Mono: Tough As An Old Boot

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Mono rests up in the emergency ward. Photo FB.

Noosa surf festival regular Mark “Mono” Stewart is an inspiration to surfers around the world, but when he went to California in December in search of his third world adaptive title, he scared the hell out of friends, family and supporters.

As any true Byron local – ie, some one who remembers when Norco and the meatworks were the only games in town – will tell you, they breed ‘em tough in that town. None tougher than two-times world adaptive surfing champion Mark “Mono” Stewart, who grew up on a dairy farm near Mullum and learnt to surf the Pass when the Timpo clan ruled.

Although Mono, now 55, has won just about every adaptive title going since they were introduced, he missed out on a third consecutive world AS2 (amputee class) title at the ISA Championships at La Jolla, California, in 2017, and had his heart set on taking out the gold for Australia last December. And things were looking good, with a pumping head-high swell lighting up La Jolla Shores for the opening rounds. Mono, who surfs on his knees minus a prosthetic limb for his missing leg, on a scooped-out board that George Greenough helped him design, revels in a bit of power.

After two days of competition the boy from Byron was undefeated going into the quarters on Saturday morning in conditions that were perfect for his power attack. Then the shit hit the fan. “My arms gave way on me,” Mono messaged me hours later. “Couldn’t feel them. Then I passed out on the beach.”

Mono apparently blacked out after pulling out all the stops to post two winning scores, and was assisted from the water by lifeguards and paramedics who performed an ECG and other tests in an ambulance before allowing him to compete in the semis.

“I don’t even remember surfing the semi,” Mono wrote on his Facebook page from his bed in the UCSD Cardiovascular Emergency Department. “Not where I wanted to be after winning it!”

By nightfall heart issues had been eliminated and doctors were testing for a neurological problem affecting the spine. “I’ll deal with it in Australia,” Mono posted on Saturday night. “I just signed myself out of hospital. (Wife) Deb supportive but not real happy! I really want this third world title.”

And, surfing against the better judgement of doctors, family and friends, but willed on by the stubborn bugger’s legion of fans and friends, he almost pulled it off, finishing a close second on Sunday to Brazil’s Henrique Saraiva. No one who knows the Mono story was surprised.

When he was 15 years old and a star striker playing representative soccer in the Tasman Cup, Mark Stewart slid into the goalmouth to get a touch around the keeper and instead got his leg wedged between the goalie and the goalpost.

The fiery youngster, who had already made a name for himself at Main Beach and The Pass as a charger who’d take off on anything on his hideous Merrin six-ten single fin, was stretchered off the ground and told to stay off the leg for a couple of weeks. But as soon as the pain got bearable he was back at training. With the pointy end of the season coming up, Coach insisted he get the injury checked out.

The next day he had an X-ray at Lismore Hospital and the day after that his mother pulled him out of class for more. The day after that he and his mother flew to Sydney where he was given a biopsy and other tests, and the day after that his right leg was amputated at the thigh.

Can you imagine the shock of that five days? From up-and-coming teenaged athlete to amputee in less than a week, his soccer and surfing dreams shattered. And then, more bad news. He would have to fly to Sydney every month for chemotherapy. And with the chemo came the constant and debilitating sickness, the hair and weight loss and the realities of life in a cancer ward.

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But Mono was neither depressed nor angry. “I couldn’t afford to be, because I had to focus everything in me on surviving the chemo, and in those days it was brutal. I never let it occur to me that I might die, and I always believed that I would get back into surfing, if not to soccer.”

Typically, Mono took the loss of his leg as something to give thanks for, because his local doctor had recognized his osteosarcoma and rushed him to treatment, thus saving his life. And despite the many setbacks and frustrations, Mono has never stopped giving thanks, and giving back to the handicapped community.

As the chemotherapy came to an end and Mono began to feel stronger, he invested in a  cheap Morey Boogie DIY kit, started hitting the waves with the Byron locals and earned the Mono nickname. Another amputee surfer suggested he try customizing a kneeboard by scooping out the deck, and within a few weeks Mono was hopping to the water’s edge and paddling out to carve the ferocious hacks he would become famous for. His crutches would sometimes end up on the roof of the Top Pub or the surf club, but the tough love of his mates helped rather than hindered his progress.

Mono scored his first job after the chemo at Bob Newlands’ SurfAids factory airbrushing logos onto calico board bags, and soon he was spraying boards. He ran into George Greenough and discussed his specific equipment needs with the guru of knee-riding. George introduced him to Bob McTavish, and the two explained the concept they’d developed, and McTavish agreed to make the board, the first of many bespoke boards that enabled Mono to develop the distinctive and highly effective approach to adaptive surfing that has taken him to the top.

The doctors who gave the young Mono chemo told him that it would make him infertile, then he met Deb on a blind date, and they had three lovely kids in four years. Mono: “We’ve been together 20 years and life’s been great. Deb’s working background was with disabilities, so she knew the territory, and she’s been my caddy, my coach and my best friend ever since.”

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Powering in the quarters. Photo ISA.

Although the para movement has been part of many sports for decades, surfing was slow to adapt, and it may never have if the International Surfing Association hadn’t set its sights on getting accepted into the Olympics, and that meant embracing all of the Olympic ideals, including the Paralympics. To his great credit, ISA boss Fernando Aguerre made it his personal mission to introduce adaptive surfing around the world. In September 2015, at the age of 51, Mark “Mono” Stewart won the inaugural ISA World Adaptive Surfing Championship in La Jolla, then followed up with a second title in 2017.

He’s now had two disappointing runs, but there’s life in the old dog yet. His competitive run may have come late in life, but Mono is loving every minute of it.

PHIL JARRATT

This article has appeared in different forms on Swellnet and in the Tropicsurf Annual 2019.