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Shawn Dollar has broken the world record in paddle surfing twice. Dollar is a Santa Cruz native who has been surfing since he was 7 years old. He’s now 32 and he says he is looking at the risks of his sport a lot differently lately.
In 2011, when Dollar was surfing near his home in Half Moon Bay, a fellow surfer drowned. Three days later, Dollar’s first child was born. For a year, he stopped competing.
“There is so much skill and risk involved with what I do,” Dollar told Here & Now. “Chasing down 50 to 60-foot waves is not really where humans are supposed to be.”
Though Dollar has returned to professional surfing, he says he does not feel invincible anymore and he’s taking more precautions. For example, he never surfs alone and he now wears an inflatable suit.
“I still have a lot of fun doing this,” Dollar said. “But I do look forward to the day I’m done and don’t have the stress of this weighing over me.”
On taking a hiatus from surfing after witnessing a drowning
“The truth of the matter was I just — I wasn’t into it. I lost internal drive. I lost that, like — you know, you’ve kind of got to be a warrior to go out there and face those situations. It’s a fight. It’s a fight to survive, survival, and I just couldn’t — I couldn’t muster that like I used to. I literally, before that, thought, you know, I was invincible, almost, you know? And that’s the attitude you have to have. I couldn’t do that anymore, and I really considered, you know, walking away and stopping, and I was just having so much trouble day-to-day functioning. To tell you the truth, I was really depressed at times, and it was hard. I mean, so much of my identity and passion is wrapped up into what I do, and to have it just, like, cleared, in that sense, was challenging. It was very, very challenging to, you know, come home, be a husband and be a dad, and to kind of keep my wits about me at times.”
On his approach to surfing now
“I don’t go out to Mavericks without bringing, like, my jet-ski and a personal lifeguard, and that person is really well trained on how to operate a jet-ski in those situations. They’ve got to be CPR certified. I bring out radios that connect directly with the Harbor Patrol and Coast Guard. My cell phone’s on there, and on and on and on, you know? All my friends, I’ve connected with the companies that make the safety equipment. I’ve been very vocal about the different stuff I use, to try to share that information. And, I mean, at the end of the day, safety’s first for me. If I don’t — I did skip Mavericks a couple days this year. I just, I woke up and I wasn’t really feeling that that’s what I wanted to do that day, and that’s different than the approach I’ve had before. Before, I was always like, ‘No matter what, I’m going out there, I’m gonna go do it. And now, it’s like, if I don’t feel a hundred percent, and I’m not ready a hundred percent, you know, I can take a day off, and that’s okay, because for me, my most important thing is not catching the biggest wave. It’s about coming to the beach and coming home to my family.”
On how his wife feels about his surfing career
“She’s really, really hoping that I stop, but she is so supportive of me, and she’s there for me. She always checks in and makes sure that, you know, I’m ready to go up there, do I have all my stuff? She gives me the space I need to prepare. So at the end of the day, like, I have, like, just an amazing wife that is going to support me, but when I’m ready to stop, she will be probably the happiest woman alive.”
On what he tells young fans
“What I do, I feel like is so innately dangerous, and there’s not a lot of reward yet. I look at those kids and I go, you know, you have to truly want this. You have to be like what I did and what [fallen surfer Sion Milosky] was, and what Greg Long and Shane Dorian is, that you just can’t help but paddle into a bigger and bigger wave. You have to want it. You have to have that drive from the internal, from something that separates you from your peers and your friends. And, you know, if that 7-year-old kid has that, then go paddle out into a head-high wave and see how it’s like, and if you loved it, get good at than and go try a 10-foot wave, and then try a 15, 20. Keep working your way up.”
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
We're going to take a step back from the news now for a story about overcoming fear and one man's ability to master something he loves doing, even if it scares everyone he loves. Shawn Dollar is a world-record-holding surfer. He's paddled into a wave that was 61 feet high. But he almost stopped surfing for good in 2011, when he witnessed a tragedy on the waves.
Shawn Dollar joins us from public radio station KUSP in Santa Cruz, California. And Shawn, you got into this when you were seven years old?
SHAWN DOLLAR: Yeah, my dad loved going to the beach, and he was a surfer. So it was kind of just part of destiny, you know. I was hanging out down there on the beach boogie-boarding, and my dad took me out, and I was just hooked from the minute I started. I played baseball and soccer and did all kinds of other sports, but I've never been able to fill the void of or be able to replace surfing. It's been a part of me since I've been a kid.
HOBSON: Why? What is it that you like so much about it?
