Big-wave pro surfer Shawn Dollar is thankful he’s alive. A turbulent collision with a car-size boulder broke his neck in four places while he was surfing Monday off California’s central coast.
“I heard the breaks in my neck, and I immediately wasn’t sure if I was paralyzed,” Dollar, 34, told PEOPLE exclusively from his hospital bed, where he is now fitted with a neck brace and facing months of recovery and rehab.
The injury immediately drained his arms and legs of feeling. “I knew I had lost a lot of mobility, and the scary part of that was I couldn’t get washed back to the beach,” he says of the swirling surf. “I was surrounded by lots of rocks and an extremely dangerous situation where, really, the only way to escape was back through the waves.”
“I had to muster up all the strength I could to survive,” he says. “It was terrifying.”
Adding to the drama: Due to the remote site, after Dollar reached the shore with head trauma and a concussion, he had to rely on help to walk about a mile through ravines and up switchback trails to reach his car atop a cliff, says surfing buddy Griffin Guess, who drove Dollar to the hospital.
“It was certainly a group effort to get him prepared to move,” says Guess. “With all the support we had, he still had to do it himself. It’s a miracle he didn’t get paralyzed on the way up. He is lucky to be alive.”
Dollar, who holds the Guinness World Record for the largest wave ever paddled into, remains in Dominican Hospital in Santa Cruz, California, in stable condition after hospital X-rays revealed four fractures in his neck.
But Dollar is optimistic that he will fully recover. “Hopefully, in two months, I’ll be able to take my [neck] collar off and begin real rehabilitation,” he says.
“Luckily the break isn’t structural. I didn’t damage my spinal column,” he says. “I have to remain really still. I have to keep my movement down to a minimum so that I don’t injure myself to a point where I’m paralyzed. It’s still a very delicate situation.”
“He Is Still Alive”
Dollar’s wife Jenn, says: “This is going to be a tough and long recovery. It is not going to be easy, but we can get through this. He is here, he is still alive and will have full mobility again, that’s what counts. It’s amazing and such a miracle. We are so unbelievably fortunate.”
“He was so determined to get back to safety because he has a lot more he wants to do in this life. He said nothing was going to keep him from coming home to see his family,” she adds.
Jenn hopes the couple’s two children, son Kai, 4, and daughter Kaylee, 7 months, will help with the recovery process.
“I think the kids are going to have a big impact on his healing. He said he cannot wait to hold his baby girl again, and to play with his son,” she says.
Dollar’s friend Guess is the principal owner of Cartel Management, which runs the annual Titans of Mavericks big-wave surf contest in which Dollar competes. “He is one of the top guys in big-wave paddling,” Guess says. “If Shawn was a superhero, he’d be Captain America – nice to everyone, but a beast in the water.”
Guess says that he and Dollar were out together, paddling toward the same wave when the accident occurred. “He went in and I was looking for him, but I didn’t see him come back out,” says Guess. He briefly wondered if something was wrong, but says, “It was Shawn Dollar, and nothing goes wrong with Shawn Dollar.”
But for Dollar, that moment began what he called “my scariest and darkest hour.”
He was 30 to 40 feet from shore at the time. “It wasn’t related to surfing big, scary waves,” Dollar says. “This was really me just out surfing a spot. It’s a dangerous spot, but I was in a situation that I thought I could handle.”
He describes the environment as “large, relentless waves breaking right on top of rocks the size of cars.” After being slammed into one such boulder and breaking his neck, “I barely had the strength to move, let alone get on my board and paddle out and climb over rocks to shore. It was just like I was in a cauldron of rocks with waves breaking on me. With a broken neck, I was like, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to be able to get myself out of here.’ ”
How He Stayed Calm
“We train for situations like this; you try to manage your risk. But I also know that all you have is yourself, and the only way you’re going to get out of a situation like that is by staying calm.”
“There wasn’t really a way through the rocks, so I had to get back on my surfboard and paddle out through the waves,” Dollar says. After riding those waves back to the beach, “I was just in so much pain that I took some time to try to figure out: ‘What in my body is working? What movement do I have? What is the situation?’ ”
Says his friend Guess: “He had a fight-or-flight [instinct], and he fought, and he did it with calm confidence.”
The message that sends to Dollar’s fans, says Guess, is this: “If Shawn can do it, I can do it in my own life. You’ve got to believe in yourself.”
Says Dollar: “I feel really blessed to have that support around me. I’m really lucky.”