At the age of 17, Natxo González felt that he was dying. And not metaphorically. He felt that he was headed for the real death, carried away by the waves, buried under the weight of the water that rose in tongues as tall as a five-story building that collapsed over and over again on the surface of the sea. Under them, González was aware that he had no more oxygen left.
That sensation of dying happened to him in Nazaré, a small Portuguese town on which the world’s surfers fixed their eyes because its coast had the peculiarity of originating the most gigantic waves in the world. The year in which González felt that he was dying, he had just finished the WSL Big Wave World championship (the surfing competition for the biggest waves on the planet) and, the next day, he and four other surfers rented some jet skis and they jumped into the sea with their boards.
“I was paddling a wave and when I was about to stand up the peak met the next one and I went flying. I fell. When there are such big waves you don’t fall and enter the water, you bounce several times, they are blows. I was taking air and the blows took all the air out of me. I got to the plane of the wave, I sank and he caught me and started to tow me. It’s time to pull the inflatable vest. And suddenly, I pull and the vest inflates and deflates”. Normally, inflatable life jackets have four shots. González’s did not inflate in any of them. “I already knew that I only had one shot left. I pull, it inflates and deflates. The brain, when it needs oxygen, gives you a warning. And I said: okay, the only thing left for me is to relax. I relaxed, five more waves fell on me. I was like a doll. But if you say I give up, you lose. And I noticed that I was falling peacefully asleep in the water. A disgusting feeling, ”he recalls. Finally, before the sixth tidal wave hit him, one of his jet ski buddies managed to get close enough to grab his hair and tow him to shore. “I went a day without speaking. He was in shock. He didn’t see any point in what he was doing. I thought about leaving him for my mother, but in the end the passion is what brings you back again. For the passion, you continue. For me it is my life ”, he sentences.
Their passion started early and suddenly. And like those things that start on a child’s own initiative, at first, he did not have the favor of his parents at all. One day, on the beach of Plentzia (Bizkaia), his town (where he was born in 1995), he got a polyester board. At the end of a day at the beach, he was already able to stand up on the board and catch a wave. He was seven years old. “I am lucky to have been born here, where there is a great surfing community that has taught me a lot.” After that first experience with the waves, he asked his parents for a professional board. They refused. He asked for it again. They refused. He asked for it again. Only the third time did they begin to give in a little: his father told him that he could have one if he paid for it himself. “I spent months saving and I arrived at the store with a huge bag of one euro coins and cents. It gave me the cheapest board they had: a used and repaired one that had been split in half, ”he says. It was the first one he had and on it he learned to surf.
“It was a disgusting feeling,” says González when he recalls his worst experience with the waves.Alex Iturralde
At the age of 11 he began to compete and achieved his first sponsor (today he counts among his endorsements with brands such as Breitling). At 13 he already had a level to travel and participated in the world championship in New Zealand. At 15 he traveled the world and began to be familiar with names like Pichilemu, Cloudbreak, Mullaghmore or Jaws. Names of the biggest waves. The most unpredictable and fierce. “Sometimes you are in the middle of one and you say: what mess have I gotten myself into? This is giant. I also have vertigo ”, he confesses. At the age of 17, Nazaré showed him the cruelty of the ocean. Two years later, he gave him glory.
It was in 2018, when González had already overcome what he qualifies as “the worst experience” of his life, when he managed to enter the Big Wave World Tour championship at the last minute. He had decided to continue his surfing career and that entailed paying the toll of not only returning to Nazaré, but also facing bad memories of him. “I prepared it a lot. I am very ashamed to say it, but I trained a lot to be world champion. I said: I have the opportunity to be able to do it, I am among the chosen ones and I am going for it. He did a brutal preparation, a brutal diet. I reached a physical point where I didn’t get tired. The motivation to improve and forget the bad experiences; discipline and patience earned him something that no other surfer has ever achieved in Nazaré: a score of 10 in a tube that he caught paddling.
“It was the best wave. And I said: either all or nothing. I stood up on the board and got into the tube.” In the video everyone is silent and they explode when he flies out of the wave. “There were 10,000 people screaming. It was the wave of history and it continues to be the wave of Nazaré. No one has managed to row a tube like this and with so much technique. It was a before and after in my career. All dreams can come true if you set your mind to it and work”. At this point in his story, she becomes emotional and her voice cracks. “For the people it was putting myself on the map: Natxo González. Years have passed, but they don’t stop posting the video of that wave. It continues to be something historical ”, he recounts from a terrace that he overlooks the same Plentzia beach, where he learned to surf and where he now teaches his trade to his nephews.
During a brief walk through the town, he stops to say hello six times. To others he says goodbye from a distance with a “whoops!” and raised hand. He is probably the most famous neighbor and the one who, despite his fame, did not leave town. Here he has his parents, sister, nephews, friends and dogs. He moves in an old van full of sand. It is the car in which his boards fit. When passing in front of the Plaza del Ayuntamiento, he remembers that he used to play ball here. Going up the hill that he leads to the church, he relives the days when he went to after-school classes as a teenager. Those days when, while the rest of his classmates were taking ESO, he was facing waves in Hawaii.
On the boardwalk, he stops to talk to a man in an electric wheelchair. Walking away, she says that this man was a professional surfer, exactly like him. A bad wave took him headlong against the breakwater. Right here in Plentzia. He became a paraplegic. “Actually, what has happened to me is the least bad thing that can happen to you. I know that I risk my life in each wave”. The brutality of the confession contrasts with the sky with low clouds, the absence of wind and the cobbled streets of the town that the surfer walks with his hands in the pockets of his sweatshirt and a Red Bull cap fitted over his skull. While the water of the estuary gently laps the shore and does not at all seem like the same sea in which González has been risking his life for years, riding waves, competing in Puerto Escondido or in Mavericks along with the other 23 surfers that make up the circuit of the Big Wave of the World Surf League, the surfer says that he has not competed for more than half a year. The blame? A post-concussion syndrome caused by two giant waves.
The first of them hit him in Puerto Escondido in Mexico in May 2021. He spent an hour waiting to catch the wave. As she did, the lip of the tube caught her in the face, throwing her back. She didn’t care. The next day the headaches started. In November of that year, and again in Nazaré, another wave hit him squarely again. He continued to compete until December 2022, and that month he realized something was wrong. He had constant migraines, dizziness, nausea, malaise. At the hospital they performed a CT scan, X-rays and MRIs. They found nothing. They recommended visiting a psychologist. “But I knew it wasn’t that, I knew there was something physical,” recalls the surfer. He asked his sponsors for help and they sent him to a clinic in Switzerland, where they found the diagnosis after several months of tests. González breathed a sigh of relief: at least he could start treating it now.
How do you feel about not competing?
-I feel good. I feel great. Better than ever.
You might think that when someone says that they work in what they like and live what they are passionate about, they will never be able to say that they are well rested, recovering from an injury. But the man who was about to die at 17 and who two years later returned to the same place to get the first and only 10 in the history of Nazaré, becoming the first Spaniard to compete on the giant wave circuit, dominates discipline and temperance to perfection. Also patience. While recovering from the concussions, he goes bass fishing, reads, gets in some light training, enjoys life off the beaten track knowing he’s coming back to it. Just as he returned to Nazaré. “Losses are learning and experience”, he confesses and continues: “My dream is to push the limit to another level. I am obsessed with pushing the limits of paddle surfing to catch the biggest waves”. It is said.
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