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Pro surfer Courtney Conlogue aims to inspire with 32-mile paddle after brain injury



Courtney Conlogue couldn’t shake the sea sickness – and that’s not something a professional surfer who has spent her life in the ocean wants to feel.

Conlogue had suffered a major concussion months earlier, in October, during competition in Portugal.  Her head, she thinks, hit the hard sand or was hit by her surfboard, which broke in two pieces when it slammed onto her back as she tumbled underwater.

She’s no stranger to the injuries – mental and physical – that can come from being a professional athlete and the long healing process it takes to mend. But that rattling fall in Portugal was her third concussion of the season and it landed her on dry land for several months.

She’s used the time since for a recovery like none she’s had to endure before.

But the Santa Ana surfer also knows there’s no better way to heal than to give herself a challenge while inspiring and helping others along the way, so she’ll hit the water for a grueling 32-mile fundraising paddle on Aug. 29, even if the sea still makes her queasy at times.

“It’s just crazy times. I’m trying to give people some levity and inspiration during such a tough time,” she said. “You can turn anything into a positive.”

Seasick surfer

Conlogue is a well-known figure in the surf world and beyond, one of the best to emerge from Orange County and an athlete among the ranks of the world’s top females on the World Surf League’s World Tour.

She’s had many successes through the years, including two wins at the prestigious U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach, where she grew up as a youngster training on waves next to the Huntington Beach Pier. Last year, she earned a coveted spot on the Surfing Walk of Fame.

Conlogue has several times been close to the elusive world title, but injuries through the years have sidelined championship attempts, including an ankle injury in 2004 and an broken foot two years ago, both requiring her to rehab for months.

But last year’s battering was different. It wasn’t her body that was beat up, this time it was her brain, bruised by back-to-back concussions, the last one in Portugal so severe she lost track of what was happening in her heat – the points, the time, the wave count – something that simply doesn’t happen to a veteran professional surfer on tour for about a decade.

When she returned home, Conlogue couldn’t do simple things like tell the time, remember a page of a book or tolerate bright lights. She knew it was really bad when she paddled out at her go-to surf spot, the Huntington Pier, and felt seasick just minutes after getting in the water.

“I literally couldn’t float in the ocean, which for me, the ocean is my everything,” she said. “I didn’t go back in the ocean for three months. I went to the beach a few times to smell the salt air and enjoy it, and I watched the waves.”

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit. Beaches were closed. The pro tour was cancelled, meaning she couldn’t even try to compete, something she’s done pretty much her entire life.

So she used the down time to work on “rewiring” her brain, going to rehab and doing mental exercises, treating it like she had her other injuries through the years – rebuilding slowly and patiently.

It was during a lunch outing with her mom shortly after the virus shutdowns that she saw something that shook her: a long line in Santa Ana wrapping around the block – people impacted by the coronavirus pandemic who were waiting for food.

“We followed the line to a food bank,” she said, thinking: “This is gnarly … I need to do something. I don’t know what, but I’m going to think of something and I’m going to do what I can for these individuals.”

That’s when she came up with the idea to paddle across the ocean from Catalina to Huntington Beach as a fundraiser.

“People need help right now. We’re all in a scary, vulnerable place, but something that helps heal is giving and helping others who are in dire need right now and lending a hand,” she said. “Even if it’s the smallest thing, it makes a difference.”

So she’ll go to her favorite place, the ocean, hoping for calm seas for the long, grueling trek.

“I just put one arm in front of the other and I’m just doing what I can to help.”

Paddle for purpose

When she hits the water for her paddle on Aug.  29, Conlogue will be raising money for two charities.

The first is Feeding America, inspired by that line of people she saw. The second idea came from the school shutdowns and children struggling being outside of classrooms. So she’s also raising money for A Better Chance, or ABC, an educational program she and her siblings went through in high school that helped guide her to where she is today.

“For me and my family, education has been a huge thing for leadership, pioneering, evolution, for children and the importance of learning and knowledge,” she said. “The next generations are the individuals who will be the leaders of tomorrow, and the movers of tomorrow and the people who keep our planet a beautiful place. They are children now, but they are our future.”

For months, she’s been training at the Huntington Beach Pier, not with the surfboard she’s so accustom to but with a large paddle board. She knows there’s the physical challenge of crossing the Catalina Channel, but also understands there’s a mental hurdle that comes with finishing such a feat, one that will also help with her recovery.

“How do I come back stronger and better and more resilient to where I’m better for it?” she said she wondered after her injury.

Her brother, Ryan, became her training partner and decided he too will make the long trek alongside his sister to show his support, along with another friend, Landon Holman. Support boats will follow the paddlers to the finish line at the sand by the Huntington Beach Pier.

Conlogue said she hopes her efforts will help inspire others, whether they are grappling with the coronavirus or challenged by other issues.

“What I’m doing through my paddling is giving people a way to give, a way to help and a way to slowly change things and make them better through action,” she said.  “There’s a lot of power in that, in actually doing and creating change.”

Source: Orange County Register

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