I am shivering from a combination of fear, excitement and cold as I head out for my first dance with the deep. Up and over, under and through, I am propelled through the crashing breakers. The waves slam into me and I am enveloped in the ocean’s icy embrace. I shiver as my surf instructor, Chipper “Bro” Bell, and David, my husband, urge me forward. My blood is pumping, my heart pounding, and every nerve cell is on edge. I’m beginning to wonder why I agreed to try surfing. What insanity gave me the courage to confront one of Mother Nature’s most powerful creations with a 12-foot-long board and a couple of dudes?
The desire to surf had always been a seed in my brain. So when my 9-year-old daughter expressed an interest, I jumped on it. I knew surfing was now possible for people with disabilities. I had read about Jesse Billauer, the founder of Life Rolls On. He had been on the verge of becoming a professional surfer when a wave smacked him headfirst into a shallow sandbar. He sustained a C6 complete spinal cord injury that left him with limited mobility of arms and hands and no movement below the waist. Jesse’s spine may have been shattered, but his dreams weren’t. When he left the hospital, he was sure of two things — he had to surf again, and he wanted to help inspire others to follow their passions. He has achieved both dreams and more by helping create programs like They Will Surf Again,They Will Skate Again, and They Will Ski Again.
They Will Surf Again generally has two events in my area each year, but I had already missed both dates. I also wanted to learn to surf with my daughter — I wanted to share the experience and help her realize that anything was possible with the right attitude and proper support — so I had to find another alternative.
My family and I decided to rent a beach house for a week so my daughter and I could take lessons together. It took a small miracle to find a place that was oceanfront, pet-friendly, affordable and somewhat accessible. Then I signed us up at SurfClass.com. I chose SurfClass.com because not only did they provide surf camp for kids, the owner — Chipper “Bro” Bell — had no qualms about taking me out for a private lesson.
I was excited after watching my daughter master the waves with seeming ease, and when my lesson came I
wondered, “How hard could it be?” I soon learned that adaptive surfing is harder than it looks.
The first battle is with the wetsuit. Squeezing into neoprene with limbs that won’t cooperate is an exhausting task, even with help. Then there is the water. With sun, the Pacific is a cold mistress; without it, she is a frigid b*tch! The minute my body hit the water, my breath was driven from my body. Research claims that cold water robs the body’s heat 32 times faster than cold air. The battle with the wetsuit seemed a minute effort for the protection it provided.
David watched over me as he and Bell led me out to sea. He knew how much I hated to be cold and worried that I might even leave the stage before my dance began. I harbored my own doubts every time I was forced through a wave trying to get the board beyond the breakers. “Under” was a difficult task. It meant I would plunge headfirst through the crashing surge of water. “Over” was my relief. It meant Chipper and David would tip my board vertically to go above the onslaught of the surf.
My body was nearly numb but my senses were alive when the beat finally slowed as the whitecaps turned into swells. I relaxed and felt my body become one with the motion of the ocean. I even sidestepped off the board and swam solo, finding courage with each stroke. Finally, it was back to the board.
Chipper assessed the quality of each wave, and when he saw one with potential, he yelled, “Paddle.” He gave me a shove and I began to push through the water. The wave curled behind me, promising to glide me across the sea’s surface. But just as I began to rise, I took a fall. I tumbled below the board and rolled beneath the waves. I looked up to see the surfboard floating above me. I was submerged beneath the sea — and for a brief moment I was terrified.
Chris Goad of Fort Worth, Texas, understands that fear. “I remember I looked up to see the sun shimmering above the water. I wondered what was going on. I could hear the roar of waves rushing over me and I was petrified.” Goad was 17 when he went to Virginia for a 1987 high school soccer tournament with his team. The boys had some time to spare and decided to hit the beach, but Goad did not expect to hit bottom literally. He knew immediately that he was paralyzed — he recalls the panic he experienced just lying in the water waiting for someone to get him.
Twenty years later, he attended his first LRO surfing event at Huntington Beach, Calif., and almost succumbed to that same panic. “They were trying to get me on the board, but we got hit by a big wave and I swallowed a bunch of saltwater. I remember wondering, ‘What have I gotten myself into.’”
