Brayden Belden: a long road to Athlete of the Year

By DIANNE RUSSELL

Seventeen-year-old Brayden Belden’s journey from suffering a traumatic brain injury six years ago, to being selected as Athlete of the Year for the 57th Patriots Day Parade, is nothing short of miraculous. Navigating that road involved an endless amount of hard work, rehabilitation and Belden’s unyielding commitment to healing – and surfing.

As a result of his dedication, Belden came in sixth in the Junior Men’s category (14-17) in the 2023 Brooks Street Surf Classic in September.

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Brayden Belden is a junior at LBHS and a member of the LBHS surfing team

“I was very surprised [at being selected as Athlete of the Year],” Belden said. “I never expected in a million years that it would have happened like this. I entered that contest hoping just to make the heat and making the finals was just mind blowing.”

What’s even more astonishing is his recovery. Asked if he wanted to include the details of his accident and recuperation in this article, Belden replied, “Of course, it’s part of my story.”

It happened during ski week in 2018. “We went to Mount Bachelor in Oregon with family friends,” he said. “I’d been snowboarding before, and I caught onto it quickly because I was a good surfer. On the last day, I’d been off the jump three times already and my dad told me not to show off for anybody, but I got too much speed.” Belden propelled 30 feet into the sky off a massive jump. Finding him unconscious, his father, Matt, performed CPR.

“Initially, they only gave him a few hours to live,” said his mother, Denise. He was first sent to Saint Charles Hospital (where the surgeon said the only way to save him was to transfer him to a well- known Portland hospital). So, he then was sent to Randall Children’s Hospital at Legacy Emanuel in Portland where he spent three months.

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Courtesy of the Belden Family

Belden during semi-finals at the 2023 Brooks Street Surf Classic. He was already well-known as a surfer before his accident.

Belden was in a three-week coma and the accident left him with right-side hemiplegia. Doctors assured his parents that he would make it, but warned them that he might be a different child.

Denise described a hopeful moment. “One of my favorite stories is about his iPad. I didn’t know the screen code and he couldn’t tell me what it was. I didn’t know if he was in there cognitively – he could only move a finger on the iPad in front of him, but he knew the code. He unlocked the iPad, so I knew he was in there (somewhere).”

Belden had to relearn everything – walking, talking, eating – and he admitted, “I was basically reborn as a baby.” But he progressed rapidly.

He later spent time in Baltimore for therapy on his (right) frozen shoulder. “I was right-handed before the accident, but I became left-handed, and now I’m ambidextrous,” Belden said.

Due to that injury, he said, “I’m obviously not as strong a paddler as some of the kids my age.” One would imagine that would make it harder to compete, but that doesn’t seem to stand in Belden’s way.

As explained by Denise, “He brought himself back to surfing by working hard.” Only two years after the accident, he stood up on a long board (on the first try) then went to short boarding and on a family trip to Hawaii, he caught the very first wave.

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Photo by Bob Booth

Belden during the August 2021 Brooks Street Classic

Belden started surfing when he was 7 or so – after the family moved here from San Francisco (to be closer to family). “I first got on my dad’s big 10-foot-long board and then made my way up to longboards then eventually shortboards,” he said.

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Surfing is a family affair, and there’s no doubt that Belden and his sisters inherited the surfing gene. His dad, Matt, co-founder of the Palm Springs Surf Club, and Belden’s two sisters, Kaley (12) and Riley (15), also surf and placed in the 2023 Brooks Streets Surf Classic.

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Submitted photo

Belden surfing at Brooks Street

Life as a junior at LBHS

“I’m actually doing really good this semester,” Belden said. “Last semester I wasn’t taking full advantage of all the resources the school had to offer. I used to put off doing my math homework and this new semester, I usually go up to the math lab to do it.”

Denise added, “In general, he’s doing a lot better in school.”

Interests

However, Belden does have some interests outside of surfing and school. “I think he got interested in origami at some holiday boutique we went to when he was younger,” Denise said.

“Before my injury I loved origami, but about six months later I tried it and couldn’t do it,” Belden said. “Then I tried it again sometime after that, and I could do it and now I’m actually better at it than I was before.”

As evidenced by a drawer full of origami animals and sculptures, he spends time perfecting this skill. His other artistic endeavor is ceramics, and he’s a big fan of his ceramics class at LBHS. “I’ve always been pretty artistic,” he said.

He also used to love LEGOS®. “Around 6 or 7 years old I had every LEGO® set. My favorite series was Lord of the Rings, and I probably built every set.”

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Belden rekindled an interest in origami

In his spare time, Belden likes to bake – brownies and cookies – which he shares with school classmates. Much to the delight of his dogs, 4-year-old Roxie and 3-year-old Buddy, another activity Belden loves is to take them for walks.

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

(L-R) Belden, Buddy and Roxie

Future plans

In the next few years, Belden has a particular goal in mind – to participate in Para Surfing in the 2028 Paralympics.

After hearing his story, there’s little doubt that whatever he sets his sights on will come to fruition.

As the interview wrapped up, as one might expect, Belden’s focus was on the surf conditions – so on went his backpack and he was out the door in search of a wave.


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