Austin Sonnier (12) wrenched open his eyes, blinked away whirlpools of salt water, and paddled with one arm away from the towering waves. He washed up on the shore with an injured shoulder and a hyperextended neck, in the midst of a crowd of concerned yet eager photographers.
“I’m crawling, my shoulder’s paralyzed, because underwater [the wave] hit me so hard in the head that for about five seconds, I blacked out and was stunned,” Sonnier said. “I couldn’t move my body.”
On May 3, Sonnier and some friends went to the Wedge, a popular surfing spot in Newport Beach, to surf waves reaching up to 25-30 feet — a rare occurrence in California. Sonnier went expecting little more than a good time with his friends.
Yet as Sonnier cruised at the bottom of a wave during his last ride of the day, the rail of his surfboard dug into the water and catapulted him forward, and his face hit the water. On impact, Sonnier’s shoulder popped out of its socket, and another crashing wave broke over his head, hyperextending his neck and giving him whiplash. According to Sonnier, what saved him from drowning were his ability to hold his breath, some quick thinking and luck.
“There’s really gnarly rip currents that sweep you into the jetty, so at that point [I was] facing a choice,” Sonnier said. “[Either] risk getting swept up into the jetty, or try to ride … a 20-foot wave that’s breaking on the shore. So, I take the wave and get another wipeout, but I get washed up to the sand and barely stumble up.”
According to Sonnier, there were 200-300 people on the beach watching the surfers, as well as a phalanx of news trucks and photographers.
“When I was walking up the shore, I got approached by five or 10 photographers with their business cards,” Sonnier said. “[They were] saying, ‘Hey, that was nuts; we’re going to send this into Surfline, Surfer Magazine, the local newspaper,’ and they weren’t lying.”
By May 7, four days after the event, a photograph taken of Sonnier at the Wedge had received 23,000 visits on Surfline, a widely known news website in the surfing community. At the time the Falconer went to press, the photo had garnered more than 62,000 visits.
“I’ve had a couple other publications … but international publication was exhilarating,” Sonnier said. “I just go charge the Wedge with my friends, and literally, international posts everywhere.”
A nationally-ranked surfer, Sonnier has competed in surfing competitions and series since middle school, including with the Western Surfing Association, the National Scholastic Surfing Association and the Scholastic Surfing Association. However, not long before his wipeout at the Wedge, Sonnier began shifting away from competitive surf to focus on free surfing, get some “big waves” under his belt and “start making a name for [himself] in the surfing world.”
“Just three months of me hanging out with my friends, just trying to surf for myself and not for contests, and I landed on the front page of the biggest surfing website in the world,” Sonnier said. “It feels surreal. It can all change in the blink of an eye.”
To Sonnier, who has been surfing since he was 5 years old, the constant unpredictability and individuality of the sport is what makes it so enjoyable.
“There’s so many variables, so every wave is different,” Sonnier said. “It’s just you and the ocean. There’s no other sport like it, where you’re just completely encumbered by natural elements.”
Sonnier’s experience at the Wedge not only amplified his reputation as a surfer but also humbled him with the close encounter with serious injury and possible death.
“So, I was like, ‘Okay, Austin, you’re a good surfer, but the ocean is still always in control,’” Sonnier said. “‘It still always dominates. Don’t get too carried away; you can always improve.’”
After graduating, Sonnier will surf for the University of California, Santa Barbara’s surf team. His passion for the sport is nearly impossible to curb; once he washed up on the sand after the wipeout, Sonnier simply shook off his injuries, gathered his equipment and reset his mind for another day of surfing.