Riding the Waves

Professional surfer Mike Parsons braves sharks, broken bones, and the pounding surf in his quest for the biggest wave of all time.

Over the course of his 30-plus-year career, professional big-wave surfer Mike Parsons has undergone four knee surgeries, broken his nose, and had stitches "pretty much everywhere" on his body. He's been circled by sharks-twice by great whites-and after one particularly bad ride, a surfboard fin sliced his leg deep into the muscle.

Still, Parsons wouldn't trade his career for any other.

"It's the best job in the world, for sure," says the 43-year-old surfing legend. "Surfing big waves is the ultimate challenge for a waterman and surfer. When you're doing it, you can't think about anything else, you're so involved in the elements."

Parsons spends his days trying to find the biggest waves in the world, traveling to them, and attempting to ride them. Recently, he may have scored a place in the record books.

On January 5, about 105 miles off San Diego, above an underwater mountain range called Cortes Bank, Parsons shot down the face of what may prove to be the biggest wave ever ridden, one estimated to be more than 80 feet tall. Parsons won't know for sure if he broke the world record until April 11, when judges for the Billabong Ride of the Year Award unveil their findings. (The judges are currently reviewing available images of big-wave rides from California, Europe, and Hawaii to determine the height of each one.)

But for Parsons it's not about world records and trophies-it's about the experience.

Once you get on a wave, "you're really caught up in the moment of dealing with every little bump; all your senses are alive," Parsons says. "Basically, you're riding down the side of a mountain."

Parsons, who grew up in San Clemente, California, and whose dad first took him surfing at the age of six, started competing professionally at nine years old. He was a mainstay on the professional surfing tour from 1984 to 1996 but started traveling to remote places in the mid-'90s in search of big waves, seeking an even bigger challenge.

To train for competitions, Parsons surfs every day for as long as there are waves and does cardio exercises, including swimming and mountain biking, to strengthen his lungs. He also sometimes carries rocks on the bottom of his pool to simulate what's it like to be stuck on the bottom of the ocean and have to struggle to get to the surface. He can generally hold his breath for two minutes; some of his fellow big-wave surfers can hold their breath for as long as four minutes.

Parsons says his greatest fear is sharks, which are a frequent danger in the areas where the biggest waves are. He adds that the worst rides happen when a surfer rides too deep and "the lip of the wave lands on top of you. The wave just rolls you. You get blown off your board-it's one of the scariest things you can imagine as a surfer."

The key is to try to relax, "keep your heart rate down, and not be too excited," he says.

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