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Why surfing legend Maz Quinn is lucky to be alive

After a devastating accident, the champion is back on his board again
Pictures: Zoe Harata

Maz Quinn has a great view of the surf from his Gisborne home and despite the pain from his accident, most days makes the short trek to his local beach to get on his board. It’s a routine he’s had for decades. However, since the life-changing accident last year, it’s now not one he takes for granted.

The 47-year-old Kiwi surfing legend and reality TV star was enjoying a winter surf about 300m off shore at Māhia last June, when a powerful wave picked him up and dropped him onto a rocky ledge, straight onto his back and torso. As soon as it happened, Maz knew he was in trouble.

The accident

“When I hit the bottom, I instantly felt a massive bang on my back,” the former Dancing With The Stars and Celebrity Treasure Island contestant recalls. “I popped up out of the water and the pain was so intense, I knew I had done something bad. I took a couple of waves in the head and managed to get hold of my board.”

There were a handful of other surfers in the water at the beach, but no one saw what happened.

“I crawled onto my board and realised I couldn’t do anything with my right side,” he tells. “I managed to half paddle and half get washed back to the beach. When I got there, I tried to walk but couldn’t stand up and the pain was getting worse.”

Maz’s partner Ngahuia Leighton, 32, and their then-nine-week-old son Freddy were waiting for him in the beach carpark and had no idea about his predicament.

“It was a glary day and when I looked towards where Maz was surfing, I couldn’t really see anything,” Ngahuia remembers.

A bank on the beach was also blocking her view. On the other side, Maz spent an agonising 20 minutes crawling to get to the top to try to raise the alarm.

He tells, “I couldn’t move my right arm or leg, but I finally got over it and sunk into some longish grass. Luckily, a guy named Pat was checking the surf and saw me. He came running over to ask, ‘Are you all right?’ and I said, ‘Not really!’”

Seeking help

Pat ran up to the carpark to get help and let Ngahuia know what was happening.

She says, “I saw a young guy coming towards me with Maz’s board and my heart dropped. I got in a bit of panic and thought he might be missing or drowned.

“I said, ‘Has something happened?’ and Pat replied, ‘It’s Maz and he’s looking for you.’ When I got to the beach, Maz didn’t look good, but I was so relieved he was there and talking to me.”

In a stroke of luck, an off-duty paramedic was in the carpark and her partner was the ambulance driver on duty at Māhia. Medical help arrived quickly and a rescue helicopter was called to take him on a 20-minute flight to Gisborne Hospital due to a suspected broken pelvis.

There was no room for Ngahuia and Freddy in the chopper, so she packed the little one into the car and started the long, stressful drive back to Gisborne.

She tells, “It was only a few months after Cyclone Gabrielle and the roads were still really bad. I just concentrated really hard on driving and trying not to cry. I had to stop to feed and change Freddy along the way, with no cellphone coverage and no idea what was happening with Maz.”

The diagnoses

Maz Quinn sitting on a piece of driftwood on a beach beside his surf board and wetsuit
Ready to catch the next wave: “I still push myself to be the best I can be,” says Maz.

Tests revealed Maz had broken four ribs and multiple transverse processes, the small bones at the base of the spine. He also suffered a torn rotator cuff in his shoulder.

“I knew people who had been out of the water for a year following a broken pelvis, so it was such a relief to know mine was OK,” admits Maz.

A night in ICU, followed by just over a week in hospital, gave Maz plenty of time to reflect on how much worse things could have been – he could’ve been paralysed or killed.

“If I had landed on my head or spine, the outcome wouldn’t have been good. I knew I was also lucky to receive medical attention at the beach so quickly, get the ride with Eastland Helicopter Rescue Trust and have such great care at Gisborne Hospital.”

Recovery

The Māhia surf has a reputation as a world-class but dangerous break. Maz has surfed there for over 20 years almost without incident.

“I’ve been pretty lucky considering how long I’ve surfed,” he marvels. “This accident is by far the worst I’ve experienced in my career.”

Maz arrived home from hospital with a walker and loads of pain medication, but he managed to ditch both within a couple of weeks. He did everything he could to heal his bones naturally, eating healthily, drinking bone broth and having infrared saunas.

With a small baby and an incapacitated partner, Ngahuia, who was on parental leave from her job in infrastructure, says the support of the couple’s local community was invaluable during Maz’s slow recovery.

“The meals had started arriving after Freddy was born and continued after Maz’s accident,” she smiles. “People took turns making us these amazing dinners. We were so spoilt.”

Maz says one of the most frustrating aspects of his recovery was watching from the sidelines as Gisborne had its best run of July waves in years. He was also unable to lift Freddy during those first few weeks, but he enjoyed lying beside him on the couch.

As Maz’s strength slowly returned, he started walking longer and longer distances, and eventually returned to CrossFit training in anticipation of getting back in the water.

Back on the water

Maz Quinn surfing on a wave at least triple his height before his accident
Maz competing in France back in 2005.

Five months after his accident, Maz was finally back in the sea, paddling on a beginner’s Malibu board until he felt his shoulder was strong enough for a proper surf.

“It was strange at first and I was a bit sore, but things quickly got better and better with each surf. I’m feeling super-strong and fit again now, and it’s great to be back at my usual level. Although I don’t compete any more, I still push myself to be the best I can be.”

A four-time national champion, Maz grew up on the waves in Gisborne, where the Quinn family are surfing royalty – his sister Holly and brother Jay are also national champs. He retired in 2009 after an impressive international career, which saw him become the first Kiwi to ever win an event in the World Surf League Series. In 2001, he became the first New Zealander to qualify for surfing’s World Championship Tour.

He and Ngahuia are now happily back in their usual routine, with Maz a stay-at-home dad and landlord, while his wife works mostly from home, apart from a couple of trips to Auckland each month. They love both being there for Freddy, who recently turned one. Maz also has an older son, Cooper, 14, who visits regularly during the holidays.

Maz says “anything can happen at any stage” in surfing and his accident is a reminder of the importance of everyone looking out for each other on the water. “Accidents are one of those things,” he says. “You just have to get up, get over it and get back out there!”

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