That first time was difficult. He had to take on some big waves and hang on with every muscle he had to get past the breaks. When he and his team finally made it, they turned and attempted their first run. It was a wipeout and Goad had to confront his worst fears. “Mentally, I did not like my head under water. I had a claustrophobic feeling. My biggest concern was if I go under, will someone get me out, or will I be struggling for air.” But he soon realized that when a person goes surfing with LRO, that worry is irrelevant. “The great thing about surfing with LRO is that the volunteers are there in a matter of seconds.” He offers this sage advice to others: “Don’t panic, hold your breath, someone will be there.” Once he trusted his LRO team, he was able to relax and enjoy the experience.
His second run was a smashing success. He and his team of LRO volunteers bounded past the breakers, made a smooth turn and caught a righteous wave and rode it all the way in. “The exhilaration was amazing, and before I knew it we were at shore and I couldn’t wait to do it again!” Goad has attended two LRO events and plans on attending more.
Partnering Up for Success
A well-trained partner is essential for success at sea. Surfing should not be done alone, and it is nearly impossible for anyone with a significant disability to go solo. First, you have to get into a wetsuit. Next you need to traverse the sand. Then you must get your body on the board and face the breakers before you can even begin to two-step with Lady Blue. Without someone skillful and trustworthy at your side, your escapade could end up being deadly.
I took a breath and remembered to stop fighting. I needed to trust my partners. I floated to the surface to find David and Bell by my side. I was ready to try again. This time, I found pace with the breakers. I soared with the up and over, drank in the under and through, and relished the smooth rise and fall of the swells. I surrendered myself to the Ventura Beach coastal waters. The smooth swells came from behind and caught me in their curl. I held tight as we glided together to the shore. It was the perfect waltz, a dance of elegant gracefulness. I was exhausted but elated. My first performance with the sea was a success.
But not every dance is smooth.
Reconnecting with Mother Nature
Brendon Cunningham, 39, from Bristow, Va., has intimate knowledge about what a fickle partner the sea can be. Cunningham grew up on his grandmother’s lake house. He was very active in the water. He spent time surfing, body boarding, water skiing, knee boarding, everything. He enjoyed the beach and felt welcome in the ocean’s broad embrace. Until she tossed him aside one day.
In July 2006, with his wife, Amy, and two daughters — Olivia and Hannah — a day at the beach turned to disaster when Cunningham tried to keep pace with the power of the waves. “I got caught in the curl, flipped around, went upside down, hit the sand, and broke my neck instantly. I could not move anything.” He sustained a complete C6 injury and now has use of his arms, but not his hands, and no movement or feeling below the chest.
Everyone understood when LRO’s Sarah Donaldson contacted Cunningham to be part of the TWSA in Virginia Beach, Va., and he said
, “No, thanks.” Everyone except his wife. “Somehow she knew it was something I needed to do. So I said ‘OK, if you are going to support me, then I’ll do it.’ And she did. And I am so glad she did. I loved it. I love the salt water in my face and riding the waves. It’s just something that you can’t do every day, so to do something you used to do and have some normalcy to it is amazing. I’m not as smooth as I was, but it’s still tremendous.”
Cunningham has been part of two annual TWSA events put on by LRO. His first was in 2010. He enjoys the chance to break away from the norm once a year and catch a wave while making new friends. “The camaraderie is great. You meet amazing volunteers, other surfers with disabilities, and get to learn about life and how other people deal with it. It is an amazing experience.”
He remembers the excitement more than any fear. “It felt great to reconnect to Mother Natur
e. It was like a ‘coming home’ feeling, an ‘I can do this moment,’ and it felt great!”
Life Rolls On
Life Rolls On started with two surfers with disabilities and a handful of friends as volunteers. Ten years later, they host nine TWSA events across seven states. At their recent Huntington Beach event, there were 70 surfers with disabilities and over 400 volunteers. I was one of those surfers, and so was Amanda Timms, of Mar Vista, Calif., via British Columbia, Canada.
Timms was only 17 when she sustained a T6 spinal cord injury after cart-wheeling into a tree in the Big Mountain Ski Competition. The bungled jump may have left Timms paralyzed from the waist down, but barely scratched her fortitude and penchant for adventure. She hit the waves with LRO for the first time less then six months after her injury.
