"Anyone who's ever broken their pelvis in half can relate to this," Billy Kemper says of the injury that almost ended his surfing career, and his life. The 30-year-old Hawaiian, widely considered one of the best big-wave surfers in the world, tells CNN that friends saved his life last year after a wipeout on a monster wave off Morocco. "That wave sucked me up into the mouth of it and slammed me onto a rock and just absolutely destroyed me," Kemper says. "Knocked me out unconscious. Collapsed my lung. My pelvis was broken down the middle, I had to get my knee reconstructed, the injury-list goes on and on." He says friends brought him to shore and the pain during the ambulance ride that followed was indescribable. "Every bump, the center of your body just opening up and releasing blood."
"With a pelvic break that bad, you can't leave a stretcher," which left him facing the problem of how to travel the 13,000 miles back to the US for surgery just as borders started to close amid the pandemic, he says. After friends, family, and sponsors raised the funds for a medevac flight home, Kemper underwent trauma surgery, followed by long months of physical therapy and training before he could get back on a surfboard. "It was like the first wave of my entire life over again, it brought back the emotions of being a kid," he says. The World Surf League is airing a six-part docuseries telling the story of his recovery. "I learned more from this injury and this road to recovery than I’ve learned in all 29 years, now 30 of being alive," Kemper told KHON last month. (Read more big-wave surfing stories.)