Meet the blind Australian surfer looking to tackle 20m waves

Nazaré, Portugal – a beach town about 122 km from the country’s capital, Lisbon.

Just off the coast of this traditional fishing village is the Nazaré Canyon, a bizarre geomorphological phenomenon that creates huge waves of up to 30 meters high.

With a length of about 170 km and a depth of 5000 m, it is the largest underwater canyon in Europe.

These mega waves have caught the attention of surfers from all over the world looking to take on the death-defying challenge.

In 2022, German surfer Sebastian Steudtner set a new world record when he conquered a 26.21m wave in Nazaré, officially the biggest wave ever surfed.

Nazaré, Portugal is world famous for its mega waves that draw crowds and athletes alike. Recognition: Getty Images

Now it’s Australian athlete Matt Formston’s turn to face the massive waves at Nazaré. For the past 12 months, a film crew has followed Formston and documented his preparations leading up to the big event.

With all the training Formston has put through, he said he’s ready to get the job done.

“I’m just more excited than anything,” he told 7NEWS.com.au.

There is one little thing that sets Formston apart from its predecessors. He is blind.

Formston was born with full vision but lost 95 percent of it when he started school at the age of five due to a genetic disorder called macular dystrophy.

With all of his central vision gone and only a small percentage of his peripheral vision remaining, Formston can only see outside of his eye.

“I’ve actually lost a bit more vision over the past few years, to the point that I now only have 3 percent peripheral vision in my right eye and 1 percent in my left eye,” he said.

Thanks to his parents’ support and encouragement from an early age, Formston’s disability never stopped him from doing what he wanted to do.

The father of three has been a professional athlete for over 10 years, has competed in cycling at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio and has won four world titles in surfing.

As a child, Matt Formston’s parents encouraged him not to let his disability get in the way of what he wanted to achieve. Recognition: Matt Formston

While Formston had a long career as a professional cyclist growing up on Sydney’s northern beaches, surfing has always been his true passion.

“There was just surfing around me,” he said.

“My dad pushed me into the waves on a boogey board…I learned to feel the waves and the feeling of walking through the ocean.

“If we had gone back when I was a teenager, if there had been para-surfing competitions back then, I would have always been a competitive surfer and probably never would have done those other sports because I love everything about surfing,” he said.

Formston competed in its first parasurf competition in 2016 and the rest is history.

While Matt has competed as a cyclist for most of his career, surfing has always been his true passion. Recognition: Facebook

The next big challenge

A blind surfer, Formston uses his front foot as a kind of walking stick to help him maneuver on the waves.

He said riding bigger waves is actually a lot easier than the smaller ones, which he’s also used to.

“You have more time to go up and down a big wave whereas in small waves you can go up and down, up and down so quickly and I use my front foot as my stick to feel the wave and it goes everything so fast,” he explained.

“There’s more power on a big wave…everything about big waves is to me, just feels right.”

As for the expected size of the wave he’ll be surfing — Formston said he didn’t want to give an exact number.

Instead, he will go out with his team that joined him in Nazaré and together they will decide which wave to try depending on the conditions.

“We’re going to keep pushing it and hopefully getting bigger and bigger (waves) and if I’m still comfortable, I’ll keep getting bigger.”

“Once I really understand what the wave is and how much training I’ve done while building that database in my head, the fear goes away.” Recognition: The blind sea

As he prepared to tackle those megawaves, Formston said there’s been a “clear shift” in his training schedule.

He needed to focus more on the physical side of things, spending the last 12 months doing breath training and trying to build his ability to tolerate carbon dioxide so he can hold his breath longer.

Thanks to his extensive preparation, Formston said he was ready to get the job done and less nervous about the prospect of riding a 20+ meter wave.

“For me, one of the messages I love to share with my audience when I do motivational speaking is that the unknown is the greatest and scariest thing in the world,” he said.

“I think when people go to Nazaré, it’s scary, it’s dangerous, it’s big — that’s the first thing people do, the boogeyman’s in the closet and it’s really scary because you don’t know what it is is.

“Once I… talked about what it is, really understand what the wave is and the amount of training I’ve done in building that database in my head, the fear goes away.”

The blind sea

Formston’s mega-wave journey was documented step-by-step by director Daniel Fenech and his crew for a feature-length film entitled The Blind Sea.

The two have been friends for years and Fenech said Formston’s story taught him the importance of dreaming big and working hard.

“[Formston] is living this incredible life and it’s been a wild ride for us putting this documentary together,” he told 7NEWS.com.au.

“We’re showing what it’s like to play at this elite level and it’s really inspiring… I hope audiences will be inspired to pursue their dreams as well.”

Matt Formston wants audiences watching The Blind Sea to take his message of perseverance with them. “Whatever you do in your life, you can do it.” Recognition: Facebook

For Formston, it was “weird” but also “an honor” to have Fenech and his crew document not only his trip to Nazaré, but what life is like for the 44-year-old and how he changed what would have been can be a barrier at its greatest strength.

“People have been saying, ‘You can’t do things’ all my life. When I was a little boy, ‘you can’t play sports, you can’t go to mainstream school, you can’t do all those things,'” he said.

“(But) then I did all these things.

“People will always say it can’t be done,” and they’re naysayers. People would definitely say that a blind man cannot surf in Nazaré.

“I want people to take that message with them. Whatever they want to do with their life, they can do it.”

Formston will attempt to face off against Nazaré this weekend, subject to ocean conditions.

The Blind Sea is scheduled for release in 2023.

https://7news.com.au/features/meet-the-blind-australian-surfer-set-to-tackle-20-metre-waves-c-8964399 Meet the blind Australian surfer looking to tackle 20m waves

James Brien

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