4 March, 2013 4 March, 2013

Richard Calothi – Chatting about his Back-Breaking Wipeout

Alongside drowning and sharks, a broken back or neck ranks right up there as the next biggest fear surfers face. So, when Zag heard the news of a Dunes surfer suffering a back-breaking wipeout in February and having to be airlifted to the nearest hospital, we feared the worst.

Thankfully Richard Calothi never sustained any permanent damage, but he did have his brand new wetsuit sliced off his body by paramedics while they urgently treated him. On hearing the news, Zag contacted Reef Wetsuits to hook a brother up with a new suit and they were quick to come to Richard’s aid. We dropped in on the Cape Town charger to deliver his fresh new 4/3mm fullsuit and get his rundown of the incident:


Richard poses with his new Reef wettie (left) and his still-new old fullsuit, which paramedics cut off.

Zigzag: Howzit Richard, can you describe your wipeout and the wave you injured yourself on?
Richard: It was a nice bowled up left on the inside which was definitely worth a shot. Nothing big, maybe about three foot. Nothing of consequence, or so I thought. I pulled in on my backhand straight into the barrel and I was cruising for a few seconds. Eventually I was too deep, the shockwave hit my board and flipped my feet up the face, spinning me into a backwards kind of pin-drop. The next thing I heard…crunch! I hit the sand immediately, right above my shoulder blades. Straight away I knew it was not good.

When you surfaced after your wipeout, what was your initial reaction?
CAN I FEEL MY LEGS? I was thinking this before I had even surfaced. When I surfaced, I really struggled to breath. I guess I was a little winded. From there, I slowly washed up towards the shore where I was helped out the water by my mate’s better half and some other people walking past.

But the doc says you’re going to be okay. No lasting damage?
Ja, I was really lucky in my case. The discs are all still in place, however my T8 vertebra is now 30% smaller on the one side from the compression. So I guess I’m 5’10” instead of 5’11” now (laughs)! The doc says six to eight weeks and there shouldn’t be much long lasting damage, as long as I look after my back and keep it strong. I guess I’ll have to keep surfing to keep it strong – sounds good to me.

We can joke about it now – So, was it your first time in a helicopter?
It wasn’t the first time I’ve been in a helicopter, but it was definitely the first time I’ve been in one tripping out on morphine, while staring at this dude next to me with a huge black visor over his face like he had just dropped into Nam to pick up some survivors.

We heard you were more concerned with your brand new wetsuit that the paramedics sliced open than the injury itself?
(laughs) I’ve always had a special bond with surfing and all the equipment that goes with it. I guess you can say that I was one with my wetsuit.

Do you reckon this injury is going to sit in the back of your mind and hold you back from getting pitted, like this:

Richard, slotted deep with is GoPro at the same spot where he injured his back.

Richard, slotted deep with his GoPro at the same spot where he injured his back.

(laughs) Ja, this guy looks really familiar! I’ve had plenty of time lately to think about how this will affect the way I surf and how it will play on my mind. I’ve had a few other surfing injuries, but they have all been flesh-wounds and they haven’t really affected my surfing too much. However, I think this injury will definitely have an impact on my surfing for now, but over time I think I will get over it and hopefully be getting pitted like this again soon.

Shot Richard, we’re hoping you get back in the water soon. Any parting pearls of wisdom you’ve learnt from this experience?
Every now and then we have to pay a little tax, sometimes more and sometimes less. I’ve definitely paid a fair amount of tax in my surfing career, but the funny thing is, if you put that bowled up left in front of me again, even after my back incident, I’m sure as hell going to give it a shot again. But mostly I would like to thank the people who helped me on the beach, especially Alpha Bagley who literally stopped me from being sucked back out. The medical response team on the beach, the Kommetjie NSRI team and last but not least, Reef and Zigzag for helping out a brother in need of a lekker new wetsuit.


Zag has heard a number of stories of surfers breaking their back/neck after a bad wipeout – like the injury suffered by big wave surfer James Taylor at the same spot. Thankfully, it doesn’t always end in death or paralysis. We sought out the advice of surf injury expert, Stellenbosch biokineticist Phil Nel, to explain the difference between ‘breaking your back’ and really ‘breaking your back’. Here’s his take:

Spinal fractures (layman: breaking your neck/back), refers to when one or more of the 33 bones in your spinal column fracture. A spinal vertebrae can either fracture, collapse or dislocate.

Running down your spinal column is a spinal cord. Out of your spinal cord nerves branch out and spread to the rest of your body (providing electrical stimulation to muscles and organs). The degree of neurological injury is usually due to the  amount of force that is present at the time of the injury and the amount of compromise of the spinal canal.

Commonly, the general public refer to ‘breaking your back’ as when this spinal column or surrounding nerves are damaged. The spinal colomn can either be injured ‘incomplete’ or ‘complete’. The latter leading to total loss of function (Paralysis).

You can however, like Richard, still fracture the spine and not incur severe neurological damage. It’s also possible to injure your spine, without fracturing the vertebrae, like whiplash (muscle ligament strain), spinal dislocation or disc herniation.

All these are serious injuries that can lead to severe pain and even surgical treatment.

In short, Richard got lucky by fracturing his C7 vertebrae and not injuring the neural components. Saying that however, if you’re surfing and your buddy hits the bottom, deal with caution and approach the injury as a potential Spinal Column Injury!

Contact Le Roux Nel Biokinetics if you’re in the Cape Town area and have any surfing injuries you’d like to get checked up.

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