DOLLAR: It's hard to describe, but, I mean, I think anybody that's ever surfed, whether they've just been out there and felt the - feeling it - to just ride a wave is just such a spiritual experience and to be in the water, and it's just, it's unlike anything you could ever do. It's just truly connects. You truly get connected with the environment and the world at that point, and it's so amazing.
And it's personal. You know, you're not relating to a team or other people. You're just, you're getting to be out there and do it all on your own, really. Even though there's other surfers out there, it's just you and that wave and the ocean.
HOBSON: And how did you go from being a seven-year-old surfing with your dad to a world record holder?
DOLLAR: So that's - I can't tell you what makes me different than others, but there's several other human beings out there that do what I do, and they tick like I do in the head. But they're - basically, I mean, I think you just look at some point the ocean really never scared me. And there's a level of fear that every surfer has at some point, and they decide that enough's enough. And to tell you the truth, I've never hit that ceiling.
HOBSON: So it's that lack of fear? You're not scared of the thing that everybody would be scared of. I think of it not in surfing because I'm not a surfer, but in skiing, often even if you are really good at skiing, if you get scared when you look down that mountain, you're going to not be as good as if you're not scared.
DOLLAR: Correct, yeah, that's a good way to describe it. And I mean, I still look down, and I still do get scared, but I'm able to change that fear into drive and move forward through it. And I've been in some really gnarly situations, and I've been able to continue surfing through them, and it just kind of gets me more excited and motivated. It's pretty weird, to tell you the truth, you know, to look at something - to look at waves so big and so scary and just be like I want to get in there, I want to do that.
HOBSON: But there was a situation that actually caused you to stop competing for a while. Tell us about what happened.
DOLLAR: Yeah, that was - it was this afternoon out at Mavericks, and it was, you know, three or four years ago, before there was a lot of safety equipment that we were personally wearing on us. And Si Milosky, a very, very accomplished, extremely talented big wave surfer, had flown over from Hawaii, and the waves were massive that night.
The sun was going down. It was getting dark, and, I mean, there was 40- to 50-foot waves pouring in constantly. It was right after that - within a week after the tsunami from Japan, and there was crazy currents going on in the ocean, a lot of swinging tides, and it was just raw out there. Still to this night I haven't really seen conditions that dramatic out there that were that constant.
And there was only a couple of us left out there still surfing, and we were just going on wave after wave after wave. And, you know, I sat shoulder-to-shoulder with Sion during this very, very short break, and we had this moment where we were just talking and connected. And this huge set came, and he wanted to go on the first wave, and I cheered him into that wave and was so excited for him, and he ended up drowning on that wave.
The next following surfable wave was about three minutes later, and I went on that wave, and I was able to get to safety, and there was so much action, so much said, so much stuff going on that we weren't sure where Sion was, and after, you know, 15 minutes, 10 minutes, people started really realizing that he wasn't around, and eventually he was found later, and they couldn't resuscitate him.
And, you know, for me, my son was supposed to be born that day; he was born three days later. And, you know, to see a family man, a man that was so identical to myself, working, family, loved big wave surfing, passionate about it, to just pass away, and it could have been my wave. You know, it could have been me. It almost was me. It just, it was heartbreaking and really challenging.
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HOBSON: We're speaking with Shawn Dollar, world-record-holding surfer. You can see videos of him surfing at hereandnow.org. There's more ahead, HERE AND NOW.
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HOBSON: It's HERE AND NOW, and if you're just joining us, we've been speaking with Shawn Dollar, a world-record-holding surfer, who watched a fellow surfer drown after trying to take on a huge wave. Shawn took the next wave and didn't discover that Sion Milosky had disappeared until about 10 minutes later, when he didn't turn up on shore.
Shawn's wife was about to have a child at the time, and the whole experience forced Shawn to consider giving up the sport he had loved since he was a kid. But he didn't. In fact as we speak, he's waiting for a call that could send him anywhere in the world where big surfable waves are rolling in. That's how surfing competitions work.
Shawn Dollar has been speaking with us from KUSP in Santa Cruz, California. Let's continue our conversation now. Shawn, you stopped surfing for a while after Sion drowned.
DOLLAR: It's not necessarily that I stopped. I mean, I still continued to try to surf. I mean, I surfed small waves going forward, and then there was a big break between large swells. But the truth of the matter was I just, I wasn't into it. I just, I kind of lost internal drive. I lost that, like - you know, you've kind of got - you've got to be a warrior to go out there and face those situations. You just, it's a fight. It's a fight to survive. It's survival, and I just couldn't, I couldn't muster that like I used to.
I literally before that thought, you know, I was invincible almost, you know, and that's the attitude you have to have. And I couldn't do that anymore, and I really considered, you know, walking away and just stopping, and I was just having so much trouble day-to-day functioning, to tell you the truth. I was really depressed at times, and it was hard.
