If there’s such a thing as the ideal surf conditions for a C 4-5 quadriplegic — and I now know there is — then Saturday, August 16th was it; 75° blue skies, 68° water, light winds and a 1 to 3 foot southwest swell. It had been 28 years since I last put on a wetsuit and sat on the sand waiting to enter a lineup — a palpable grom-like excitement snapped to attention by the smell of surfboard wax and neoprene warming under the morning sun.
From the moment that first doctor uttered the words, “you’ll never walk again”, this day has been the stuff of dreams. I’ve seen it unfold countless times — in various manifestations — in such detail and color it almost always felt real. Often I’d be standing — surfing as proficiently as I used to — doing roundhouse cutbacks, off the lips and getting barreled. While other times, I’d be wobbly, barely able to stand, as if walking for the first time since my accident. And still others, as I am now — paralyzed — but able to catch waves on my belly like a boogie boarder.
What rarely seemed to be in my dreams, however, was how it all came together. In my dreams, there was hardly any paddling, duck diving, sitting in lineups waiting for waves — any of that ancillary stuff. It was all about the surfing. But all that “ancillary” stuff is critical to catching waves, and it’s something I’ve given great thought to in regards to how I might surf in the real world as opposed to my imagination.
No matter what form they take, it’s a strange moment when your dreams come true.
This was a Life Rolls On and They Will Surf Again event, two organizations which — among other things — have made a mission of bringing awareness to spinal cord injury research and getting disabled folk out into the water to surf. At this particular Bolsa Chica event, there were about 150 volunteers — surfers, non-surfers, high school students, college students, parents, grandparents — most of whom were on the beach helping with registration, food, getting wetsuits on and off, etc, while others were in the water helping people surf. On this beautiful summer Saturday, it was inspiring to see so many people come together to help 20 individuals catch some waves.
Red. Blue. Green. Orange.
On arrival, surfers were put into four color-coded groups of five with the order the surfer would get to hit the water determined by where the surfer was on a list in their group. In other words, things were set up like a typical surf contest, with four surfers from each group in the water at the same time for about 20 minute heats. Once in the water, each surfer was accompanied by 8 to 10 volunteers who — depending on the surfer’s needs — were spread out in a boxlike pattern with spotters on the outside keeping an eye on the waves, spotters on the inside to get to the surfer if he or she wiped out, and a few others to help push the surfer into the waves (or over them as the case warranted).
I won’t lie to you and say I wasn’t a little frustrated by my heat draw. I was fourth in my group which meant I had to wait an hour before I’d get to enter the water, and this was an additional hour on top of my arrival time (did I mention the 28 years before that?). And while I’m not saying there’s a better or safer way to do it — perhaps because it was my first time they wanted me to check things out a bit before I got out there — as an ex-surfer, I knew with every passing moment the wind would become a little stiffer onshore and the conditions would slowly get bumpier. Less than ideal for the waves.
“Reminds me of your NSSA contests“. My dad said, sensing my antsiness and trying to comfort me a little. “A lot of waiting for a few waves”.
“Yeah”. I said, smiling. “A lot”.
And it was true, waiting is all part of the process. Sometimes you get an early heat draw, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you get it glassy, sometimes you don’t. But really, truth be told, I would’ve waited all day and into the next week if I had to; a little bump wasn’t going to turn this quad around. Besides it gave me a great opportunity to meet and talk with some of the other more experienced crip surfers who’d been to these events before.
Triceps are everything
There’s an expression amongst spinal cord injury crips that goes something like this: quads want to be paras and paras want to walk. I’d amend that slightly by adding, high quads want to be low quads, but otherwise — in my experience — it’s pretty right on. The thing is, the lower your injury is on the spinal cord, the more motor function you have. If we’re talking about the cervical vertebrae, the difference in moving the trauma up or down one or two vertebrae could mean the difference between breathing on your own or not, or being able to get dressed and get in and out of bed on your own or not. This movement over a very small amount of real estate can have a huge impact on one’s level of independence.
To illustrate this further and maybe paint a clearer picture for those of you who aren’t fortunate enough to know a quadriplegic personally, Christopher Reeve’s injury was sustained around the first two cervical vertebrae and thus he required a respirator to breathe, whereas Jesse Billauer, the founder of Life Rolls On and the godfather of quad surfing, sustained his at the sixth. My level of injury is between the fourth and fifth vertebrae, and the difference between Jesse and myself is that he has the use of his triceps, wrists and maybe some pectorals and I don’t. How this difference translates to surfing is that where Jesse is able to support himself on his elbows, lean from side to side to control the direction of the board and see straight ahead, I’m unable to do any of these things. The use of triceps in this regard is the x-factor.
