Meet Garrett McNamara — Record-Breaking Pro Surfer Who Rode Tsunami Wave And Lived To Tell About It

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Who Is Garrett McNamara? New Details On The Record Breaking Pro Surfer Who Rode Tsunami Wave

Most people will never know what it feels like to surf the largest waves in the world. But Garrett McNamara has done it and has even captured the experience on video for the world to see. This weekend, he talked to Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes to discuss his surfing career and the experience of riding the biggest waves in the world.

Who is Garrett McNamara? Read on for all the details. 

1. Years of turmoil

When Garrett was young, his mother was constantly on the move, following different gurus and cult leaders up and down the continents of North and South America, according to a profile in Smithsonian magazine. At one point, she joined a sect led by a man who called himself Jesus Christ Lightning Amen and burned all their money and possessions. Left only with bedsheets, Garrett and his brother Liam wrapped themselves in them like robes, despite the makeshift clothes causing them humiliation at school. He spent some years living with his birth father before his mother returned to their lives with some new scheme. When he was about 10, his mother decided to take the boys to Hawaii, a move that changed his life. He describes those early years, saying: “Yes, it was bad. But I want to give my mother credit for bringing me to Hawaii, and liberating me — against the odds,” he says. “I could have copped out and said, ‘That’s who I am.’ But I chose not to become a victim. I just kept going forward, looking for happiness. I was very ambitious to find security because there was never anything secure in my life.”

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2. Scared of big waves

Garrett had taken up skateboarding when he lived in California but he didn't have any experience surfing when he got to Hawaii. He was able to ride small waves pretty easily since the skills from skateboarding translated to surfing but he was afraid of the bigger waves. Anything over six feet tall scared him, reports Smithsonian. Then he happened to meet Peruvian surfer, Gustavo Labarthe, who loaned him a surfboard and gave him advice on how to be a better surfer and his love of big waves was born. From there, he got local surf shops to sponsor him and he started competing, first in Hawaii, then all over the world. Now his bio on his website says "Garrett McNamara is an international big wave explorer known for discovering and pioneering the biggest wave in the world at Nazaré, Portugal. He is the 8-times Guinness World Record holder for the largest wave ever surfed, part of the only team to have ever surfed waves generated by a 300ft calving glacier in Alaska, and the only foreigner to receive the Vasco de Gama Medal of Honor from the Portuguese Navy for his contribution to Portugal."

McNamara surfing in Bali.

3. Nazaré

Nazaré is a small town on the coast of Portugal. The ocean there is one of the most dangerous in the world, due to a massive underwater canyon that causes waves the size of buildings. Smithsonian magazine says that the canyon is over three miles deep, starting near the shore and widening west for about 140 miles It is only half the length of the Grand Canyon but almost three times deeper. As a result of the canyon, waves form that are bigger than nearly anywhere else on earth. In winter, the waves can top 100 feet, the size of a nine-story building. The fishing industry in the town has slowed, due to danger and other factors but a man named Dino Casimiro had heard of Garrett McNamara and his quest to ride the biggest waves in the world. He invited the surfer to come to try surfing the giant waves of Nazaré and, after several years of waiting, it finally happened. 

4. A 78-foot wave

In 2011, McNamara headed to Nazaré to try surfing the gigantic waves. He had a friend tow him into the curl of a wave that measures 78 feet — the largest waves ever surfed at the time. In an interview with Anderson Cooper this weekend, he said: "I didn't realize it was that big of a wave until it came down from above and just boom right on my shoulders and it almost squashed me. I almost collapsed." Cooper asked him to elaborate and he said: "A lot of us have snowboarded or skied. Just imagine going as fast as you go down a mountain and then imagine hitting some ice, maybe some moguls. And then imagine an avalanche coming down after you. Then imagine not trying to run away from it, trying to stay as close as possible to it the whole time. And have it chasing you and now the mountain's moving and — and not just the avalanche, but the whole mountain is moving. That's what it's like riding these giant waves."

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5. A nearly catastrophic injury

McNamara thought his surfing career might be coming to an end in 2016 when he shattered bones in his arms and shoulder. He told Cooper about a wave hitting him and breaking the bones in his upper arms, saying "The humerus head shattered in nine pieces and broke the shaft off the head, where it lodged itself in my pec." Doctors told him he might never surf again and they had to reconstruct his shoulder with metal plates and nine screws. He endured months of rehab after the surgery and ultimately came back to the sport he loves.

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A still shot of McNamara surfing a huge wave.

6. A more relaxed approach

After the forced time off, McNamara doesn't feel as driven to chase the biggest waves anymore. He told Cooper it was like getting a monkey off this back. " I used to have to ride every single swell everywhere in the world if I had the ability to get there, or I was on suicide watch," he said. "And now, the monkey jumped off. I can — I can be sittin' at home in Hawaii and see the biggest swell of the year coming here and be so happy and just say, "No, I'm happy right here."

McNamara and his wife Nicole live in Hawaii with their children. In 2017, Brazilian surfer Rodrigo Koxa surfed a wave off Nazare that was measured at 80 feet high, beating McNamara's record by two feet. McNamara says he is nothing but happy for Koxa. 

Rebekah Kuschmider has been writing about celebrities, pop culture, entertainment, and politics since 2010. Her work has been seen at Ravishly, Babble, Scary Mommy, The Mid, Redbook online, and The Broad Side. She is the creator of the blog Stay at Home Pundit and she is a cohost of the weekly podcast The More Perfect Union.