I mean, so much of my identity and passion is wrapped up into what I do, and to have it just, like, cleared in that sense was challenging, was very, very challenging to, you know, come home, be a husband and be a dad and to kind of keep my wits about me at times.
HOBSON: But you did decide to keep going, keep surfing.
DOLLAR: I did. You know, I was able to - I was really lucky. Sion's wife Suzie(ph), we over time connected and spent some time together, and, you know, and I kind of made amends with what happened internally and with her, and I was - it helped me move through it, you know? And, you know, time heals, and I was able to kind of re-look at what I was doing, make some major adjustments in the safety that I bring to surfing, between wearing an inflatable wetsuit that can be deployed when you're too far down and can't get up, to I have a jet ski with a personal lifeguard on it that's always there to watch over myself and others to make sure that there's always eye contact on me and the others that are out there.
You know, we just - I looked at what went wrong and put everything in place to fix that situation going forward, and that gives me a lot more hope that I can avoid that situation for myself personally. And, you know, I mean big wave surfing is just entwined in my - in everything about me. It's like into my DNA, and I'm having a hard time on just walking away from it.
At some point I will, but I'm not there yet, you know?
HOBSON: But do you find that you feel a responsibility for other surfers that you're with now, given that you were right there with Sion right before his last wave?
DOLLAR: Yeah, absolutely. I mean I don't go out to Mavericks without bringing, like, my jet ski and a personal lifeguard, and that person is really well-trained on how to operate a jet ski in those situations. They've got to be CPR certified. I bring out radios that connect directly with the Harbor Patrol and Coast Guard. My cell phone is on there, and on and on and on.
You know, all my friends I've connected with the companies that make this safety equipment. I've been very vocal about the different stuff I use to try to share that information. And I mean, at the end of the day, I mean, safety's first for me. If I don't - I did skip Mavericks a couple days this year. I just, I woke up, and I wasn't really feeling that that's what I wanted to do that day.
And that's different than the approach I've had before. Before, I was always like no matter what, I'm going out there, I'm going to go do it. And now it's like if I don't feel 100 percent, and I'm not ready 100 percent, you know, I can take a day off, and that's OK because for me, my most important thing is not catching the biggest wave, it's about coming to the beach and coming home to my family.
HOBSON: What does your wife think?
DOLLAR: She is really, really hoping that I stop, but she is so supportive of me, and she's there for me. She always checks in to make sure that, you know, I'm ready to go up there. Do I have all my stuff? She gives me the space I need to prepare. So at the end of the day, like I have, like, just an amazing wife that is going to support me, but when I'm ready to stop, she will be probably the happiest woman alive.
HOBSON: If there is a seven-year-old out there who is like you were way back when, just a young surfer just starting out, what would your advice be for that person?
DOLLAR: When kids tell me they want to be like me, I seriously look them in the eye and say, look, you really don't. This is something you really want. You - it's not just like - you look at like a career choice of, like, a professional baseball player or football player, it's not as dangerous. It's just, you know, there's - it's viable.
And what I do, I feel like is so innately dangerous, and there's not a lot of reward yet. That - I look at those kids and go, you know, you have to truly want this. You have to be like what I did and what Sion was and what a Greg Long(ph) and Shane Dorian(ph) is that you just can't help but paddle into a bigger and bigger wave. You have to want it, and you have to have that drive from the internal, from something that separates you from your peers and your friends.
And, you know, if that seven-year-old kid has that, go paddle out into a head-high wave and see how it's like, and if you loved it, get good at that and go try a 10-foot wave and then try a 15, 20. Keep working your way up. I mean, you don't just jump into big wave surfing and paddle into a 40-foot wave. You have to learn to surf the 20 to 30 to 40-foot wave, and you have to learn to survive in all those situations.
So the kid has a long way to go, but, you know, from hopefully from all the things that we're passing on to the next generations through safety and equipment, that that kid will be a lot safer and a lot smarter out there. And when he's out there in the lineup, I'll be looking after him, I'm sure.
HOBSON: Shawn Dollar, who has broken two world records in surfing. Shawn, thanks so much for joining us.
DOLLAR: Oh, thank you for having me. It's a pleasure.
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HOBSON: What a story, Robin, and a story that even if you're not a surfer you can connect with. It's about emotion and that struggle we all have between fear and joy.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
I know it's been listened to very closely in a place called Ditch Plains out in Montauk, New York, a lot of surfers there.
HOBSON: Let us know your stories at hereandnow.org or Facebook.com/hereandnowradio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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