As they were bringing me out into the surf for the first time, I was trying to get my head around how this was all going to go down. It was obvious I’d be prone, but how I’d see or stay on the board was a complete mystery. As I mentioned above, I don’t have the use of my triceps so holding myself upright on my elbows wouldn’t be an option. Also since I breathe with my diaphragm, being on my belly would make it difficult for me to take a deep breath, and when you’re surfing being able to take a deep breath can be very handy from time to time. Fortunately, the board I was using had a hard piece of foam duct–taped to it and this allowed me to keep my head — albeit turned to one side — off the deck and able to breathe air instead of salt water. It wasn’t a perfect design by any means, but I didn’t expect it to be — I was on the board and that was another step closer to surfing.
Still, as we got closer to the lineup I wasn’t without apprehension; the waves weren’t big, but I was concerned that because I couldn’t see ahead of me, I wouldn’t be able to take a breath in time if we needed to go under or over a wave or if I pearled and wiped out. It wasn’t drowning that concerned me — my friend Natalie was riding tandem with me and between her and all the other spotters I knew somebody would to get to me — I just didn’t want it to become a “pump the salt water out of the redheaded quad day”. I wanted to surf, not be resuscitated.
But like everything else that day, it was about teamwork — this kind of surfing isn’t possible without it. When that first wave broke in front of us and everyone shouted, “breathe!”, I knew another obstacle had fallen by the wayside. Even though I lacked something essential like forward vision, the team did their best to make up for it. They couldn’t take a breath for me, but at least they could tell me when and how long I should hold it.
I want to tell you that being in the ocean again — in this capacity — for the first time since breaking my neck was like a trip home. I want to tell you that after we punched through that first wave — the sound and sensation of the cool whitewater rushing over me — that everything came flooding back and I felt supremely comfortable. I want to tell you these things, because the ocean is my heart and soul and does feel like home. But what I was feeling was much more than that and conflicted as well. Wrapped up in my elation and stoke to be in the water again was a profound sense of vulnerability, that while foreign and uncomfortable, felt strangely appropriate.
I’ve always had a tremendous respect for the ocean, but I’ve never felt vulnerable in it — even when things got really heavy. The day I broke my neck, the day I floated there in the water — my home — unable to swim or save myself, as waves broke around me, was a humbling moment. Coming back to those sensations — that awareness (I still can’t swim to save my life) — felt more electric I suppose because of where I was now. I’ve pushed my boundaries before — confronted my fears — and I know those feelings well, and this wasn’t one of those feelings… this was not adrenaline. This was something far greater. This was — for lack of a better way to put it — the moment. And it was a lifetime in the making.
The three waves I caught that afternoon were small, but to me they couldn’t have been more perfect. On each wave I could hear my family, my friends and the team cheer as Natalie and I cut and rode towards shore. Most of these folks had waited as long as I had for this moment and the fact that they could be there with me — sharing it — meant as much to me as the experience itself. I’ve surfed alone on many great days and had many great sessions, but the days I cherish most — good or mediocre — were the days I shared with loved ones. This day was no exception and I’m forever grateful they could all be there.
A picture is worth…
Later that evening, I saw some photos my sister and cousin had taken of the event, and one in particular grabbed my heart and made me a bit dusty. It was of my parents — together — watching me at some point in the afternoon — either putting on my wetsuit or catching a wave — and both of them were crying. I’ve tried to imagine on numerous occasions what it must be like for them to have had their only son break his neck and how intensely they must feel both my challenges and successes as I’ve grown and lived with my disability. But truthfully, this wasn’t what got me about the photograph — though it’s making me a bit teary now — what got me about the photograph, was that I believe for the first time after all these years they truly — in the deepest, most profound way possible — felt and understood what surfing means to me.
