by David M. Olsen
I would be dead without the sea. I believe that and I feel that because it’s true. When I started to tell people that I needed a sport besides running (because of an injury during the Big Sur Marathon in 2012) with lots of cardio to strengthen my heart the average answer was that surfing was too dangerous—especially for an overweight insurance broker pushing 40. There were also several reminders that the water was cold and that Tod Endris, an old college friend, had been attacked by a white shark in nearby Marina back in 2007. But surfing and the healing power of the ocean had been calling me since my childhood, since my first heart surgery at age five, but perhaps I wasn’t listing closely enough. Because even after my heart stopped beating at the age of thirty-four and I was rushed to the emergency room with Atrial Fibrillation I still didn’t go to the sea to heal. It wasn’t until a doctor appointment in 2017 where my doctor reviewed a litany of health issues that needed medication or dramatic lifestyle changes in order to rehabilitate my body and my heart that I finally heeded the ocean’s call. And at the age 35 I jumped in, literally, and began to learn how to surf in the cold and cobalt waters of the Monterey Bay.
I was born in a birthing center in Riverside, California in the 1980’s and the midwife missed the fact that I had a heart murmur, but I eventually went to UCLA Medical for my six-month check-up and they found it. My pulmonary valve was webbed and thickened, and I needed surgery, or I would die young, the doctor said. So, when my heart was large enough for the angioplasty they recommended, at the age of five, I bravely went back into the hospital and had the operation. In the following years I complained a little bit about some mild arrhythmia, but for the most part I was cured. All the doctor did then was recommend I stay away from drinking and smoking later in life and get plenty of rigorous cardio-vascular exercise. Being born in Southern California I got a taste of surf culture young and I remember those days with the hot sand burning my feet in Oceanside and boogie boarding and the surfers carving through the swells like tawny gods, and I loved watching them. I also loved finding the tiny pieces of Sex Wax in the sand and remember falling in love with the scent of coconut and the briny quality of the sea. In 1990 we moved to the Central Valley and I became land locked and lost sight of surf culture except for re-watching my brother’s favorite film, Point Break. In high school I picked up both drinking and smoking and also did very little cardio. The arrhythmia returned in those years and slowly got worse, but I found that when I was drunk, I could ignore it, and so I did for twenty years.
My wife ran a stop sign and two red lights on our way to the emergency room the day my heart stopped. I’d stepped out of the shower that Saturday morning, in July of 2016 (just a few months after my thirty-fourth birthday) and clutched my chest and told her from across the room that I was dying. She looked at me like I was crazy but came over and felt it too—no pulse. Just a distant buzzing in my chest and I was terrified and confused: how I could stand there and breathe with no heartbeat—no pulse. Perhaps I was dreaming still, or maybe I’d woken up as a zombie?
My wife pulled up to the back doors of Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula and I walked inside and tried to explain to them that I had no pulse and they reacted quickly getting me into a room and a doctor inside to start the tests—they don’t fuck around with heart situations because that’s how people die. Like I was, or at least thought that I was and that was all that really mattered. Those moments are indelibly inked into my waking mind, the ones where I knew my life would be over, but somehow was still standing and apparently given enough time to reflect on what I’d done with it—my life thus far. Or, rather, what I hadn’t. I quickly found myself wondering why I’d squandered my entire existence in the bottom of a bottle instead of doing all of the things that I’d dreamed of as a kid. Like writing a book, or learning a foreign language, or traveling the world—or most importantly, learning to Surf like those bronze, shimmering spectacles I’d been mesmerized by in Southern California as a boy.
It’s funny how much you promise yourself when you think you’re about to die—like if you had one more chance, you would do it all differently and perfectly. But then, as soon as you know you’re safe you start taking everything for granted again. Needless to say, I didn’t hit the sandy beaches and start surfing during that first year after my heart issue. Even though I’d lived in Monterey on and off for 16 years, I’d largely forgotten about my childhood obsession with surfing and the foggy weather, and chill waters in Monterey didn’t help my ambitions. The doctors had been able to get my heart rhythm back after about seven hours of treatment in the ER that day and had told me that Atrial Fibrillation was common enough, just not in people my age. They recommended rehab, and AA, but I quit drinking because I didn’t want to die. Later, through an old friend who made amends to me for robbing my house (his ninth step), I’d start going to AA. Then I proceeded to help some friends through the program, and it continues to save lives. The doctors recommended that I pick up some rigorous cardio to strengthen my heart, and if I did, I would live a longer—I didn’t listen to that part.
A year later I showed up to my primary care doctor to review the results of a comprehensive blood panel and I was entertaining hypochondrial delusions that they’d found something terminal. He informed me rather quickly that I was going to be okay, but that I needed to go on some prescription medications if I wanted to live past forty. He told me that I had the following wrong with me: high blood pressure, high triglycerides, gout, high cholesterol, I was forty pounds over-weight, and was borderline diabetic. The doctor recommended that I take some blood pressure medication, cholesterol medications, a statin, a pill for uric acid levels, and be monitored for diabetes medication. I told him no, fucking, way, at 35 was I going on a laundry list of medications. I told him that instead I would change my diet and start surfing. I wasn’t sure if I believed it myself, but the doctor threw up his hands in mock disgust and I left without a single prescription. That day I did decide to make big changes: I traded my remaining vices of pizza, burgers, and diet coke for the Ketogenic diet, and a strict daily regimen of surfing—and it started to work, fast. And the love and admiration for the sport that had been planted all those years ago in my little five-year-old mind in Oceanside finally began to come to fruition. I realized rather quickly that surfing was addictive, and thus a great substitute for my previous vices.
