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Reprinted from SNS March 2017

Discover how to get started in the wet, wild and even therapeutic sport of adaptive surfing

Bruno Hansen started adaptive surfing in a very hardcore way. After a carjacking incident crushed his T12 vertebrae and left him paralyzed in South Africa in 1998, Hansen, a former able-bodied surfer, taught himself how to handle the water differently. His friends were all surfers, so the South African forced himself to join them during their wave time, no matter what. 

“The guys would help me by dragging me across the rocks and trekking my board down to the beach and making me go out on big waves that they surfed. I didn’t really know better at the time,” says the 45-year-old Hansen, now a two-time International Surfing Association (ISA) World Adaptive Surfing champion. “If I look back on it now, it was kind of stupid because the waves were so big and crazy. But it really got me to a high level very quickly. And that’s why I can surf how I do now.”

Gaining Popularity

That’s one approach to the rising sport of adaptive surfing

Bill Martin makes his way to the water at December’s International Surfing Association World Adaptive Surfing Championship in La Jolla, Calif. (Photo Christopher Di Virgilio).

In fact, it has its own world championships. Hansen defended his AS4 Prone title at the 2016 ISA World Adaptive Surfing Championship in La Jolla, Calif., last December. Hansen, who competed for Denmark, finished with 12.37 points, defeating Christiaan “Otter” Bailey (United States) by 5.99 points. 

At the 2016 ISA World Adaptive Surfing Championship, 77 athletes from 22 countries competed in five forms of adaptive surfing: upright, stand/kneel, prone, assisted or visually impaired. 

Upright surfers balance on their surfboards in a seated position. Stand/kneel riders can either stand up and ride waves on a surfboard with a paddle, known as a waveski, or use a kneeling surfboard to kneel and use swim fins. 

Prone surfers lie on their stomachs and can surf assisted or unassisted. Assisted prone surfers can have someone assist them in catching a wave by being pushed into the wave and having spotters on the side or another person lying on the board with them to paddle into the wave and ride it with them. Unassisted prone surfers are fully independent in the water, getting back on their board and paddling back out, though they may need some assistance getting in and out of the water. 

Competitive surfers like those participating in the world championships have been where the newly injured or those battling their injuries are now. They know the mental and physical struggles. But they know this sport can help. 

Three Key Attributes

Like Hansen, Bailey is a paraplegic and was an avid surfer before his injury, which occurred July 23, 2006, after he blew his knee out and broke his back (L3 and L4 vertebrae) performing a boneless 360 skateboarding stunt in a video for Santa Cruz (Calif.) Skateboards. 

The injury didn’t deter Bailey’s spirits, though. He remembered a 2003 movie called Step Into Liquid, which focused on Jesse Billauer, a then-17-year-old who was knocked off his surfboard by a wave and broke his neck after hitting his head on a shallow sandbar, leaving him a quadriplegic (C6). Doctors told Billauer he’d never surf again, but he did — adaptively.

Bailey contacted Billauer, who now runs the Life Rolls On organization, and told him how he wanted to surf again. They ended up meeting in Santa Cruz and have remained friends and helped grow the sport ever since. 

Bailey says beginning adaptive surfers need three key attributes: a good wetsuit, lots of patience and experience. 

“With the higher-level injuries because we have problems regulating our body temperature, it can become problematic immersing yourself in cold water for hours at the time. So a good wetsuit is always a good thing,” Bailey says. “Next is patience, a lot of patience. Because the thing with surfing is that it’s so fundamentally tied to the flow of nature. A lot of people get frustrated because it’s not like a skatepark. No two waves are exactly the same. You can be in two totally different positions and get different styles of waves. Having the patience to learn what your body is doing, learn what nature is doing and, more importantly, getting the experience to be able to bring those two together is really important.


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