Mark Mathews is no stranger to fear. He has made a career out of chasing the biggest swells on the planet and now uses his completely loco life experiences to speak to audiences around the world about living without the limitations of fear.
However riding the largest slabs of water to ever cross the seven seas isn’t even a drop in the ocean (yes… water pun) compared to the dread faced by Mathews of recent years. His newly released documentary, The Other Side of Fear, follows Mark and his partner Britt following a career-ending accident two years ago on the south coast of Australia. After what seemed like a par-for-the-course wipe-out, Mark was slammed into the reef, dislocating his knee and causing severe internal damage. Mark was faced with losing his leg. Sinking into a deep depression after months in hospital and countless operations, an unexpected friendship sparked a fight from Mark to return from the darkness that consumed him.
“This film shares the story of my big wave surfing career,” explains Mathews. “But more importantly, it shares the experiences that have taught me how to access the courage and resilience that it takes to face fear, overcome anxiety and embrace stress. We all have big waves [agree, but we call it 2020] to deal with in our lives but, with the right tools, anyone of us can access a life beyond fear.”
In the doco, released this week on Red Bull TV, Mark’s incredible journey back to surfing is traced from his own perspective, whilst also shining a light on the unsung heroes who were pivotal in Mark’s recovery, including his now-wife Britt. “This film documents the most difficult but rewarding journey of both of our lives,” explains Britt Mathews.
We got to sit down and chat to Mark ahead of the movie’s release to understand exactly what goes on inside his mind when staring fear in the eyes, and the lessons we can apply to all of our fears, be they 50ft waves of water or that next career move. There are some nuggets of gold from the big guy, so buckle in, enjoy the ride and see you on the other side… of fear.
Even before your accident, you were taking a hold of fear by the balls. Do you have a moment that stands out as the most fearful before the accident?
I think the one that stands out the most was definitely the first time I surfed, it would have been 2001, surfing Shipstern Bluff in Tasmania for the first time [inserting link to Shipstern here… it’s a monstrous wave and you should check it out. It is scary to watch, let alone surf].
Which for me was like at least twice, if not, three times as big and dangerous and scary as anything I’d surfed before. And at that point in my life, in my career, I never even thought I would surf waves like that. I didn’t grow up fearless, I was terrified of the ocean. I was never the kid who was like bravest in the water or anything like that. But that, that trip, because it was the first magazine trip that I’d ever done, I was like, “Oh, if I’m going to make a career out of the surfing thing, I better do a good job on these trips”.
The photographers and the magazine editors were stoked, so that added a bit of that extra motivation, kind of pushed me into surfing way bigger waves than what I would have otherwise. And it kind of made me realize that I was actually capable of doing it. And at the same time, I kind of fell in love with it too, so that that was probably the biggest jump.
Would you say that initially your motivation was external, driven by a desire to impress those photogs and editors?
For sure. Yeah. And I think originally me pushing beyond any fear that I had as a kid, that was the main drive or always, it was like you’re trying to get admiration, respect and love just off the people around you. And that’s kind of natural as an adolescent because that’s what you’re craving.
But then I fell in love with it as well, with the feeling of it, so that combined with it. And then on top of that, what was happening was a career, so then you have the money reward on the top of that. So that just kind of makes the perfect cocktail of drivers, to keep pushing myself.
Since the accident, have your motivations changed?
Definitely. I think they’re changing the whole way through my career. Just as you get older you leave behind the sort of need to prove yourself to other people. Once you get a certain age that becomes less and less important, and you then sort of start being more driven by your potential, by what you can take on. And it’s more intrinsic in a way.
You want to prove to yourself that you can do these things that you’re scared of. I think that changed a lot throughout my career. And it was kind of good, the less it became about being successful career-wise and trying to get the photo or trying to win the competition or make my sponsors happy and all that. When it became less about that, and more that I wanted to go out and test all the training that I’d been doing out in the ocean and just enjoy this feeling of surfing, then it became, for me, almost easier to do it, less stressful in a way.
The focus of this movie, The Other Side of Fear, is the comeback from your injury. Take us back to that initial moment; what was the first thought that went through your head when you hit the reef?
I was just screaming and in so much pain. Pain and then frustration that I just knew I’d done another bad injury and that I’d be out of the water again. I thought originally, when they got me up on the beach that I most likely snapped my shin bone.
And to me that was severe, and it was going to be maybe nine months out of the water, possibly a year, and that was horrific. But I didn’t think it would be something that was like permanent disability, nerve damage.
What has been the most difficult point? Was it sustaining the injury? Has it been the recovery process? Or was it getting back out into the waves?
I think the recovery. I’d been told that “surfing is done for you. Your career is over, you’ve got permanent disability. You’ve done an injury that won’t heal anymore. So, you’re not going to be the same as what you were before, no matter what you do.” That was toughest thing to hear here, because I’d always had injuries, but the surgeons would put it back together. And I’d do the rehab and I’d be back to normal, and the normal is gone now. I’m always the person that’s going to have this disability, can’t run properly, can’t do all these things, not going to be able to surf the same. That was the hardest to deal with. That took a while to wrap my head around.
