I once wrote that adaptive world surfing champion Mark Mono Stewart was ‘as tough as an old boot’. I was wrong. He’s much tougher than that.
After five years spent winning every adaptive surf comp in the world except the world titles, Mono finally completed a long-awaited triple when he became surfing’s oldest world champion in the freezing cold water of Pismo Beach, Central California last month, aged 59 years and 11 months, nearly 15 years older than the previous holder of that honour, longboarder Joel Tudor who was 45 when he won the world title last September.
Two weeks later back home in Byron Bay, he celebrated his 60th birthday on Christmas Day with wife Deb and their three children, but by last week he’d had enough of Byron’s crazy crowds and texted me: “Mate, looks like a bit of swell coming your way. How’s the crowd?”
I told him but he jumped into his Mustang and came anyway, arriving at 7am and surfing more than seven hours between the Pot and Johnno’s before we had a relaxing beer at the surf club.
No surfer I’ve ever met is more deserving of his three world titles than Mono, still a frothing grommet at 60 and nowhere near the end of his competitive career. And what an amazing ride it’s been so far.
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 charging surfer who’d take off on anything, was stretchered off the ground and told to stay off the leg for a couple of weeks. With the pointy end of the season coming up, his coach insisted he get the injury checked out.
Three days later 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 those few days? From up-and-coming 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.
But Mono was neither depressed nor angry.
“I couldn’t afford to be, because I had to focus 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 recognised 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.
In 1977 Mono wrote a letter to Tracks surfing magazine asking for tips on how he could get back into surfing.
Another amputee suggested he scoop out part of the deck of a kneeboard to fit his stump. Byron’s legendary kneeboarder George Greenough and shaper Bob McTavish helped him design and build a scooped board and he was away. His rough, tough surfing mates nicknamed him Mono and thought it hilarious to hide his crutches while he was surfing, but nothing could deter him and he became an excellent surfer, as well as a much-in-demand surfboard spray artist.
In 2015 the inaugural ISA World Adaptive Championships were held at La Jolla in Southern California. Mono, then aged 53, won the kneel division at a canter. To prove it was no fluke he came back the next year and won it again.
In 2017 he was back in La Jolla to win his third consecutive title, and after two days of competition he was undefeated going into the quarters in conditions that were perfect for his power attack. Then the wheels fell off.
“My arms gave way on me,” Mono messaged me hours later. “Couldn’t feel them. Then I passed out on the beach.”
Mono had 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. 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 to Brazil’s Henrique Saraiva.
Since then Mono has won major events in Australia, Hawaii, California, England, Wales and Spain, and now that elusive third world title is his too.
His next major goal is to win an Olympic gold medal when adaptive surfing debuts in Los Angeles in 2028 when he’ll be 66. And I bet he’ll give it a real nudge, but first he wants a piece of the action on Noosa’s points.
He went hard and then he went home, but Mono will be back next swell. He can’t help himself.