Nick Carroll On: The Journey Back

11 Aug 2017 2

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer

Tom on his surf mat in Bali in July.

Tom on his surf mat in Bali in July.

COASTALWATCH | FEATURE

Thursday August 10 is fifteen weeks and a day since little Tommy was flat on his back in a North Sydney hospital bed with a right knee full of new metal.

Around 12.45pm, Mary his very patient partner texts me: “Tom is about to catch his first wave post knee op.”

Ha! I think, gotta see this.

Mary’s accompanying pic shows Tom standing on the sand at mid Palm Beach next to one of his Pipe spray Rawsons. Later he tells me he’d wandered up and down the racks at home, waiting for a surfboard to talk to him. It couldn’t be a longboard, too clunky. It couldn’t be a little zippy board, too twitchy, So he opts for the Rawson, a clean drawn round pin. Logic would indicate it’s halfway in between long and short, but I wonder how much of the talking was done by that spray.

SEE ALSO: Little Tommy's Knee

It’s been a strange fifteen weeks. Tom was almost immediately able to move the knee through angles that’d evaded him for years. At the same time, robbed of his lifelong source of physical expression, he seemed to shrink into himself. He walked carefully around the house, trying to get used to the changes in movement, then pulling up for yet another bout of icing in a special compression ice bandage.

Five or six weeks in, the wound had healed. The knee itself was still reddened and puffy but Tom had a provisional OK from the surgeon to allow it into water. He called one Saturday to say he’d borrowed an ocean racing ski from a mutual buddy: “Can you give me a few tips?” We spent a cold Sunday morning at Palmy’s Kiddies Corner while TC tried to get hold of this very tricky craft. I counted four roll-ins before he took a stroke. But pretty soon he was paddling around in circles, getting shoved along by little bits of chop and grinning like a kid. The roll-ins hurt the knee, but so what.

That was probably a good day. The bad days were when the surgeon would tell him, no, Tom, you can’t surf next week or even in six weeks, or maybe not even then. The reality would hit him: this has changed me forever, and who knows where it’ll lead? He talked to an acquaintance who’d been through hip joint replacement surgery and had an infection set in; the surgeon had to open him up, remove the joint, subject it to intensive antibacterial treatment, re-fit it, then keep the joint draining for six months in case the infection recurred. And if it did, no second chance.

I didn’t believe that’d be Tom’s fate, but what did I know?

The redness and puffiness began to fade, and Hypochondriac Tom was replaced by Detail Oriented Tom. With a specialist coach, he did endless corrective body movement training, designed to re-awaken his proprioceptive sense to the new knee’s capacities. He swam laps using a pool buoy, which prevents you from doing too much kicking. When the big steps forward came, they came suddenly. I recall surf ski training on another Sunday at Palm Beach, heading north with a squad, seeing a pack of ocean racing SUPs paddling back toward us, and realising with a pleasant shock that they were being led by lil brother. It wasn’t a surf zone but it was something.

The surf mat, that was another thing altogether. A bizarre flashback to grommethood. Looking for ways to ride waves without the temptation of standing, Tom had seen clips of Rasta and others riding down Broken Head on recalibrated surf mats. He got in touch with Lennox’s Mark Thomson and ended up with one of Mark’s Krypt mats and a set of straight edge Voit fins - kick, no drag. The craft’s strange dynamics — you ride them only half-inflated, so they mould to your body — seemed to fascinate him, but the riding sometimes sounded almost humiliating. “You can’t turn!” he’d say, half laughing at himself. “There’s no edge. I feel like a kook!”

Driving to Palmy, it struck me that a key to Tom’s recovery has been his ability to draw on a kind of naivety — a grommetty willingness to experiment, to look like a kook and not care too much. Surf long enough, and it’s a choice you’ll face: be a kook or give up. It’s a lesson, I guess. Plenty of surfers have given up.

I pull up at mid Palmy and walk to the cliff edge. It’s a warm day for early August, a little south swell half-closing out on a left and right sandbar. I can see Tom, his wetsuit with its one bright arm, and the sashed Rawson as he paddles for a wave, picks it up and stands. He rocks the board from rail to rail, then goes back and whips it on the tail curve into a neat little cuttie, before correcting off the minuscule wave base, as if to line up a tube.

It’s exactly — to the turn, to the timing, even to the board length — the same thing he did on his first wave back from the original ACL surgery in 1980. The knee hasn’t resisted the movement in the slightest.

I almost laugh out loud. Tom flicks off, turns, and waves up at me, beckoning: Get out here!

"We" do this stuff...not "I". Had the go ahead from the doc to ride small waves in a straight line (??) last Monday 15 weeks after TKR. Walked into my garage scanned the collection and paused..."which one speaks the loudest right now?" I thought. My down sized 7'0" @rawsonsurfboard Pipe replica put up its hand???? Immense gratitude can't be purchased over the counter nor online nor (surprisingly) briefly grasped on Instagram. But I can show it here???? @in.love.with.the.sea ??for your unconditional love always?? @collaroypete for the same?? Brother Nick @ncarrollsurf and all those who came visited during those perplexing 10days in hospital @_mimicarroll @grace.carroll @lucy_carroll ??@chris_athas @hookys096 our 93yr old Father Victor Joseph, Lindsay Lyon @shark_shield - apologies there are some I have forgotten I am sure. My medical support team Dr David Parker, your fine assistant Chloe. The Mater Hospital Physio team and of course @kieseraustralia Tim Dettmann and team Jess, Owen and Jake??just pure gold!! #AlanSarlo for helping over the line and giving boosts of confidence from way back before decision time?? Also on the longer term note re physical training @jchapman24 who knows this sinew and spark inside out pre and post TKR???? @andrewmarshmeditation for guidance within - the most precious kind???? This was only the introduction to action. Still slowly as she goes and taking @markrichardssurfboards very sensible advice with an open mind - "what I do Tom is when the doctor says it's time now to surf, I take two extra weeks to avoid any nasty ramifications later on" Holy Crap I said to my self?????? @surfmastery Mike Frampton for passing on your incredible mind and observations to offer deeper understanding outside the current square?? Oh yeah @kryptsurf how can I ever forget??????the journey continues??

A post shared by Tom Carroll (@thomasvictorcarroll) on


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