I was reading an interview you did in 2018, where you said that you couldn’t even look at the ocean during the recovery. But you’re kind of back at that point now where you check the surf report every morning and there’s a bit of normality. How did you get to that point where you wanted to be a part of that again?
Well, the majority of not being able to look at it was because I couldn’t surf. I couldn’t get out of bed for almost nine months, I was laid up in the hospital. I didn’t want to see it, and just see what I was missing out on it. That would just drive me absolutely crazy. So I didn’t want to look through social media, didn’t want to see people surfing waves or anything like that. The only way I could deal with it was if it didn’t exist to me.
Out of sight, out of mind?
Yeah. And that helped me hugely. And then once I started to be able to just swim in the ocean and started to be able to exercise and then finally being able to sort of stand up on a longboard and just surf a little bit… it was bittersweet. It was awesome, in that I could be out in the ocean and get some of that excitement back. And I’d be looking for ways to go and surf, even though it was just on a long board surfing like a beginner. But then it was also so unbelievably frustrating to be riding waves, and I could see how I was supposed to ride the waves and how I used to be able to ride the waves, but now I had to ride them like a beginner for so long.
I just found out how valuable it was for me to have a moment when I was in hospital, that completely reframed my perspective, in seeing how much worse it could be. And when that happened to me, that was a game changer. I carried that with me through all the hard times, I was like, “Ah, this is nothing compared to what it could be.”
Is there ever a temptation to go back to those doctors that said you wouldn’t walk, or you wouldn’t surf again, and say, “Hey, I showed you”?
I’ve sent them all like photos back [laughs], to say thanks too, because I did like eight surgeries on my leg, to get them back to a point that it’s half workable. They were telling me “you can’t surf again” because they don’t understand surfing. To them it’s so foreign that it would be impossible to surf on an ankle joint that doesn’t work anymore. I can’t move my foot so the balance is all screwed up. But that was just because they don’t know surfing.
But even I didn’t think I would get back to the level that I’m at now. So that was a bonus.
In a weird way, you had that rare advantage way you were approaching learning a new skill as a beginner again, but you had the knowledge of a pro. Was there some joy in re-learning your craft?
Aw so much. There’s a few months there where I just didn’t think I would surf, at all again. So to go from feeling like that to just surfing anything, it just made it all so exciting again. And while it’s frustrating, you get all these little moments in learning to surf again, like I got to re-live them all over again. Like I did my first cutback again. Or I did my first floater or again, that was like the sweet part of it because I got to re-live all that joy. And on top of that, I could still paddle and read waves like an expert. So the progression happened way faster than what it would for your average to beginner.
For a lot of people like that and elite athletes, when they hit a peak in their career and they get older, it’s like all a downward slope from there. In my case I just have a totally refreshed mind-set.
Did you contemplate not returning to surfing or were you always going to make a comeback?
Definitely. I was always going to figure out a way to surf and be in and around the ocean, that’s my dream. Surfing with my wife and my kids. I don’t want to just stop going on holidays that had to do with surfing. So yeah. I was only going to figure it out.
Given the added perspective of the injury, what’s your biggest fear in life now?
The most stress I have is to do with my daughter. That’s the most stressful thing ever. I’m the worst helicopter parent on the planet. I’m just constantly nervous all day. And I just envision all the different things that can go wrong. That’s probably the most stressful. Before that it was public speaking, which is kind of the new career that I’ve had to transition to since the injury and learning to do that was freaking tough as well.
It’s funny how you’ve taken your fears and them into careers.
Yeah. I think maybe there is a piece of me that enjoys the challenge of being terrified of something. I was terrified surfing originally. And the process of overcoming a fear is such a rewarding thing.
Were you able to take some lessons from your recovery and facing fear, and apply them to the whole 2020 experience?
Oh for sure. I mean, it was like having the injury back again. In a lot of ways, having the injury was a forced stage four or five lockdown. I was confined to a bed for nine months, couldn’t drive, lost my career and lost my income, lost everything. So, rebuilding from there gave me a great plan and framework for how to do it again. When COVID hit I lost 95% of my income within two weeks so it was kind of like, “Oh, here we go again.”
It became about going back to the drawing board and applying all the same principles of re-framing what your goals are now in this new current situation. And how can you find that progression in whatever you’re doing, because it’s the progression that makes you happy. It’s not necessarily the end result.
What do you hope that people kind of take away from The Other Side of Fear?
If the audience can walk away feeling lucky and grateful for where they live in, in life, whatever their situation is, no matter how bad it is, but then also excited to take on a challenge that’s ahead of them, then I’ve done my job, and then the movie’s done its job.