Joel Taylor Interview: Australian Para Surf Champion Of The World

"There's always a way to get out and get moving... you just got to push yourself."

Joel Taylor Interview: Australian Para Surf Champion Of The World

Image: ISA

When Australian bodyboarder Joel Taylor was just 21 years old, a freak accident in Hawaii left him paralysed from the waist down; his dream of becoming a world surf champion in tatters. 20 years later, the NSW local returned to finish what he started.

Pipeline, nestled on the North Shore of O’ahu, Hawaii is, arguably, the most famous surf break in the world. Since its discovery in the late 1960s, generations of surfers have left their mark on Hawaii’s shores; their stories interwoven with the ebb and flow of the transient tides.

Colossal oceanic swells charge into Ehukai Beach at great speeds, producing perfect barrel-like formations that roll over the jagged reef below. These waves reach the shore with such ferocity, that the immense energy and power produce potentially lethal shockwaves, and pockets of concentrated pressure that can have devastating effects for the surfers caught in the middle.

For all its undeniable beauty, Pipeline has garnered a reputation for being one of the best and most dangerous places for surfers.

Image: ISA

For six months of the year, from November to early April, the allure of this iconic surf spot attracts thrill-seekers from across the globe looking to challenge themselves on the huge 9ft waves that crash and cascade in shallow waters.

“I think that’s part of the attraction; it’s a thrill – and it’s probably the best barrel there is in the world. I think that’s why people come from all around the world: to challenge themselves and put themselves in a life-or-death situation – just for the thrill of it,” Joel Taylor told DMARGE.

In the late 1990s, the North Shore was an annual pilgrimage for professional and sponsored surfers. From experienced pros to promising up-and-comers, the break represented a place to prove your mettle within the storied surfing community; a spot to display enviable tricks and performances in front of surf magazine’s teams of photographers and videographers – the media of the day before the likes of TikTok and Instagram.

Australian bodyboarder Joel Taylor was no stranger to the alluring breaks found in this truly unique part of the world and had visited the region on more than one occasion through trips and competition in the 1999/2000 season.

Taylor had just moved to Margaret River in Western Australia, leaving his hometown, Lennox Head, NSW to seek bigger and better waves before competing in the new year. He was just 21 when he left for Hawaii in early December 2001 but was already dreaming of becoming a world bodyboarding champion, when disaster suddenly struck.

“I was surfing the best I’d ever surfed and it got to the end of the year and I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to do Hawaii that year. I was happy where I was; I was getting good waves and I had a good crew of friends around me. I just wasn’t sure if I wanted to go and then just on a whim I just booked a ticket.”

“Everything seemed normal. But there was something in the back of my mind. I was like ‘Should I go or shouldn’t I go?’ I didn’t listen to that and just went. A few days later I suffered a serious wipeout. I suffered a spinal cord injury at Pipeline and was paralysed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair.”

“I went to kick my feet to get to the surface, and I couldn’t kick.”

Joel Taylor

A 6-metre wave came barrelling into shore, and Taylor caught it late. The immense pressure of the wave flipped him inside the barrel, taking him from a prone position, lying down on his board, to standing upright within the wave, when it plunged him downwards, with his feet striking the jagged reef below and the insurmountable weight of the wave crashing on top of him with extreme force.

“I went to kick my feet to get to the surface, and I couldn’t kick,” Taylor continued.” I was like, ‘Okay,’ and then before I even reached the surface, I knew what had happened. As soon as I popped up, another wave landed on my head; I popped up again and another one broke straight on top of me.”

“By the time I popped up again, I was pretty close to the shore and in a lot of pain and luckily I still had my board with me, so I was draped over my board because I couldn’t kick and couldn’t swim.”

Image: Joel Taylor

Joel Taylor suffered a serious injury to his spinal cord on 7 December 2001. He was paralysed from the waist down and thought that his dreams of ever becoming world champion were over. The next four years of his life were spent focused on his recovery; coming to terms with his new reality away from the ocean; processing the real possibility that he may never surf again.

“I still identified as a surfer. Because I felt that if I gave that away, that would be the end of it. I have worked my arse off and got a lot of recovery back – stayed fit and strong. And then after a few years, I burnt out and realised I’ve got to do something else,” he said.

“It’s my life. Otherwise, I’m going to spend my life fighting for something that’s probably not achievable. I think that’s when I lost. I think at that point, I lost my identity of being a surfer.”

