Matt Formston makes surfing look easy, despite the fact that he does it legally blind.
- Matt Formston hopes to represent Australia in the 2028 Paralympics in surfing
- Legally blind, Formston relies on sound and feel to catch waves
- The 42-year-old has already won several world titles for Para-cycling and represented Australia at the Paralympics for cycling
The former Paralympic cyclist lost 95 per cent of his vision at age five when he was diagnosed with Macular Dystrophy.
But the diagnosis didn’t deter him from pursuing an incredibly active life.
One that would eventually lead to gold and silver in the 2014 and 2015 Para-cycling World Champions and a top spot representing Australia in the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio.
Since then, Mr Formston has turned his ambitions to surfing, notching up an impressive three consecutive titles at the ISA Para Surfing World Championships.
He said the ultimate goal was to represent Australia in the green and gold at the 2028 Paralympics for surfing.
Sound, swell and sun — navigating waves in the dark
Mr Formston described his vision as “big black dots in the centre” with extremely blurry peripheral vision.
“A lot of people would know what tunnel vision is. Mine’s basically the opposite of that,” he said.
“I’ve got nothing in the centre at all, and then the outside’s really blurry.”
That means when he’s in the surf, he relies on sound and feel to navigate and pick the right wave.
“As you go up and down, there’s a period between each wave,” he said.
“When a bigger wave that you want to catch comes … you’ll drop further down.
Mr Formston said he also uses the warmth of the sun on his skin to orientate himself in the surf, from north to south and east to west.
He is also constantly listening to the sounds around him – from the splash of other surfers padding in a particular direction to the crash of waves breaking on the shore.
“If I’m surfing a point break, I can actually hear when a bigger wave hits the rocks out from where I’m surfing,” he said.
When he’s paddled onto a wave, Mr Formston said he feels the steepness and listens to the white water to know where he needs to be on the wave to do certain manoeuvres.
“Floating across the water, I can feel the little ripples going chink, chink, chink across the bottom of my board,” he said.
“And then, as I do a turn, I can feel my rail just slicing through the water.
“Apart from spending time with my kids and being with my family, it’s the most amazing thing in my life.”
Love of surf runs deep
For Mr Formston, who grew up in Narrabeen on the northern beaches of Sydney, the ocean has always been a part of life, as far back as he can remember.
His mum surfed in Narrabeen in the 1960s, towing her 9’6 timber board to the beach behind her bike at a time when there were few female surfers.
His Dad and older brother would take him to the beach and push him onto waves on a bodyboard from about the age of five.
Mr Formston said it wasn’t always easy for his parents to let their child go in the surf or onto the sports field — but he’s incredibly grateful they did.
“They were very courageous, letting me do those things from the point of view that I could get hurt but also from the point of view that they were looked at as not being caring parents because they were putting me in harm’s way,” he said.
Mr Formston said although sport was a big part of growing up, he never really owned the fact that he had a disability.
Mr Formston said his cycling career began with a 1,200km single-bike ride from Sydney to Melbourne using echolocation.
Wheels to fins — a transition from elite cycling to surfing
Although Mr Formston reached the highest levels of competitive para-cycling, he said surfing had always been his first love.
“It’s been the thing that I would have loved to have gone to the Paralympics for, and probably would have gone as a teenager,” he said.
“But there was no competition for people with disabilities, certainly not in Australia and not globally until 2016, which was when I went to the Rio Paralympics for cycling.
Mr Formston has recently relocated to the Far North Coast of New South Wales and is training with surf coach Michael ‘Cripsy’ Crisp.
“When I first saw Matt surf, it was just amazing how in-tune he was with the wave,” he said.
Mr Crisp said he was working with Matt to master some big, vertical manoeuvres — with the aim of taking out Gold in the 2028 Paralympics.
“So, I’m Matt’s eyes … but then Matt has to perform still and bring it all together on the wave.”
During their training session, Mr Crisp calls Mr Formston onto waves and gives him verbal feedback and direction.
“It’s releasing Matt to do what he does best.”