't lose consciousness.
"That was really scary — I was lucky I had it on," he said. "When you're pushing yourself in that environment, you don't want to be feeling cautious. It makes it way more dangerous when you're cautious. You really need to be able to feel confident and that's what the helmet started to give me."
Pros embrace helmets
Owen Wright is perhaps the most high-profile Australian surfer to don a helmet, after making a comeback from a traumatic brain injury in the ocean in 2015. Similarly, Liam O'Brien would have felt self-conscious wearing a helmet when he was young, but now he wears one on the world championship tour.
Owen Wright's Tahitit Pro win came almost four years after he suffered a major brain injury.(Supplied: World Surf League/Matt Dunbar)
Yet the stigma around helmets remains and, while the 24-year-old said he didn't like wearing one at the sand-bottom waves of the Gold Coast, he would usually put one on at powerful, shallow reef breaks.
"When I first started surfing you didn't really see many people wear helmets at all," O'Brien said. "You just want to blend in. You start to feel a little bit insecure when you have got one on because you look a bit different."
"At the end of the day, if it's going to save your life, it's well worth using."
Although helmets have become more widely accepted, O'Brien said many surfers didn't like them as they blocked peripheral vision and made it harder to dive under waves.
"It can affect your perception of the wave. It can cause you to misjudge things and it throws your timing off," he said. "I know a lot of people who have tried helmets, but they couldn't surf the way they wanted to with them on.
"If I'm surfing smaller waves I prefer not to wear it, it can be a little bit annoying."
Surfing Australia's concussion policy references a US study, which found that although face, head, and neck injuries were the most common surfing injuries, concussions were one of the rarest in the sport.
While helmets have been shown to reduce the risk of skull fractures and cuts, there is limited evidence that they prevent concussion.
Thanks in part to pros like Liam O'Brien, the perception around helmets is starting to change.
"There has been a noticeable change in how many people you will see in the line-up wearing helmets," O'Brien said. "In Hawaii now, at Pipeline, probably more than 50 per cent of the people in the water will have helmets on."
"There is definitely a generational shift in attitudes towards them and I'd say that will only continue as time goes on."
// BERN YOUNG and MACKENZIE COLAHAN
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