All Photos: Corey Wilson
The first time we realize what we’ve dreamed about for so long, it’s generally a breathtaking experience. From Neil Armstrong’s first skip onto the moon to that first time your trembling pubescent hands touched a boob. Simply breathtaking. When SURFING photog Corey Wilson got the call to make his virgin mission to Teahupo’o — on the biggest southern hemi of the year, no less — his heart raced in anticipation of every surf photographer’s ultimate breathtaking experience. But if Corey wasn’t careful, his maiden Teahupo’o voyage could have turned breathtaking in a far more literal — and lethal — sense. As in suck you over falls and pin you to the reef like a squished bug until every last ounce of oxygen has been pummeled from your lungs. Fortunately for Corey, he came prepared. —Leo Maxam
SURFING: How did your first trip to Teahupo’o happen?
Corey Wilson: Owen [Wright] hit me up when we were in West Oz to go somewhere after the contest. Sure enough that huge south swell came up and he said, let’s go to Chopes. I had never been there before and I was so excited. I’ve been looking at sick photos of that wave forever.
Did you know for sure you were going to swim out there?
I knew I was going to be swimming and I knew it was going to be scary. But the cool thing was, when I was in Australia, I did a freediving and breath-holding course on the Gold Coast, because I knew I was going to get myself into something big after Oz and I knew I needed it.
What was the main thing you took away from the course?
Knowing how to breathe properly. And learning how to relax and get into a state of mind where you’re so relaxed that you feel like you can hold your breath forever.
How long did you get your breath holding up to after the class?
We didn’t measure how long we can hold our breath overall. We practiced exhaling all the breath out of our lungs first and then seeing how long you can go without a breath. And I got up to over a minute. That’s what I think about now when I get scared or a huge wave comes and I’m in a bad situation and go underwater. I say, OK, I can hold my breath for over a minute with no air in my lungs and my lungs are full of oxygen right now, so I can easily get through this.
What’s the key to going that long without a breath?
If you panic, you’re f–ked. I got caught inside on a big one and it was one of the scariest moments of my life. You see a 15-foot wave with a lip that’s 6 feet wide coming straight for you, and you’re already out of breath from scratching through the biggest set. What goes through your mind is, I’m f–king dead.
So how do you stay relaxed in a situation like that?
When you’re in Tahiti, a huge part of being relaxed is the beauty of the surroundings. So when I saw a huge set coming down on me and I was out of breath, I would turn around and look at the mountains and it’s the most amazing view and it would put me in a completely different state of mind. And that’s what helps slow my heart rate down.
Who impressed you on this swell?
Owen was surfing really well. Nathan Florence got some bombs. Jack Robinson is gnarly out there. Craig [Anderson] got the cleanest barrels out of everyone, I’d say. And the local Tahitian dudes were surfing really well. They get so excited when they get a good one.
How many guys were out swimming?
There were a couple guys with GoPros, but nobody was in toward the zone. It was on the verge of being too big to paddle but it wasn’t quite big enough to tow. There were a lot of people shooting from boats. But that was the one thing I didn’t want to do when I got there was get on a boat and shoot from the same angle as everyone else.
What did you learn from your first time that you’ll keep in mind for next time?
I just want to get more comfortable out there and do a few more trips there so I can get in closer. It’s the gnarliest wave out of every place I’ve ever been. It’s so thick and there’s so much water moving. I didn’t even know what it was like. I didn’t know about the huge west sneaker sets or how the current works. I just want to know the wave more.