Don’t get me wrong, my parents were supportive of my surfing at a very young age. They were always aware a good part of my drive and spirit were formed by surfing. They have adopted sons and my sisters have additional brothers because of surfing. My dad often got up before the crack of dawn and took me to my contests, my friends and I to Baja, Trestles and countless other surf breaks beyond the range of our bikes and skateboards. And my mom — God bless her — rarely said no to me going to the beach by myself in my preteen years, something a lot of parents wouldn’t dream of today (in her defense she always thought I was going to meet somebody). But still, given all this, deep down I don’t think they ever really, truly got surfing… not really. They knew I loved it — obsessed over it — but like most people who’ve never surfed, the sport — in all its entirety — was beyond their understanding.
Surfing — for me at least (and a lot of others around the world) — has always been a spiritual experience; if you don’t surf that’s near impossible to get your head around. And if you do, well, it’s nearly impossible to explain. Surf culture is about community as much as anything else, and when we have a profound experience within a warm, embracing community that experience can be magnified infinitely. What I saw in that photograph was the accumulation of all my parents’ experiences with surfing — years of being around it, seeing it, hearing about it, living it — reaching a place of understanding in an environment that was the perfect catalyst for just such an awakening. Take that and combine it with everything else about that day, our history and our love for each other and you have yourself a couple of parents who at long last found the true meaning of stoke. They may not surf, but they’re now part of the tribe. Who wouldn’t shed some tears?
Still, I suspect even now if you asked them what it was that made them so emotional in that picture, they might say something completely different from what I’m suggesting here. And that’s fine, because don’t believe it’s one thing. But I also don’t believe they would’ve had quite the same reaction had it been basketball, fishing or even a skydiving I was doing for the first time since my accident.
Recently I’ve given it a lot of thought as to why — at this age — these sports — surfing, skiing, sailing, skateboarding — still have so much resonance in my life. There’s no question aging or all those years spent in bed nursing pressure sores has something to do with it, but I think it’s much more basic than that. I broke my neck at a time when these sports literally meant everything to me and it was like having a meal snatched away before I’d even finished — my belly still growling and hungry. That said, I don’t pine for these things or feel my life is any less complete because I’m not doing them the way I once did — quite the contrary. Not being able to do them has sent my life on an incredible trajectory that I never would’ve been on otherwise. In many ways — though this might seem like a strange metaphor given the obvious — it’s like losing your sight and finding your other senses have become more acute. Now when I see or do these sports, their meaning and impact feels far more significant and — in a way I never would have expected — become a springboard to much higher heights.
And the future?
Unlike my skiing experience where the equipment is pretty much dialed in for my level of injury, this surfing experience was a “go with what we’ve got” type of a deal that ultimately worked, but could be greatly improved upon. Since that afternoon, I’ve begun brainstorming on how to do this, as I want to get out in the water again as soon as possible. I figure any solutions I come up with will benefit not only somebody like myself but ideally somebody with less function as well. And ultimately that’s the goal — making the experience as accessible and enjoyable to as many people as possible. If you know any shapers or anybody who wants to participate in this endeavor, point them in my direction. Contrary to popular belief, you can never have too many brains in the broth.
I’d be remiss in my duties as a blogger if I didn’t close out this piece with a little something about inspiration and its effect on action. As you’ve come to understand from above, my desire to surf again was a pretty heavy one. But because of my level of injury and my inability to swim, I could never quite figure out how to make it work and it eventually became a back burner fantasy — prominent and ever present, but nevertheless back burner.
The first time I saw that video of Jesse Billauer surfing many years ago was a watershed moment. Not only did it move me to see an ex-surfer get out there and ride waves, but as a fellow quadriplegic and champion of all things bold and pioneering, it’s significance wasn’t lost on me. Not only was it one of the heaviest things I’d ever seen in the sport (try negotiating whitewater or going over the falls when you’re unable to swim and have no use of your legs), but perhaps one of the most inspiring as well. Suddenly what was once difficult to wrap my head around, now seemed possible and it was only a matter of time before all the right pieces would fall into place. Our disabilities may have been different, but that hardly mattered, he had broken down the door and this is where things would start to happen.
Fast-forward many years, several adventures, some life-changing opportunities and a return to a location not far from where I broke my neck, and as I was sitting there on the beach waiting to get wet, surrounded by dynamic and beautiful people, I was entirely aware that this event, the 19 before it and others like it taking place elsewhere around the world, were the result of a single spark started by one individual.
This was inspiration evolving into action, and if there’s anyone out there who still doubts your individual power, I suggest A) you reread this blog and B) you check out one of these events.
Aloha and big mahalos to volunteers everywhere.