“Pipe Dreams – An interview with longtime Pipeline Contest Surf Doc, Leland Dao”
By Naja Enevold Olsen
Pipeline has long held a formidable reputation in the surfing world. Its picture-perfect, elliptical barrels belie the fearsome reality of the reef below. When Pacific groundswell detonates on the shores of Ehukai, the feats of surfing athleticism on display can be spellbinding, especially when the world’s elite rally to put on a show at events such as the Pipe Masters. Threading Pipe’s pristine tubes with success requires walking that fine line between triumph and disaster; a foot out of place, a hasty shift of weight to the rail, can determine whether a surfer emerges to glory or potentially meets their maker among coral crags and recesses below. Either way, behind the scenes, a talented team of health professionals are on hand to provide medical support to competitors.
The EASD’s Dr.Naja Enevold Olsen MD caught up recently with North Shore Family Medicine/General Practitioner and longtime Pipeline Contest Surfing Doctor, Dr.Leland Dao DO.
Q1: It seems as if things took off around 1997, after you met two of the then key players within the ASP and Triple Crown of Surfing, Bernie Baker and Randy Rarick. Tell us more about how you came to be involved and why this kind of role appealed to you?
A: My work with professional surfing began after moving to Hawaii with a goal of practicing on the North Shore of Oahu. I had been accepted to the Family Practice Residency program at the University of Hawaii, and had met and treated several surfers already during my training. Upon completion in 1997, I started practicing with a medical group who opened an office for me in Haleiwa. The North Shore is a small community, everyone knows each other, so I approached Randy and Bernie about providing medical care at the events and they said ‘sure’. That year I also began covering the Triple Crown of Surfing. In addition, I was asked by then ASP CEO Graham Stapelberg to cover the Makaha World Longboard Championships. Back then the Greville Mitchell Surfing Foundation were a sponsor of the ASP, this included providing sponsorship for a physician and chiropractor at each WCT event. I have been involved with professional surfing ever since. To this day, I still love every moment working with the surfing community. I was lucky to have been invited to provide medical support at events in California, Australia, Japan, Europe, South Africa, and Tahiti. Obviously, it is not a full time job, but has been a great complementary adjunct to my medical practice here on the North Shore.
Q2: You have worked along side many different teams of water patrol/jet-ski rescue operators, lifeguards, and contest doctors at numerous events such as the Pipe Masters. Teamwork is a key component and you’ve worked with Dr.Clay Everline MD over the years, and more recently with Dr.Terry Farrell DO, both of which contribute to the EASD. What would you say are the attributes of a good Surf Doc?
A: I think the most important thing is to be readily available, and having an intimate understanding of the needs of the surfers and the surfing events. Over the years, we have developed a program which caters to the specific needs of surfing athletes, ranging from the professional level to amateur. Today, our event medical support and our Surfing Sports Med Program here on the North Shore is, I feel, one of the best.
Q3: Down through the years you have been involved as event doctor in many professional surfing contests. Is there a particular story/case/experience that left an impression on you? Something that has perhaps stuck with you?
A: I’ve got lots of stories, here are a few:
I think one of the most admirable traits about surfers is their passion and determination to be in the waves. I remember having to stitch up one competitor twice in one day! He had cut his leg, and ruptured his eardrum, but made it through his heat. He went out again, yet this time he hit his head and sustained a big gash to the forehead. Unfortunately, that was his last surf of the day.
During a recent Pipe Masters, the first day was huge 8-12 foot surf, we were all on edge watching nervously at these surf gladiators out there tackling these monster barrels. Suddenly, we were called down to the water’s edge to attend an injured competitor who had dislocated his shoulder. Fortunately, we were able to put the shoulder back in place right away on the beach (not an easy thing to do with a crowd glued to your every movement). A huge crowd had gathered on the beach to watched and live TV were broadcasting what was going on. Just as we had heard the clunk of his shoulder going back in, he asks us, “Is it in?”, I replied, “Yes it’s in!”. Next thing I know, he’s up and saying “Okay, I’m going back out”. We all just looked at each other in disbelief. Before we could say anything he’d started running back to the ocean, with the crowd cheering him on, television cameras rolling! Unfortunately, several minutes later he came back in, with (no surprises) the same shoulder dislocated.
I have been fortunate to have seen nearly all of the world championship titles crowned over the years, a few at Sunset Beach and most at Pipeline. It is always great to see the title race come down to the final event of the year. The Kelly Slater and Andy Irons showdowns were always the most epic battles of sheer talent and courage. The year the world title came down to AI and Kelly’s finals at the Pipe Masters was truly spectacular, an epic seesaw battle in the final heat of the year. To watch the crowning of the world championship in that fashion was a real treat to behold.
I remember the first year I went to Teahupoo the swell came up very quickly at the Tahiti Pro Trails. The event organizers were ready to send out the trialist into massive barreling waves. We waited in the channel until the mid-morning for Andy and Bruce Irons to arrive from the airport. A few guys had been catching waves here and there but when Bruce and Andy paddled into the line-up, it was a whole different show, they gave the most incredible big wave performance at Teahupoo that year. It was amazing to see the performance in person.
Q4: This year’s Billabong Pipe Masters was held in honour of former World Champion and Hawaiian pro-surfer, Andy Irons, who tragically passed away in 2010 at 32 years of age. What would you say has changed, if any changes are evident, in professional surfing in the wake of his tragic death?
A: I think if anything good can be said about the tragic early loss of Andy Irons it is that Professional surfing does do more testing of random and suspicious athletes under WADA guidelines. Pro Surfing is a relatively ‘clean’ sport, it is the responsibility of those of us who oversee the sport to keep it this way. Andy was one of the greatest competitors and performers in surfing history, we hope his early demise will be a reminder of what devastation both illicit and performance-enhancing drugs can potentially do to a person.
We just completed the Pipe Women’s and Jr Pro event last month, it is always great to see the women as well as the new school of young Junior surfers. Congrats to Keala Kennelly for coming out of retirement to win the Women’s event. Also, it’s a real treat to see the young guns really charging at the Jr Pro. This year the final was a real “nail biter”. Josh Moniz had a solid lead throughout, until Benji Brand caught a nice barrel to take the lead. Then, with less than 20 seconds left, Josh caught a very average left, and punted a massive backside air reverse 360 as the final horn sounded. This was exactly the manoeuvre Josh needed to clinch the win, and he did, what an absolute clutch performance! In my opinion, this type of surfing, with acrobatic, aerial manoeuvres on demand, is the most significant change to the sport of competitive surfing in recent years, and will carry performance surfing into the future.
Tune in next week to catch Part II of our interview with Hawaiian Surf Doc, Dr.Leland Dao.
Naja Enevold Olsen MD is a surfer and doctor living in Aarhus, Denmark. She is Deputy Editor | Contributor Articles | EASD Marketing and Communications Team and has recently represented her country at the International Surfing Association (ISA) World Surfing Games 2015 in Nicaragua.
Professional Medical Support Teams for Athletes
Increasing professionalism in surfing has widespread implications, not only for surfers, but also for the health professionals who look after these athletes at contest events. Dr.Leland Dao DO discusses this issue and highlights the key role played by medical support teams in the above clip.