She had no idea what to expect from her first LRO experience. She recalls, “Getting into the water was nerve-wracking. I had only been in the water once since my accident, and that was at the hospital. It was scary falling off the board the first time, but every time there was someone there. Once I knew I was safe, I was able to let go and push myself to my limits. It was so much fun.”
So much fun that Timms has now surfed with LRO in La Hoya, Calif., Hawaii and Huntington Beach, where I met her.
Timms, a spitfire of a girl, warned me the surf in Huntington was rough, and the sets were non-stop, but she assured me that the LRO volunteers would be right there. She confided in me about her first experience. “When I got there, I had no clue. I did not know what to do, or if the water was going to be cold. I had no idea and no wetsuit. But LRO had everything: wetsuit, food, helpful volunteers, and everyone was happy; they were laughing and having a great time, so the energy was contagious. You really wanted to be there and you knew you were safe.”
Huntington was Timm’s third surf trip, so she was considered an old pro. It was exciting for her to mentor others and be a role model. She reflects about the participants she met: “Some were nervous, so it felt great to expand the experience from myself to the community. It was awesome to actually reach out to others.”
Timms was right about the surf conditions at Huntington Beach. This boogie with the brine was a completely different experience. First there was the choreography — six different teams, each assigned a color, a number of surfers with disabilities and a number of volunteers. Each team would prep and ready one surfer while another was out. The stage was never empty. Red, blue, green, neon, yellow and orange would bob and glide across the ocean. Surfers of all ages and abilities — high quads, low quads, paras, MS, MD, amputees, and more. And the amazing volunteers were just as diverse.
My time was not until 4:30 p.m. I had been hanging out since 10 a.m. During that time, I saw some people leave the surf with ear-to-ear smiles and some come out crying. I was getting concerned about my chances. The waves at Huntington did not appear as hospitable as those in Ventura. And when my time came, I was glad there were 19 volunteers assigned to my number.
This performance was more like a Samba than a waltz. The waves came pounding one after another. There was no time for up and over or under and through. It took every ounce of energy from each person to proceed forward through the complex, clave-driven rhythm of the waves. Leisurely interludes were nonexistent. The swells here were upbeat and lively and rolled me about with showy drops and moves. The turbulent tone of the sea filled me with awe and adrenaline. We turned quickly to catch the tune of the tide, but I lost pace and quickly found myself upside-down and under water. My team was there before I floated to the surface, and within minutes I was back on the board heading out for round two.
The next trip out was just as bumpy as it had been before. I gripped the adaptive handles on my board as my team fought the wild wake. I wasn’t cold any more or afraid. I was charged! “I’m gonna ride this one all the way in,” I predicted. We turned and … wait for it … wait for it … the swell came and my board buddy kicked us off. We caught the wave, I shifted my weight, leaned into the curl and we rode all the way to shore. The crowd went wild. It was an incredible ride.
I know why Brendon Cunningham couldn’t say no when he was asked to traverse the same road that injured him, why Amanda Timms has hit the surf at three LRO events, why Chris Goad continues to ride the tide, and why Jesse Billlauer, whose life changed in the waves, had to surf again. It’s the “stoke” — an individualized personal experience that has no prerequisites. Small waves, big waves, surfboard, body board, solitary or surrounded by friends, it happens at any given moment in time. It is about your state of mind, your state of being. And once you’ve felt it, you’ve got to surf again. See you in Zuma!
www.SurfClass.com — Surf Class provides group and private surfing lessons, and weekly summer camp. Their website even has a special programs section that touts their ability to “accommodate any kind of special needs for children and adults, including autism, blind surfers, handicaps, paraplegics, quadriplegics and Attention Deficit Disorder children (ADD).” They also have links to Life Rolls On and The Best Day Foundation.
www.liferollson.org — Life Rolls On is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for young people affected by spinal cord injury and utilizes action sports as a platform to demonstrate the infinite possibilities beyond paralysis.
Brendon Cunningham’s story, an 8-minute video.
The conditionally accessible oceanfront home my family and I rented.
An article about the beach house.