My first surfing session after the heart issue, and after my doctor visit a year later, wasn’t pretty. I paid a visit to my storage unit in Sand City and headed straight to my closest break at Asilomar in Pacific Grove. It was a slightly overhead and foggy that fall day and I squeezed my pallid girth into a wetsuit that I’d bought fifteen years earlier in undergrad at CSUMB. Once I zipped up, my neck felt suffocated and my breath was short, but none of that mattered because when I set my mind to something, I did it or died trying. Fortunately, I had watched my brother surf this break in undergrad and I knew where to paddle out—there was a riptide right along a set of jagged rocks on the right of the beach that would pull you easily past the breakers.
I laid on my belly on a 7’2” fun shape my friend had left in my garage five years earlier and paddled hard, straining against the slightly crunchy neoprene and when I got past the first small rollers a large outside set squared up on the horizon. The board was too buoyant to duck-dive and so I ditched it and dove under good eight waves and the fifty-five-degree water cracked like an ice-bat over my head and my brain throbbed. Once it was clear again, I pulled my leash, flopped my heavy frame onto the board and started paddling again, hard. By the time I got out, the sets had grown—or I was just closer now—and I knew I was way out of my league. I was far too tired to do anything except sit up and bob on my board. After about fifteen minutes I finally caught my breath and paddled into the lane and an easily ten foot wave crashed in front of me and I tried to catch the white water but it was so turbulent it ripped the board from my hands and I tumbled down into the darkness until my chest burned and I felt dizzy and just before the lights in the back of my eye-lids flickered off, the wave released and I pushed off the sandy bottom and broke the surface and heaved a massive breath of fresh air. Then, another wave clobbered me. It took six moths to feel a little more comfortable out there, and a year to really get the hang of it, but I healed a little bit every time I got into that water. My heart got stronger, and old vices faded away like footprints in the sand.
A few weeks ago I drove the mile or so down to the beach to check the surf, and the sets that day were big, late-winter swells and since Asilomar was a little choppy I drove around to Spanish Bay and I spotted some overhead peelers down over at South Moss breaking a couple hundred yards off shore. It was funny to me then, and still is to me now how thin the line-up gets when the waves go overhead. I paddled out into a rip current left of the break and didn’t take a single wave on the head. Then I worked my way into the lane and watched some massive swells square up out on the horizon.
When the first wave got to me the it broke and I ducked under it with my newer Surf Prescriptions board and it closed out. The second wave crested up and I turned and looked down the steep face and lost my nerve at the near ten-foot height. A third wave swelled just beyond me and I saw the shoulder peel right so I turned toward the shore and paddled and I rose with the peeling white-water and felt the wave catch me and the board start to plane and I angled it right, into the open face and I felt light and spry. I was down to 185 pounds (from 230 lbs) and I felt like yelling a victory cry.
It had only taken me four months with keto and surfing combined to lose the extra forty pounds, and from the saltwater and sun my hair has taken on the trademark bronze/blond hue that many surfers get. But most importantly, my heart began to beat like a goddamn metronome in my chest with almost zero arrhythmia, and I owe that all to surfing, and to the sea. And I feel like I am now permanently linked to it, and not just because of my EKG/wave tattoo I got in Kauai in February—surfing and the ocean have become a home where I find peace, and solace, and endless fun and energy and challenges. And sometimes, especially when I’m surfing, I think about myself that morning heading to the emergency room, and I wonder if that me would be proud of the now me. I don’t know, they’ll never meet, but what I do know is that after six months, my doctor had cleared me on all previous medical concerns. My blood pressure was normal, my cholesterol in the green, my triglycerides perfect, glucose-perfect, gout was gone and when I told him it was Keto and Surfing he just grinned and said, “It doesn’t work for everyone, but you just keep on doing what your doing.” Two years later, it’s still working for me.
The takeoff on that heavy wave at South Moss was smooth and I stood right away and felt the rush as I planed straight down the face of the wave and made the turn right to stay in the shoulder. I made a few slow S turns on the 6’6” step-up and after a good long ride, the wave closed-out and I fell to my belly to ride the white-water in. It felt good. When I got to the shore and walked to my car a small group of surfers who’d been chatting since I paddled out stopped me and said, “We came in because it was so rough out there.” And I nodded and smiled because I’d been out there, and I’d surfed those waves. Those dangerous waves that continue, to this day, to save me. My real danger remains inside of me, my capacity for self-destruction. The ocean, the waves, it’s my home, now. I wouldn’t be here today without the sea.
David M. Olsen grew up on a small and largely unprofitable farm in California's San Joaquin Valley. He is a writer, photographer, filmmaker, and poet. He is an alumnus of Stanford’s OWC program in novel writing and holds an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from UCR-Palm Desert.
He is at work on a collection of linked short stories, a novel, and a book of poetry. David is a former fiction editor at The Coachella Review and is currently editor-in-chief at Kelp Journal. His work has appeared in The Rumpus, Scheherazade, The Coachella Review, and elsewhere. He resides on California's central coast where he surfs daily.