Head Strong Grom - Ethan Ward

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Published: 06/23/2011

by Wan Hernandez

ethan and dada

Whether you ask him about summer surf camp, guitar lessons, or the jump he’ll soon take from competing in mico groms to the grom division, Ethan Ward has an uninhibited enthusiasm that can’t be missed. Ethan is a young, energetic surfer from Manhattan Beach who, as you’d expect from most boys his age, loves skating and snowboarding, pestering his little sister, Romea, and of course surfing with his dad. Ask the 10 year old about a life-threatening injury he endured last fall while surfing El Porto and, refreshingly, he’ll walk you through every detail with the exact same exuberance.

The 2010 Jimmy Miller Memorial Surf Fiesta took a scary turn when Ethan, 9 at the time, asked to go for one last surf after a long day of competing. While Ward paddled out to the lineup an older surfer fell in front of him and lost control of his board. It struck Ethan in the head, sending him straight back to the beach and on his way to the emergency room with a massive gash above his eye. Little did anybody know at the time, what seemed like a scary moment that could be patched up with a couple of stitches would actually send

the Manhattan Beach surfer onto an operating table. A long day in the emergency room and Ethan’s first set of stitches had the Ward family ready to head home after being cleared by a neurologist.  However the doctor that had been caring for him in the emergency room was insistent they perform an MRI in spite of having no initial signs of head trauma. While John and Sig Ward had hoped to avoid exposing their son to an MRI at all costs, they now believe it was this doctor’s persistence that saved Ethan’s life. The CT Scan showed a fracture in Ethan’s skull and a hematoma that would continue to grow. The young boy who had been playing on the beach and competing against friends in The Jimmy just a day earlier would now have to undergo brain surgery. It was a point both parents recall feelinghelpless, having no control over which doctors would take care of their son, not being familiar with the medical procedures or being blindsided with requests to sign for blood transfusions.

The next few days were filled with visits from Camp Surf instructors, members of the Jimmy Miller Foundation, gifts from local surf shops and more well wishes from the South Bay community than the Ward family ever expected. It was an outpouring of support that marked the start of turning this heart stopping, life altering experience into a feel good story. The operation went off without a single difficulty. There was no chance of brain damage or infections from the surgery, and thankfully Ethan was told he’d be able to surf again in six months. 

Nurses would often ask if he might give up the lifestyle because of the accident, to which he told them all he’d never think of it. When John Ward asked his son why he wasn’t scared to get back in the water the simple, proud response he received was “Because surfing is my life, Dad”.

Eventually the Wards were able to return to their home in Manhattan Beach relieved to know the accident had no permanent side effects to fear and that they had been lucky to come across great doctors in their moment of need, but also facing months of recovery.  “It felt like time stopped for a week, even a month. Even school routines were different for him, having to sit in a computer lab instead of being outside”, said Sig.

Undoubtedly, even after having doctors affirm Ethan would soon be back to 100% physically there was no telling his spirits would be just as high. Would he be overly cautious? Scared to skateboard or play other sports? Well, Ethan quickly squashed any doubts when he turned a six month hiatus from the ocean into just four. Shortly before a family trip to Hawaii John and Ethan got back in the water in PV and completed Ethan’s return to normality. Sporting a new helmet and renewed confidence the 9 year old micro grom got right back to competing, where he took 4th in his first contest and 2nd place in the Dig For Jimmy just 5 months after the injury that had landed him in an emergency room. Not only was Ethan back in the water but he was competing and having success immediately. One moment a young surfer was out catching waves with friends, the next needing brain surgery to prevent a bruise from pressing his brain against a fractured skull, and now in less time than doctors had originally diagnosed he was back to doing what he loved most.

Ethan now surfs with a helmet every time he enters the water. John Ward points to the prominence of helmets in skateboarding, snowboarding, and of course bike helmet laws for minors as proof that we should expect to see all children in helmets when surfing. His logic is spot on,as he mentions the fact that fifteen years ago protective helmets were a rarity in snowboarding and now nearly 90 percent of people on any given mountain are likely to wear one.  For Ethan, the helmet offers protection from another accident but also seems to have given him more confidence.  He looks out for others in the lineup and calls himself an “investigator” in the water, constantly scanning for potentially dangerous situations. And for a surfer living just blocks away from the crowds of El Porto a sixth sense for dodging projectile longboards is always needed.

If you ask Sig Ward now she doesn’t hesitate to say surfing is what helped her son recover. When he returned to competing it was what made life “normal” again, and his months out of the water were made bearable by the prospect of the next wave. And this is where we learn what to take from Ethan’s bravery. Surfing is our light at the end of the tunnel. A busy day with 2 quick waves right before sunset somehow makes the hustle and bustle of life seem worth it all. It allows us to move forward, be thankful and put life in perspective when we’re threatened with losing what we love most. For Ethan, the fact that surfing was never taken away for good turned six  months of recovery into four.  It kept his spirits high, allowed him to hang onto that same infectious energy, and somehow not even flinch when faced with an experience that would stop most people dead in their tracks. When it comes down to it Ethan Ward is a surfer, meaning unlike the landlocked and less fortunate the first question any of us ask when we land in an emergency room isn’t about whether or not everything will be ok. Instead we ask “Doc, when can I get back in the water?” 

Photo Gallery

Head Strong Grom - Ethan Ward

Photo: Brad Jacobson

Ethan Ward getting help from his father