Over the next 15 years, Joel stayed deeply connected to the surfing community, channelling his resilience and love for the sport into a new endeavour to create Unite, an Australian surfing brand that continues to make considerable waves within the surfing scene.

Although an accident had shattered his lifelong dreams of competing, it couldn’t shake his sense of belonging, even if he wasn’t able to bring himself to venture onto the sand again.

In late 2022, as he approached another milestone in his life, his 40th birthday, Taylor knew he was ready to surf again, even if he wasn’t sure his body would let him. He called a group of his mates and suggested a short trip to the coastal town of Yamba, just south of Lennox Head where he now lives and waded out into the shallow waters for the first time in twenty years.

“Getting back in the ocean again after so long – I thought it would be a really emotional and crazy time. But, honestly, it felt like yesterday. I just felt natural and it felt like I was home,” Taylor said.

“It was weird. I spent a lot of time as a teenager and before my injury [surfing] – that’s what my whole life was built for. For it to be taken away at a young age and then not surf for over 20 years, to be back in the water, I just didn’t expect my skills to come back as naturally and as quickly as they did. I definitely didn’t expect it to be as easy as it was. I just felt like I was where I belonged.”

“I think the ocean has a healing element and to be out of the water for so long and to then come back – it’s healed me. I feel strong now; I feel confident and I feel well, which is great.”

Joel Taylor

In the beginning, he could only manage short periods in the waves at a time. His body had to adapt to returning movements that it had lost for so long after 20 years spent in a wheelchair. He’d be in tremendous pain for days on end after the first few sessions back in the water. Muscles that he didn’t know he had would throb and ache as he regained his strength and fitness, but each time he got back out he could feel the difference.

Image: ISA

It didn’t take long for Taylor’s natural abilities to return to him, and just nine short months later Taylor was back competing in the Australian Surfing Championships, where he took the Prone 1 Men’s Australian Title in Port Macquarie in August 2023. It was a milestone achievement for Taylor, who, for almost 20 years, had lost his identity as a surfer. Taylor was certainly making up for lost time.

“When you’re confined to a wheelchair with a spinal cord injury, it’s hard to find that freedom. When I got back in the water that’s when I literally found myself – when I was out the back just diving under the surface and just feeling that freedom because when you use a wheelchair for so long, and for most of your day, you don’t get that sort of freedom,” he continued.

In November 2023, the Australian champion, emboldened by his recent achievements back home, found himself staring out to the waves on Huntington Beach, California. He was on the precipice of realising his lifelong dream of becoming the world champion, some 30 years after making a promise to himself as a 13 year old boy.

Taylor’s division consisted of 18 of the best para surfers in the world, representing a host of countries. Surfers competed in heats in a knockout format, and progressed through the rounds to reach the latter stages of the competition. Taylor’s confidence and experience shone, surpassing his rivals in almost every round to reach the final.

“I wanted to be a world champion ever since I was about 13 years old. So to achieve that after 30 years is special.”

Joel Taylor

Joel Taylor was crowned the 2023 World Para Surfing Champion in on 11 November 2023, aged 41. He scored a huge 13.17 points through a combination of technical tricks and signature flair, beating the next best by 3.34 points to take the crown.

After taking the world title, Taylor afforded himself some much-deserved time off, spending holidays with his young family, his wife and two boys, before he realigned his focus to defend his crown. Away from the surf, Taylor’s involved in a number of charities, such as Wings for Life, a non-profit research foundation that works tireleslly to find a cure for life-altering spinal cord injuries.

“A lot of people probably think it’s life-changing but it’s not life-ending. You can still live a happy and fulfilling life with a spinal cord injury and being or using a wheelchair I don’t like to say confined to a wheelchair because you’re never confined to it. There’s always a way to get out and get moving. You just got to work towards that and push yourself,” Taylor added.

Since 2014, Wings for Life has held an annual running competition to raise funds for the vital research they conduct into finding a cure, and this year is no different.

Now in its 11th edition, runners and wheelchair users of all abilities can sign up to Wings for Life World Run this Sunday 5 May 2024, and join like-minded people across the globe all starting the same race at the exact same time. Runners are encouraged to go as far as they feel comfortable, but with last year’s record-breaking 206,728 people hot on 2024’s proverbial heels, organisers are hoping this year’s event will be the biggest in history.

For Taylor, and the millions of people living with spinal cord injuries throughout the world, the Wings for Life World Run represents not just a race, but a global movement; a collective stride towards a future where spinal cord injuries are no longer a barrier to living life to the fullest. Taylor’s eternal achievements are a testament to that.