The words on the other end of the phone line punctured the warm, Montecito spring day and shattered Shaun Tomson’s world in an instant.
“Mathew is dead,” came the voice of Tomson’s wife, Carla, who was 10,000 miles away in South Africa while their son attended school there for a semester.
It seemed impossible. Just two hours earlier, Tomson — a world champion surfer and successful businessman living in Santa Barbara — had spoken by phone with his 15-year-old son. It had felt like Mathew was sitting right next to him, and Tomson’s heart swelled with pride as his son read him an essay he’d written about the spiritual nature of surfing.
“Deep inside the barrel, completely in tune with my inner self …” Mathew had read. “My hand dragging along the wall, the light shines ahead.”
The last four words had struck Tomson as particularly beautiful. But now, his smart, handsome son with a whole life ahead of him was gone, accidentally asphyxiated while playing a dangerous choking game sometimes practiced by teenagers in an effort to induce a temporary high.
“Our lives, like that, were destroyed,” said Tomson, snapping his fingers in the air as he recounted the 2006 ordeal late last year during a talk to members of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. “Losing a child — it’s the worst thing that can happen. Your life is destroyed, and then you have to try and understand why.”
And in Tomson’s case, it also meant trying to do something to prevent others from suffering the same fate.
Now 58, he grew up a Reform Jew in Durban, on the east coast of South Africa. His parents were frequent beachgoers, and from an early age the ocean was a big part of Tomson’s life. At 10 he began surfing and fell in love with the feeling it gave him.
“You’re out there in this enormous ocean, this insignificant, floating object,” he said. “That sense of exhilaration you get that very first time grips you, and it never lets go.”
In the decades that followed, Tomson became a legendary surfer, winning the International Professional Surfers World Championship in Hawaii in 1977, followed by wins at 19 other major professional surfing events. He developed a revolutionary technique for riding inside the most challenging part of a wave, called “the tube,” and is considered one of the architects of professional surfing. He was inducted into both the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and the South African Sports and Arts Hall of Fame and has been described as one of the greatest surfers of all time. In January, he was inducted into the Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. He also became a businessman, founding and managing two multimillion-dollar apparel companies — Instinct in the 1980s and Solitude in the 1990s — which he eventually sold.
When Tomson talks about surfing, it’s not as a sport but as a kind of mystical experience, a means of connecting with the universe and a higher power. Surfing teaches you about life, Tomson insists, and those lessons of honor, integrity, empathy, commitment, courage and perseverance have helped him weather life’s toughest challenges, he said.
It was around 2003 that Tomson, now retired from professional surfing, decided to share those lessons with the world. A friend had invited him to meet with a group of young people at a surfing contest in Santa Barbara and asked Tomson to give them something as a reminder of the day. Tomson chose to offer advice. He printed lessons he’d learned from surfing — 12 sentences beginning with “I Will” — on cards and handed them out at the event. Soon, everybody wanted a copy.
“It turned into a groundswell,” Tomson recalled. “It changed my life.”
Tomson became a sought-after motivational speaker for businesses, students and others. He eventually made the lessons into a book, “Surfer’s Code — 12 Simple Lessons for Riding Through Life.” It came out shortly after his son died.
Unsurprisingly, Mathew’s death dealt a gut-wrenching blow to Tomson and his wife. It also pushed the surfer to think more deeply about the hazards of poor choices — drugs, alcohol and other risky behaviors — especially among young people. These poor choices kill millions of people every year, Tomson said. And, as he’d become so painfully aware, just one bad decision can destroy an individual’s life and that of the entire family.
“Teenagers are way more at risk for bad decisions because their brains are not [fully] developed,” Tomson explained. “They don’t have the same awareness of risk and consequence.”
Today, Tomson is on a mission to teach teenagers and others about making positive choices and thinking twice before making a decision. His second book, “The Code: The Power of ‘I Will,’ ” shares stories about his life, what he’s learned and what happened to his son. He speaks to students and businesses and asks people to write their own version of the surfer’s code, a list of 12 promises to themselves beginning with the words “I will.”
“When you sit down and just write 12 promises to yourself … they develop force and power,” he said. “When you put ‘I will’ in front of them, it’s a commitment. It’s a bond between you and the future. ... You’re not going to make a promise to yourself and flake out of it.”
Tomson’s message is powerful and necessary, especially for teenagers who face many risks in their daily lives, whether from prescription-drug abuse, dangerous driving or social media, said Rocky Murray, principal at Huntington Beach High School. Tomson spoke in November to the school’s 2,900 students and, in a separate event, to parents. Murray said the talk was so successful, he is now encouraging other schools in the area to invite Tomson to speak. He said the message of making good choices is something teachers at his school try to instill in students, but hearing it from an athlete of Tomson’s caliber, backed up by personal experience, carries a lot of weight.
“I know he touched more than one student there. It was very effective,” Murray said. “It’s something that students can benefit from, hearing that message. The more you hear a consistent message like that … the greater the opportunity there is for it to sink in.”
Tomson, a practicing Jew who attends the Community Shul of Montecito and Santa Barbara, said he turned to his religion to help him cope with the death of his son. Nevertheless, Tomson said he shuns labels when it comes to Judaism, preferring a broader, more practical interpretation of spirituality.
“How you pray and what traditions you use have no relevance to our soul,” he said. “Being a good Jew is about being empathetic, respectful, honest, having integrity, giving back and, hopefully, inspiring positivity in the social context. My mission is to inspire people both young and old with the story of my journey and how I’ve overcome adversity in my life, like so many Jews have.”
As he describes it, for Tomson and his wife, the journey to healing from the loss of Mathew has been marked by a series of auspicious occurrences that he sees as evidence of a greater, spiritual power at work.
One of these events was the adoption of another son in late 2009, who, it turned out, shared the same birthday as one of Tomson’s surfing heroes and whose actual due date was Mathew’s birthday, Tomson said. The couple instinctively named the little boy Luke, only to find out later that the name means “light” or “bringer of light.” Luke is now 4 years old.
“Luke, for us, was a miracle,” Tomson said. “For anyone that is just suffering loss and enduring a tough struggle, what this name means is representative of the hope that we all have to have for the future. That light that shines ahead.”