As we saw her on the coaches list for Surf Sistas Green Waves programme this summer, we thought back to our Cover Girl interview with her back in 2010 and notice that this gem still needs to get up online! So here it is for your reading pleasure….
Words by Sam Haddad, lifestyle photography by Bella Howard, action photography by Gerhard Engelbrecht + Paul Gill
At 16 Gwen Spurlock had your bog-standard dream life. She was a sponsored surfer with heaps of friends, growing up in a picturesque part of South Wales. Her best friend Beth Mason was also a pro surfer and their parents were also the best of friends. The previous year she’d won pretty much every contest she’d entered and was the reigning British Under 18 Champion, UK Pro Surf Tour Women’s Champion and Quiksilver Queen of the Groms in England and Wales.
Kapow! everything changed. And instead of charging warm water reef breaks in a bikini she spent the summer lying in a hospital bed while doctors drilled holes into her brain
She was about to head to the Maldives to surf and shoot pictures while her school friends hit the books. But then Kapow! everything changed. And instead of charging warm water reef breaks in a bikini she spent the summer lying in a hospital bed while doctors drilled holes into her brain. She faced not just the unthinkable prospect of never surfing again but a genuine fight for her life. If there’s ever a real life story that should be optioned for a Hollywood movie, or at the very least the Christmas cliffhanger of a soap opera, this could well be it. But first let’s roll back to the start…
Gwen lived in the USA until she was nine, when she moved to Mumbles, Swansea. She hadn’t lived by the ocean before so was a bit scared of its might but she’d swum a lot in pools so signed up for the local lifeguard club. Soon after she was given surf lessons for her tenth birthday at the same time as her slightly older friend Beth Mason. They both loved it right away and swiftly moved from foamies to mini mals to proper shortboards thanks to regular sessions in the water. But it wasn’t until Tracey Boxall, a surf coach from Australia, started coaching their classes that they began to take it to the next level.
As Gwen says, “My surf lessons started to focus when I was around 13 or 14. Tracey would make us catch waves in five-minute sessions, to prepare us for contests. We’d then have to get out and run around her on the beach and do another five minutes in the water. She’d make us practice blocking each other from getting waves, and work on our quick wave selection.” Tracey also got Gwen her first sponsorship deal with Voodoo Dolls. “I wouldn’t be talking to you know if it wasn’t for Tracey,” she says.
I don’t think anything could have taken the love out of surfing for me at that time!
I wondered if this fairly intense approach from an early age might have made surfing less fun and more chore-like for Gwen but she reassures me. “I don’t think anything could have taken the love out of surfing for me at that time! I had so much energy and we only had lessons once or twice a week, every other time we went to the beach we freesurfed.”
Besides Gwen, who also played hockey and netball to a county level, loved contests from the start. She says, “When I started going to contests I was in awe of the older sponsored surfers and knew right away I wanted to be like that.” Aged just 14 she was British Under 18 girls Champion and a member of the British Junior Surf team. And aside from her enforced time out on medical grounds (more of which later) she’s dominated the UK rankings ever since.
Her parents were super-supportive and took her to all the events, until Beth, who was a couple of years older than Gwen, learnt to drive. But in spite of competing together at all the same comps there was never any real rivalry, or nod towards fisticuffs, between the two. “We were friends before we started surfing,” says Gwen. “So even though we compete it doesn’t affect the way we are towards each other. In some ways it’s made us closer as we both understand the competitive side of the sport and if one of us beats the other, you might be annoyed at first but we’d rather the other one won than someone else.”
Maybe it’s thanks to their Welsh roots, as Wales is a notoriously amicable place. As Gwen says, “Camaraderie is the main thing that makes Wales different from other countries. It’s a small country and everyone is friendly with everyone.”
Having such a strong support network would help Gwen a lot when disaster did strike, following a seemingly innocuous day on a new fake wave machine at a local leisure centre. Gwen and some other local pros including Beth were practicing before the main media day. They all slammed plenty of times and both Gwen and Beth were wiped out with tiredness when they got home. Gwen also had a headache, which she presumed was dehydration, but when it was still there the next morning, accompanied with a serious neck ache, she headed to the doctor.
First off the doctor thought it was whiplash, then post-concussion syndrome, but when her symptoms persisted they sent her for a CAT scan. The diagnosis was a massive shock – Gwen had bleeds on both sides of her brain, and a cyst. The cyst was apparently common and would have been there anyway, but the medics were concerned that the bleeding would trigger the cyst. Still she was told she should be ok. Then on the morning she was due to check out a potential university her Mum stopped her going, as she still wasn’t right. They then got a call from the hospital telling her to come right in and not eat anything as they were going to operate. Not going to the university open day had probably saved her life.
They drilled two holes in either side of her head to drain the blood and she was told the operation was a success, as long as the stitches didn’t become infected, as that could lead to an infection in her brain. So when she was resting at home and liquid started oozing from her skull she was understandably concerned. The doctors told her it was fluid from the cyst rather than an infection but after another scan gave her the choice of having another operation to drain the cyst, which had a 75 per cent success rate, alongside the petrifying risk of brain damage.
Gwen wanted to be fixed, and pronto, so, using the same mental strength that served her so well in competitive surfing, decided to go for it.
But Gwen wanted to be fixed, and pronto, so, using the same mental strength that served her so well in competitive surfing, decided to go for it. Unbelievably while in recovery after a successful operation she had another bleed on the other side of her head and was rushed in for more emergency surgery, which went well. Thankfully. As just listening to this story is tough enough, let alone it actually happening to you. It wasn’t quite over then, she had more scans and a lumbar puncture and was so done in physically she lost over a stone in weight, but crucially she was on the mend at last.
Talking to her now it’s amazing how she takes the whole episode in her stride. While her chances of brain damage were teetering on a knife-edge, her fellow British surfers were in the Maldives, then winning the contests Gwen had been owning the year before, and her school friends were enjoying those heady summer days before their final year at school.
But she only sees the positives, and believes surfing played a massive part in her rehab. “The whole experience made me grow up a lot. The doctors told me I’d never surf again but I knew I would. I’d been out of the water for around six months but the thought of being able to surf again was one of the leading factors in my recovery. That first surf back at Caswells was the best ever, easily as good as winning my first title. It was so refreshing and so nice to have an outlet to express myself having been staring at walls for the past six months.”
The whole experience made me grow up a lot. The doctors told me I’d never surf again but I knew I would. I’d been out of the water for around six months but the thought of being able to surf again was one of the leading factors in my recovery
Understandably she didn’t compete that year, but deservedly won the UK Pro Surf Tour Women’s Most Inspirational Surfer Award. She says, “The amount of support I had from the surfing community in Britain, not just Wales, was extremely touching.” But the following year, in 2009, she was well and truly back in the game winning back her British Under 18 and UK Pro Surf Tour Women’s titles, with the Most Inspirational Surfer Award thrown in to boot. Her plans for this summer include more of the same, with the help of her current coach Simon Tucker. At the time of going to press she’s leading the UK Pro Surf Tour again and, ahem, gearing up for a sponsored cycle from London to Paris with the Oakley girls’ team in September. We’re not cheesy enough to use phrases like “hers is a truly humbling and inspiring story” but if we were this would be the time to get them out.
Gwen is sponsored by Oakley, Skullcandy and EFX.
Styling by Poppy Smith, Hair: Nina Beckert @ Soho Managment, Makeup: Megumi Matsuno using Bobbi Brown @ Carol Hayes Management, Makeup assistant: Chisa Takahashi , Fashion assistant: Rosie Monks