Surfing

What quadriplegic surfing? That was my response when a friend of mine told me that a group was going to be visiting my area to assist people with spinal cord injuries to go surfing. It certainly seemed like a crazy idea. After I looked into it I discovered that, They Will Surf Again, an organization dedicated to helping injured individuals surf, had hosted many of these events and that with the help of over 200 volunteers they were willing to get all of my 6’1” 200 pound frame facedown on the surfboard.

So, a few years ago, I showed up at a local beach not far for from where I live in New Jersey. I rolled my wheelchair down to the beach and they transferred me into something that looked like it belongs on the moon. It was made out of PVC piping and had large inflated wheels.

With the help of several volunteers I was pulled over to a staging area. There a handful of people helped me get into a wetsuit and I awaited my turn. Getting the wetsuit on was fun. It’s hard enough getting dressed with the help of a nurse in a bed. Getting changed on the beach in a funky wheelchair was something new completely. Of course getting the suit around my belly was the biggest challenge. But you can accomplish just about anything if you put your mind to it, and these volunteers were not going to give up.

I was designated as part of the green team. There were so many people there interested in surfing that they had to separate us into three teams. Green, red, and blue. When my turn came I was certainly a little nervous. I can be adventurous, but cold water and quadriplegics didn’t seem like a winning combination. I had been in pools before, but this was altogether different. The surf was actually 3 to 5 foot swells and I knew that the only thing I was able to do in the water was sink. I was reassured by a man in his early 30s straight out of a surfer movie. Tall with sandy blonde hair, he smiled and let me know that he had done this before and there would be no problems.

They lifted me out of my wheelchair and placed me on the sand. They then rolled me over onto my stomach on the surfboard. Each team had people working on the beach and in the water. About six or seven people lifted the surfboard up with me on it, and we headed for the surf. Splash! Into the cold water went me and the surfboard. I had to catch my breath and I started to hyperventilate a little. But there was no time for second thoughts. The beach team that had picked me up walked me out to about their chest height and transferred me over to the expert swimmers and surfers. There were probably five or six of them as well.

Oh by the way, if it makes you feel any better, yes, I did have a life jacket on. Luckily I didn’t need it, although I did have a few close calls and almost slid off the board. The Deepwater team treaded water while we waited for a good wave. Once the right wave came the teams gave me a push and the early 30s surfer dude came behind my surfboard grabbed on and started body surfing. Off we went and somehow or another I managed to stay on the board until we got to the beach.

Wow that was exhilarating! From there the team on the beach lifted me up again and within seconds we were headed back out towards the surf. Again we exchanged with the Deepwater team and everything was repeated. It was awesome. There were few drawbacks. I did hyperventilate a little not being used a cold water and the salt got in my eyes, but overall it was a great experience and I highly recommend it to anyone who gets the chance.

Hang loose!

Charles Fleisher

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charles@beyondwheels.com
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