In the wake of what was arguably the most spectacular video released in 2015, we visited with motorcycle daredevil Robbie Maddison to talk about ‘Pipe Dream’ and his near death experience while riding Tahiti’s colossus waves on his bike. “We thought saltwater would be so much better than the lakes we had been training at, since salt water is softer and the high salinity lends itself to floatation—but it didn’t help at all. As soon as we tested the bike in Mission Bay for the first time, I found that the wheels were spinning more, but putting out less momentum,” Maddison recalls. “But I was still able to get the bike to maintain a plane at around 50 miles per hour.”
Robbie spoke in a scratchy whisper as described the details of his most recent stunt—riding a thirty-foot Tahiti wave on his motorcycle. We sat at the back patio of his residence in Escondido, California. I had asked him if he wanted to take a break or drink some water before we continued; as I was certain he had been doing interviews all day, placing strain on his vocal chords. What he told me next, was just as incredible as hearing about his adventure on the giant Teahupo’o waves.
“I crashed my bike in the yard here the other day. Then I came to the backyard to deal with my wounds. As I was sitting here in a world of pain, I went into a seizure. At first, I turned gray, they told me, then blue. My friend helped get my tongue out of my throat and the ambulance came and took me away. They put me into ICU. I’ve been in an induced coma for the past three days. That’s why I have this cough, because I’ve had all these tubes down my throat.” Maddo had taken a beating while doing a backflip on his BMX bike in the front yard. But it was the hit to the head that sent him into a seizure.
He experienced his first attack when he was 16, after contracting meningitis from ingesting dirty lake water. “I was jet skiing with a few of my mates. We were racing around, on a dirty lake, blocked off from the ocean—and we collided. I was thrown into the air and was actually laughing when I came down, taking in a full tube of water straight into my stomach. When we got to the shore, I tried to vomit the water up, but I wasn’t able to get any out.
The next day at work, I was sitting in the lunchroom feeling pins and needles in my stomach. I remember telling my boss something was very wrong. Moments later, I was facedown on the ground in a seizure. We got to the doctor and they thought I was having a brain hemorrhage, so they raced me to the hospital. The driver didn’t know where the hospital was and I had lost the ability to talk. I had to fight to stay awake to show him which way to go. When we arrived at the hospital, I just barely made it through the double doors. Once I made eye contact with the nurse, that’s when I lost all consciousness.
I was in a coma for what seemed like months, but it was only a few days. I could tell what was going on, and I tried to respond to people talking to me, but I couldn’t verbalize anything. It was a slow road to recovery, and I had several relapses. My right eye turned in and I became paralyzed, first on the left side of my body, and then the right side. For a period of time, I lost my vision. I spent three months in the hospital before my health started to turn around. After nearly six months of rehabilitation, they said I would potentially be a vegetable for the rest of my life—never walk, talk, or live a normal life again. This all happened before my freestyle motorcycle career had started.
By age 22, I had finished my apprenticeship and made a full recovery. I didn’t realize that I had Second Impact Syndrome until I decided I wanted to be a professional motorcycle rider. I took a slam at a local park and hit my head. Afterward, I was sitting in the car and I had a seizure. Then I had another seizure in the Red Bull X Fighters World Championship. The doctor told me every time I have one—I’m dodging a bullet. But I cannot stop my passion. I just invented this new and exciting adventure that I can do, and the ocean is a bit softer, so hopefully I can just crash in the water from now on.”
This year, Maddo spent several weeks in Tahiti filming for ‘Pipe Dream’. They had everything in the bag except for riding one of Teahupo’o’s massive waves. And with a skeleton crew, they remained on the island in anticipation of an incoming swell.
“We already had an A+ film, without the giant wave. I was praying that the swell wasn’t going to come—I was really scared. Then the phone rang. It was a friend informing me of a huge incoming swell. My throat was jumping. I didn’t want to do go out there.”
With the crew waiting on the barge, and Maddo seated on his bike, a massive black hump approached on the horizon. He launched the bike into the ocean and chased after his dream. Once on the wave, all seemed to go as planned until he rounded the shoulder of the Tahitian giant. That’s when he realized this particular wave was a West Bomb—notoriously violent, and possibly a death sentence.
“I turned away from the wave and raced toward the shore, but it scooped me and the bike up and pounded us down beneath the surface. The bike hit me in the back, knocking the wind completely out of me, and then we tumbled for the most violent ride of my life. I was in absolute vertigo and my vision was fading out. I was down for a really long time, until I felt like I was going to meet my maker. Just as I was about to take in a full breath of water, my head popped above the surface and I managed to get an arm up to wave for help. I could see the helicopter and boats headed towards me. For four minutes, they had thought I was dead. I was completely exhausted—it was the gnarliest thing that I have ever been through.
When I got back to the boat, I saw all the guys I had been filming with, in tears and rattled, with a look of terror in their eyes. I had to hug my friends, but I had no words—I just whimpered like a baby. I had just stared death right in the face.”