For better or worse, life can change in an instant.
As a young boy, life used to happen one wave at a time for Laguna Beach resident Brayden Belden, who was an up-and-comer in the surf scene.
He was highly competitive in local contests, winning the boys’ 13-and-under division of the Brooks Street Surfing Classic the summer after the fourth grade at the age of 11.
Only months down the road, he thought he might never surf again. A snowboarding accident during a ski week trip to Mt. Bachelor in Bend, Ore. resulted in a life-threatening brain injury, one that left him with right-side hemiplegia.
“He had to relearn how to walk, talk, eat, breathe, I mean everything,” Matt Belden, Brayden’s father, said. “It was like full-blown 2.0. He had to relearn how to walk before he could relearn how to surf, but then once he learned how to walk, he started getting his body back.”
The injury occurred to the basal ganglia, Matt said, compromising Brayden’s motor skills. He was in a coma for more than three weeks. The initial four or five months of treatment took place at Randall Children’s Hospital in Portland after sustaining the injury in 2018, and then he went to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore for comprehensive support. The Belden family lived life on the road for about a year before they could come home.
“He’s just stayed committed to working hard and doing physical therapy and doing yoga, going to all the cognitive and behavioral therapy things he has to do,” Matt added. “He works out, he just does everything, and with the surfing, he’s always been very committed and a fighter. He put his head down and just kept working at it. He always has a really good attitude about it.”
More than five years after the incident, Brayden, now a 17-year-old junior at Laguna Beach High, is doing all he can to live a normal life. He has dreams like his peers.
This past weekend, Brayden was with his friends again, in his happy place — the shallows off Brooks Street Beach. He had tempered expectations, hoping to make a heat in the contest he had once won.
Brayden accomplished that goal and then some, advancing to the final of the junior men’s division — for competitors between the ages of 14 to 17 — in the 57th annual Brooks Street Surfing Classic. The field was filled with friends, including division champion Hudson Saunders, runner-up Hunter Harrington, Ryder Weatherley (fourth) and Felix Hayes (fifth).
After the event, it was Brayden who was being celebrated like a champion. Contest director Brandy Faber, who referred to Brayden’s comeback story as one of the special moments of the event, handed him the microphone for a brief speech, after which a crowded bar erupted in chanting his name.
“I felt like I was on top of the world,” Brayden said. “I felt like I had accomplished it all. It was just an amazing feeling. I don’t think I’ve ever had a feeling like that. To final in one of the local contests, I never thought that would ever happen.”
Brayden expressed immense gratitude to his parents, Matt and Denise, for standing by him through his journey of recovery. He believes he can go further with surfing.
“I maybe kind of want to do USA Paralympics,” Brayden added. “Because of my brain injury, I can’t really compete with normal kids, so the Paralympics would be something that I’d be really looking forward to.”
Away from the water, Brayden is doing quite well. Denise said her eldest child is now going to school full time, attending regular classes, sometimes with the assistance of an aide.
Moya Mitchell, an education specialist, taught English and geometry to Brayden last year. She said Brayden is an inspiration to the campus community who is positive and makes everybody laugh. Although she no longer works with Brayden directly, the two of them exchange greetings every chance they get.
“One thing about Brayden that’s really important, I think, from a teacher’s perspective is that he’s really aware of the struggles he has academically as a result of his accident,” Mitchell said. “Honestly, [that] is the first and most important step for him to be good in life. He’s going to be OK because he’s got such a strong grip on where his deficit areas are.
“We’re just so proud of him. He’s maturing every day. He’s just growing into this strong and responsible young man right before our eyes.”