HE lives a life that would add a few lines to the forehead of even the coolest mum.
He surfs, wakeboards, skydives, rides motorbikes and generally gets his kicks by terrifying himself. His mates number among the most fearless big-wave surfers in the country – yet they all name Cameron “Stocky” Irwin as the bravest person they know. The reason? He can’t move his legs.
Since he broke his neck on the bottom of a Margaret River swimming pool four years ago, the 27-year-old has defied the advice of doctors and anyone else who told him that being disabled meant he was unable. His life is a monument to resilience and adaptation.
Cam is now focusing on his biggest surfing challenge yet. He is planning on tackling Tasmania’s infamous Shipsterns Bluff, arguably Australia’s most dangerous surf break. Yet whatever he does in the future, his mum Jan Jack says his greatest achievement has been his refusal to let a broken neck wreck his life. You can put the man into a wheelchair, but you can’t put the wheelchair into the man.
“I dove into the pool, hit my head on the bottom and felt my neck break and I instantly knew: I’ve just put myself in a wheelchair,” Cam recalls the sickening moment with a slightly embarrassed smile on his face; as if he’d broken a stubbie instead of a vertebrae. “I kooked it,” he chuckles in the laconic drawl native to beachside suburbs.
His mother, sitting close to her son at the kitchen table of their Clifton Beach home, says that from the very first phone call, Cam’s mindset was one of acceptance. “Cam, being Cam, said to me ‘Yeah Mum, I don’t think I’m going to walk again’.” Jan said. Her slightly moist eyes tell that she carries her son’s trauma as if it was her own. However maternal pride is a hard thing to mistake. “Until you are in that situation, you don’t know how you’ll react,” she said. “Cam’s attitude got me by.”
Upon receiving the phone call that every mother dreads, Jack raced from Clifton to Royal Perth Hospital, Western Australia. Cam’s memory of that time is a lonely one. He was bolted into a brace, staring straight up with only fluorescent lights and a morphine drip for company. A procession of doctors’ faces loomed in and out of view. “And then,” the relief still noticeable in his voice, “it was mum’s face.”
During six weeks of total immobilisation, Cam’s resilience shone through. He was instrumental in the recovery of other patients he shared a ward with, one in particular who he says was “just a horrible person to begin with, being really mean to all the nurses.” Cam told his hospital room-mate that he had to shoulder his share of responsibility for his injury. The key, he says, has been accepting blame but not punishing himself.
“I dove into a swimming pool. I kooked it. I’ve got no-one else to blame but myself,” he said. “But there’s no point blaming myself ’cause that’s not gonna get me anywhere. Let’s just get on with it.” And if it was someone else’s fault, if he had been hit by a drunk driver? “I think I’d be the same. I don’t really think that I’ve got that resentment in me.”
Following the accident, Cam took on ever-increasing physical challenges. His injury was severe. His splintered vertebrae had nicked the spinal cord and he was left a partial quadriplegic. Luckily, he says, “my hands are pretty much awesome”. But he has no movement from the chest down. At first, he says, even taking a bath was an ordeal.
He was determined to surf again. Initially he pushed the envelope with only tacit motherly approval. His response to her concern about his first skydive? “I’ve already broken my neck once Mum.”
With the assistance of a tightly-knit group of mates Irwin recently became the first person in a wheelchair to ride a quadbike from Granville Harbour to the Pieman River and back. This month the wheelchair-bound waterman brought his Shipsterns dream within reach when he revisited Eaglehawk Reef. It was his first post-accident venture into the more dangerous world of reef surfing. “The Reef” as it is known to locals, breaks in the middle of Pirates Bay, thundering onto a barely submerged rock island.
Close friend and life-long neighbour Nick Harris was assisting Irwin on that day by paddling with him and pushing him over the edge of waves that would challenge all but the most competent of surfers. Local surfers watched on with a slight lump in their throat as a life-jacketed “Stocky” Irwin grinned his way into wave after wave. But his mates were confident in his ability. Before pushing Cam into his first wave, Nick simply yelled to the crowd: “If anyone sees Stocky drowning, just go and grab the kook by the scruff of his neck. OK?”
Later, Nick talked about watching the mate he grew up with reclaim a life that appeared lost.
It is obvious that Cam’s fortitude is not lost on his old mate. “The way he has dealt with it has been an inspiration,” Nick said. “It reminds you not to get down on anything in your own life,” he said.
Cam admits that it is often his friends’ enthusiasm that helps him overcome his own fear.
If he hesitates, “they say to me, ‘you’ll be right, let’s just do it’. Then it’s, yeah, no worries, let’s get it done.” He says that without his mates’ encouragement and assistance, he would never have been able to resume his adrenaline-soaked life.
“I don’t mind asking people for help,” he said. “There’s a lot of people that are too proud and I think that’s why a lot of people don’t go and do stuff like this. I don’t care. I just say, ‘I wanna do it, I need you to help me’.”
Cam’s attitude is not just applicable to life as a quadriplegic. His self-effacement has allowed him to see his personal disaster in context. He seems unaware that what he has been through would have broken many who considered themselves tough.
“I was talking to a friend before you came over and I said, ‘This guy’s coming to interview me. I’m not really sure why.’ She said to me, ‘You do realise that you’re pretty awesome, Stock’.”
Cam grins, shifts back in his chair, and shakes his head.