Riding the wave of grief

Published Aug 2, 2011


Baby boomers among us will remember Shaun Tomson well. He was the sexy, sun-kissed surfing champion who fearlessly took on the world’s biggest supertubes, landing him six consecutive Gunston 500 victories and the coveted IPS World Championship title in 1977, the high point of his 14 years as a travelling professional surfer.

Hailed as one of the greatest surfers of all time, he’s also credited with pioneering professional surfing and the multi-billion dollar industry it is today. But we’ve heard little about him over the past three decades, largely because since the late 1970s he’s been living in California in the US with his wife, Carla.

A tragedy brought the Tomson legend back into public view in 1996, when his 15-year-old son, Mathew, died accidentally while playing the “choking game”.

Mathew had been studying at Tomson’s alma mater, Clifton College in KwaZulu-Natal, and the news of his death came via a hysterical Carla to her husband’s cellphone in Montecito, California, where he’d just finished a magazine shoot.

Fifteen years later, 56-year-old Shaun Tomson is again top-of-mind, this time with a multimedia talk about his path to healing, The Light Shines Ahead, which he is presenting in Joburg on August 3. In it, Tomson shares the lessons learned both in and out of the surf and how he found the strength to come back from the loss of his son. It is ideal for family members coping with grief and individuals who feel they’re up against insurmountable obstacles.

In an interview, Tomson revealed that the pain of his and Carla’s loss will never leave them, even though they have since adopted two-year-old Luke. “You never come to terms with it. You just learn to live with it,” he says.

His poignantly written account of events following the tragedy is published in the final chapter of Tomson’s bestselling book, Surfer’s Code: 12 Simple Lessons For Riding Through Life (2006).

“Life was great for the Tomson family in 2006,” he writes. “Carla and I had recently sold our apparel business, Solitude, which we’d started in 1998, to Oxford Industries, a billion-dollar company traded on the New York Stock Exchange. They’d funded a stylish new design studio for us near our home in Montecito and put us on a three-year contract.

“Mathew, 15 at the time, was having a tough go academically at the local high school. We decided a semester at my old private school, Clifton, in South Africa, would be a great way for him to get his grades up and reconnect with our homeland. The original plan was for Carla to go down there with him. I’d join them before he finished out the semester, and then we’d all return home together.

“Within a month, Mathew was doing great, excelling at my old school… and he was thriving in the structured post-apartheid environment.”

On the day of Mathew’s death, Tomson called his wife in South Africa and Mathew picked up the phone.

“It felt like he was sitting right next to me,” Tomson recounts. “He was happy and excited, told me he was playing his first rugby game the next day.”

Mathew then read his father his own poem, ending with the inspirational line for his talk, ‘the light shines ahead’, and before handing over the phone to Carla, said: “I love you, Dada.’’

Later, when Carla called, she was “screaming, sobbing: ‘Mathew is dead.’ Time stopped. Dead? I must have misheard. How was that possible? I’d just been speaking to Mathew. He never sounded happier. It was like I was watching someone else’s life disintegrate before my eyes, someone else experiencing unbearable pain. I couldn’t process the information. This couldn’t be happening. How could I live without my son?” Tomson wrote.

In our interview, Tomson recalled that he didn’t think his wife would make it, as she had been hospitalised by the time he landed in South Africa and had “lost the will to live”. But time, and love from family and friends, helped them to recover from “those depths where it’s easy to close your eyes and attempt to block out the nightmare”.

“You learn that love is the most important thing in your life, that life is not about numbers – about the bank balance or sales revenues. It’s about friends and connections and family.”

On August 25 2009, the Tomsons, who’d been trying to adopt a baby, received a call that would again changed their lives dramatically. Tomson recalls the day in his book.

“Under California law, a birth mother may pick the parents for her child and this particular mother was already considering a number of families. The baby had been born a month premature. Its original due date? September 25. Mathew’s birthday. ‘This is a sign from God,’ Carla told me. ‘This is our baby.’ “

As we chat, Tomson, still wet from the Durban surf, recalls how he could not face returning to the waves after his son’s death.

“A friend finally persuaded me and took me to a break I’d never surfed before. It was just the two of us in the water on a beautiful day. I paddled out, and I cried and cried. I finally took a wave, and that ride started my path to healing,” he says.

Though he is still based in California, Tomson is hoping to spend a lot more time in South Africa. “I’m busy trying to arrange that we spend a few months a year here. After my talk on August 3, we’ll be staying on for a month. I will always love Durban, though it holds many bittersweet memories,” he says. - The Star


An evening with Shaun Tomson, The Light Shines Ahead, is at 6pm on Wednesday, August 3, in the Maroela Room at Sandton Sun. Exclusive Books will be selling copies of Surfer’s Code. Tickets are R500 per person, but discounts of 10-20 percent are available for group bookings. All proceeds will go to the charities Cotlands and i care. Buy tickets online at www.shauntomson.co.za

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