Matt Formston is feeling pretty good today. The Australian is currently in Pismo Beach, along California's Central Coast, surfing in the ISA World Para Surfing Championship. His sessions have been fun, his boards are feeling good, and you might say he’s in the best shape of his life. Until you realise what his life has looked like.
Matt lost 95% of his vision when he was five. Just last month, he surfed XL Nazare
He’s already won this contest three times, which effectively makes him a 3X World Champ, as well as the U.S. Open Adaptive Surfing Championships, the first stop on the AASP (Association of Adaptive Surfing Professionals). But long before all this, Matt’s life history was decorated with sporting achievements. He grew up playing rugby league and rugby union in Australia before transitioning to cycling, where he ultimately became a Paralympian, a World Champion, a World Record Holder and a World Cup Gold Medalist in Tandem Cycling (not to mention a speaker and executive coach). Matt’s also been surfing for more than 30 years. And he’s always had an affinity for the bigger stuff.
“I’ve probably surfed every big swell at home over the last five or 10 years,” he reckons. “But it’s not Nazare. I suppose I’ve spent my whole life getting ready for it, but specifically the last 12 months. Working with [famed big-wave surfer/shaper] Dylan Longbottom and the other guys in my corner, we wanted to see how big we could go, but didn’t have Nazare as a specific spot. We weren’t getting any really big swells in Australia, and three months ago Dylan said, ‘Let’s go to Nazare. We’ll have the best safety team in the world and I reckon you can do it.’”
Matt stacked three months of intensive training on top of everything else he was doing (which is a lot). And while Nazare itself would prove to be an otherworldly experience, the PT was nothing new to him, given his wildly successful cycling background.
“As far as training, it’s not hard work, because I love surfing and it’s such a privilege to go for a surf every day,” he said. “Whereas as a cyclist I was training for six hours a day. I was in the gym for a couple hours every day and starving myself to keep my weight down. The discipline required for cycling was very gnarly. When I set the World Record in the Tandem Pursuit [clocking a time of 4:11.213], that was probably the pinnacle of my sporting career up until Nazare, because I’d trained for 10 years to become a World Champion and Paralympian cyclist. But there’s a point where you can go, ‘This is too hard’ and just get off the bike. Whereas at Nazare, once you let go of the rope, there’s no saying, ‘I don’t wanna do this anymore.’ You’re committed. You’ve gotta finish the job. So for me, Nazare is the pinnacle of my career because of the risk that’s involved.”
Even without the starving and gym reps, Matt still had to train at an elite level, particularly when it came to his breath training. “My breath coach Dwayne, who coached Dylan as well, said my breath capacity is significantly better than Dylan’s [laughs], who’s one of the best big-wave surfers in the world, and also better than a lot of the guys on the big-wave circuit,” he says. “But, you know, my eyes don’t work.”
So he uses the eyes of others. Apart from the standard safety team of driver who whips him in (Lucas “Chumbo” Chianca) and first safety who picks him up (Dylan Longbottom), Matt had a second safety crew (Ivo Cação driving and Vini dos Santos on the sled) in Portugal, just in case he was rendered unconscious. The team also had a fourth ski as backup to their backup, stacked with cameras to film for Matt’s upcoming documentary film, The Blind Sea.
“The first thing we had to figure out was when I’d let go of the rope,” he explains. “Because whenever I’d tow-surfed before, my spotters would yell out at me, ‘Now!’ But you don’t wanna make any mistakes at Nazare, so Dwayne came up with the idea of the whistle. Whenever they whip me in and I need to pull and let go of the rope, they blow the whistle. We came to Nazare knowing that’d be the process, but Dylan actually had a near-death experience out there when he got a 50-footer on the head, because he let go and didn’t get the wave. So he said to me, ‘When we blow the whistle, you’ve gotta commit and go. Because if you don’t go and end up in that one spot, you’re gonna cop it on the head and that’s the most dangerous place you can be.’”
“We also knew we’d be going right the whole time, which is my forehand,” he continues. “Mainly because I can lean forward and touch the water. When I surf barrels, I feel the face of the wave drawing up with my hand. That’s how I know how deep I am. Obviously I wasn’t doing that at Nazare, because you’re just going so fast down the wave, but I can lean over and it’s easier to navigate bumps on my forehand. Then once we worked out the whistle system, Lucas would whip me in, I’d hear the whistle, I’d let go and basically hold the line that he set me on across the wave. Then he’d ride the shoulder of the wave and blow the whistle twice when it was time to do my bottom turn and start drawing my kickout.”
“Knowing that I had some of the best guys in the world behind me, it felt like a Special Forces mission,” Matt adds. “It was a very beautiful experience. And as a person with a disability, there are a lot of challenges in your life and you’re not always included in things. So to be present, in that place, on that jet-ski, with those guys donating their time to take me out there, it was a really special moment. Millionaires can’t pay to have that experience, you know?”
The exact measurements on the biggest wave Matt rode have yet to be calculated, so we can’t confirm whether or not he actually broke Brazilian blind surfer Derek Rabelo’s unofficial record at Nazare from 2017. However, Matt’s camp estimates his biggest bomb was in the 40 to 50-foot range. “We went there for a week and a half and thought we might have to go back, but the filmmakers told me they absolutely got what they need for the ending of The Blind Sea. They’re going into the editing bay now to start cutting the film and Dan Fenech, the director, thinks it’ll be ready by May 2023.”
Now, at this point most other surfers would probably be happily hunkered down with the editors. Processing the experience. Resting the body. Recovering from the adrenaline overload. Not Matt Formston, though. He has a contest to win.
“Oh, man, I’m super hungry,” he finishes. “I was undefeated from 2016 until last year. I’d won absolutely everything, then in the contest I got called into 12 closeouts and never got any opportunity to score. And honestly, it was pretty hard to take [laughs]. So, I see it as my World Title, and I wanna take it back. I’ve got a really good guy in my corner, and we’re not leaving here without a gold medal.”