What is Adaptive Surfing?
What is Adaptive Surfing?
Adaptive Surfing can be simply defined as overcoming a physical disability to enjoy riding ocean waves toward the shore on a surfboard. But to the global community of recreational and competitive adaptive surfers, the hundreds of local and international organizations that support the sport and the armies of volunteers who dedicate their time to events, it is so much more.
On beaches around the world, the inspiring scene of surfers leaving their wheelchairs and crutches behind to hit the surf is becoming a common sight. Advancements in modifications to boards, custom prosthetics and the warmth of wetsuits, make surfing more accessible for kids and adults alike. Surfing programs and events for first time and experienced, physically challenged riders are well established and expanding every year.
Adaptive Surfing on the World Stage
The growth of adaptive surfing can be clearly evidenced by the 4th annual World Adaptive Surfing Championship held in early December, 2018 in La Jolla, CA with a record breaking 120 participants representing 24 national Para-surfing teams. The four day event is organized by the International Surfing Association (ISA), the same governing body responsible for the inclusion of Surfing in the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. In all, 12 Individual World Champions, competing across 6 categories, were crowned as well as the first ever, overall team gold medal for Team USA.
With the ISA continuing in its bid to have Adaptive Surfing included in the 2028 Paralympics in Los Angeles, the popularity of the competitive aspect of the sport is at an all-time high. This excitement and passion is certainly not limited to the elite performance level. It also includes the swelling number of those seeking to experience the therapeutic power of the ocean on their first wave and others who are returning to surfing after life altering spinal cord injuries.
The Adaptive Surfing Groundswell
In 1996, Jesse Billauer, was one of the top Junior surfers in the world and about to begin competing professionally. While surfing his home break in Malibu, CA, Billauer hit a shallow sandbar headfirst, breaking his 6th vertebrae, making him a paraplegic. But it was his journey back to being able to surf again that illuminated a path to bring access to the ocean to others who have suffered paralysis.
In 2001, Billauer’s non-profit organization, Life Rolls On, held its first event, “They Will Surf Again”. That day was stepping into the unknown for LRO and today, TWSA has grown into a nationwide,10 city tour that touches thousands of lives. Up to 50 athletes at each event, they are welcomed to enjoy a day of riding waves and sharing the stoke with hundreds of wetsuit clad volunteers. These safety teams provide the heavy lifting of bringing the athletes back out into position to catch waves. Then they are there at an arm’s reach to either guide the surfer on the wave or tandem surf in together.
Naturally, Billauer is there at the events to share his deep appreciation for the local volunteers who make the events possible and connect with the athletes. Having volunteered myself at a TWSA event for the last couple of years, I can attest that the energy and spirit of the day may be equally rewarding for both the adaptive surfers and the volunteers. There is plenty of physical effort involved in volunteering for a 7 hour day of hot-lap surfing, but the infectious joy pouring out of each grateful athlete leaves only my face sore from smiling the whole time.
Surf Is Up for Adaptive Surfers
But aspiring adaptive surfers don’t have to wait till events like TWSA rolls into town. Most beach towns are equipped with specially designed Beach Wheelchairs that are available to transport surfers to the water’s edge. And local surf schools have been offering lessons and camps for the disabled in their communities.
Jennifer Steffener, co-owner of Coastline Adventures Surfing School, has seen a steady rise in adaptive surfers seeking lessons from her school in Brick, NJ. “The sport is really growing as awareness increases for people with physical and developmental challenges”, said Steffener. “Events like TWSA, Best Day Foundation and the Wounded Warrior Project really grow the exposure and help individuals and families realize the opportunities that are available.”
Coastline Adventures is accredited by the National Surf School and Instructor Association and the staff is certified by the Red Cross in CPR and First Aid. “Our sandy beaches and summertime water conditions are a great environment to introduce surfing to our guests and we are eager to accommodate adaptive surfers the best we can with equipment the student feels comfortable with.”
Steffener points out that they present surfing as a lifestyle, covering water safety, ocean science, environmental awareness, surf etiquette and cultural heritage. And although the summer schedule is busy, she and her staff volunteer a weekend each year for the local Best Day event. “It’s a transformative experience, helping others and sharing your love of the ocean. I can say that it is the highlight of the summer for my staff.”
So what is Adaptive Surfing? It’s a movement. It’s a lifestyle. It’s an opportunity for young and old to harness the power of ocean and ride waves. And it is changing lives.