How Harley Taich Beat A Bad Concussion

Meet her new book, Heads Up.

“I can’t remember a lot about that day, but there’s one thing I’ll never forget. The feeling of sand in my sinuses, dripping in the back of my throat. The feeling of throwing up the whole beach.”

Harley Taich had it all. Her father, Jeff, is a successful real estate agent with all the free time in the world for his daughter. They have a crib looking over all of La Jolla’s majesty, a key to the Blacks gate, respect from the Pump House Gang of Windansea and so much more. The father-daughter duo traversed California, racking up NSSA trophies at every stop on the way. And she has the look.

Harley has a piercing smile and the genetic make up of an Israeli queen. Sponsors flocked to her talent and beauty, buzzing like moths to an iridescent flame. Harley was going to be a roadster, touring the world on the surf industry’s tab. But then she vanished. Gone like a shadow in a foggy dream.

Some stars shine bright and burn out into normalcy, happy to have enjoyed their time in the sky. But Harley’s life didn’t go like that. She would ponder every one of her former blessing as she stared nauseously at her bedroom ceiling for a year, asking God in the stucco stars, “Why me?”

One day, she found the answer. Now it’s time to tell her story. —Jake Tellkamp

Take me through the day of the accident.
There was a contest at Point Mugu and I took a red-eye in from Tahiti the night before. I won a couple heats and made it to the final. The tide was pretty low and the beach was super sloped, and a perfect day had turned cold and gloomy. I don’t remember much from that day, but I do remember going to do a turn on a big section, looking down into the flats and seeing that there wasn’t any water to cushion the landing. I went down headfirst with the lip awkwardly. I remember trying to paddle back out and feeling like sand was coming from my brain. I kept blowing it out of my nostrils and puking it out and it wouldn’t stop.

What’s it like to recover from a traumatic brain injury?
I had to spend eighteen months in bed with a Stage 3 concussion. I felt OK laying down but got nauseas every time I stood up. I couldn’t even make a bowl of cereal. I would have migraines for 15 days at a time. I was on painkillers but nothing worked, I couldn’t break the cycle of migraines. Whenever I picked up a book, I would have no idea what I was reading by the time I got to the bottom of a paragraph. I was combative, impulsive, and would cry for no reason. I had sensitivity to light and noise, I couldn’t listen to music. I was miserable and confused.

What was the hardest part?
I had to stop surfing for a year. My doctor told me “Harley, I’m not telling you this as a doctor to a patient. I’m telling you this as if you were my own daughter. Next time you come into this hospital, you are going to have a brain bleed. If you keep surfing, you are going to die.” I was shellshocked stupid.

But now you’re able to surf again. How were you able to get to this point?
Rest. I didn’t have a job for a year, and I didn’t go to my junior or senior year of high school. I didn’t do a single thing for a year. I didn’t do anything but rest.

You just published a children’s book for kids going through head injuries. What’s the message of the book?
My book, Heads Up, is a story about brothers named Fin and Reef, who are groms from Windansea. Fin gets hurt after going head first into the rocks while surfing and the book is about his recovery.

The main message is that a concussion is an injury that your friends and family can’t see, so they aren’t going to understand why you aren’t better yet. You have to realize how important rest is for the brain to heal. By the end of Heads Up, Fin learns patience, acceptance, and the power of positivity.

And that’s what you learned firsthand.
It took four years to finally accept what had happened. While my dream to be a professional surfer was crushed, I have found a deeper and more gratifying love in helping kids get through traumatic experiences.