Keeping Jeff Clark off of a surfboard is like trying to keep a fish out of water. But for six months, the 53-year-old world-class big wave surfer from Half Moon Bay, Calif., diligently followed doctor's orders as he was sidelined from his passion. Clark knew that it was his only shot at getting back up on his board pain-free for the first time in three years.
On April 28, 2009, Clark opted for "hip surfacing" surgery at UCSF Medical Center instead of traditional hip replacement. Clark, who suffered from a degenerative hip joint, chose the hip resurfacing technique since it's less invasive and preserves the bone in the femur in case reconstruction is needed down the road.
Plus, Clark was the ideal candidate for the procedure.
Dr. Thomas Park Vail, chair of UCSF's Orthopedic Sugery, one of only a handful of doctors in the country who performs hip resurfacing surgery says that typical hip resurfacing patients are in their 40s and 50s and active — avid golfers and cyclists. In Clark's case, a surfer who has a habit of riding six-story swells.
Clark is considered one of the best big-wave surfers in the world and an early pioneer of surfing Mavericks, the famous surfing spot just north of Half Moon Bay known for its frigid waters, jagged rocks and at certain times of year, waves that can crest 60-feet high. If the conditions are right, an annual invitation-only Mavericks surfing contest that Clark founded is held every winter.
Although Clark's wipeout rate is only 2 percent, 35 years of surfing Mavericks has taken a toll on his body. Working as a carpenter, shaping surf boards along with his many hobbies — from snow boarding and skiing to riding motorcycles and wind surfing only further contribute to the battering of his body.
Many of Clark's friends who suffer similar hip and knee pain from years of surfing, are so fearful of surgery that they've given up the sport. "I have a friend I went to high school with and his knees are shot," says Clark. "He won't have surgery and now he doesn't surf anymore. He said, 'I've ridden enough waves.' And I said, 'What? Dude, you've got to get this done.' It's just not in my nature to think this way, but some people are scared or lazy. I just don't get how they can resign themselves to their lot. It boggles my mind."
Surgery went well for Clark and just a few hours afterwards, the surfer was up and walking. He was vigilant about following his physical therapy routine. His son, Kevin, is a personal trainer and worked with Clark on a prescribed physical therapy routine that included resistance bands, weights and spinning.
Clark, who also owns Mavericks Surf Shop at Princeton-by-the-Sea near Half Moon Bay and designs and sells custom made boards, says even though surgery can be expensive with insurance co-payments and deductibles, he considers it an investment.
"I look at it like saving up to buy a car," explains Clark. "If you're driving around a clunker, take the time to invest in something better. If you're driving on bald tires, you'll have a blow out and it will put you out. Invest six months in yourself (for surgery and rehabilitation), and you'll see it's worth it to be pain-free and running around like you did 20 years ago."
Even though Clark was told by Vail to stay off his board for three months after surgery, it's no surprise that six weeks after his surgery, Clark took his first taste of salt water in the form of some low-key paddle boarding. But he took baby steps to get to that point. In the hours and days following surgery, he was walking slowly and carefully climbing stairs, but shared his caution on his blog "Rebuild Jeff Clark", "One wrong move and it's curtains, Batman."
For Clark, hip resurfacing surgery was not only a solution to his chronic pain it was a second chance to get back to surfing at his peak performance level — and is he ever back. In November 2009, Clark was on his board surfing Mavericks pain-free.
"That was my first big wave test, and I would have to say that it felt great," he said. "I'm also getting a full range of motion that I thought was long gone."
He now surfs every day that there are waves, and when the water is calm he golfs. Never one to sit still, Clark has latched on to his rehab sport of paddle boarding and taken it to the next level — paddle boarding in big waves. He says it is an excellent workout and the paddle gives him more speed for catching a big one.
Using himself as an example, Clark hopes to help inspire surfers and other folks who have lived in hip pain — through his blog and a forthcoming documentary — that you don't have to limit yourself to a life of suffering. He says he gets several emails a week from people around the world asking him about his surgery and recovery.
"If you are living with pain and want to (and can) lose it," Clark writes on his blog, "take a chance to catch the wave of medical technology that can let you live your dream 'til the day you ride your last wave. Life is opportunity, if you are open to it. I am going until there is nothing left in the tank."
Julie Beer is a freelance writer in Santa Rosa.