I remember as a kid standing on the shore watching surfers riding waves. I thought it was some kind of magic trick. The effortless glide of the seabirds was somehow attainable on the water.
When my dad gave me my first surfboard I discovered my own freedom in the ocean. Now that I’m a dad I savor every moment in the water with my kids like it’s a sacred ritual, feeling more alive in the ocean than on land. Surfing by yourself can be a truly spiritual moment of solitude but truthfully sharing that freedom with others is the greater privilege.
When I was in college at UC San Diego I worked as a surfing instructor on the beach in La Jolla. Working long hours at the beach teaching attractive co-eds to surf was the best job I’ve ever had second only to playing drums in a rock band. Many of my students were visiting from around the globe and I loved introducing them to the pure stoke of riding waves. Passing along the gift, paying it forward.
When a friend recently invited me to the World Adaptive Surfing Championships here in La Jolla, I had the opportunity to relive that feeling on that very same stretch of sand.
Challenged athletes from all over the world traveled to compete in this championship, the first international event of its kind. Some of the athletes are wounded warriors, some are young kids adapting to various physical challenges, but all of them are passionate about life and truly courageous in the ocean! As the athletes prepared their surf gear and met with their volunteer teams to assist them into the water, the energy on the beach was incredible as family and friends waved their national flags cheering on these inspiring heroes.
Tim and I joined a team of five to assist an 11 year old girl named Riley. She’s got pigtails, a bright smile, and a pink surfboard painted with purple butterflies. Surfing is Riley’s favorite thing to do but she doesn’t get the opportunity to go very often. Beach access for her wheelchair isn’t always easy, and depending on the weather conditions the surf doesn’t always cooperate either. Today was special. Here on the water’s edge Riley’s dad was lifting her from her chair to her surfboard, her face lit up eager to get into the warm clear water with clean glassy sets rolling in.
Our team kept Riley moving in a loop out to sea and then back in on the whitewater. Together we lined her up with a few smaller waves which she rode all the way to the beach smiling ear to ear and laughing out loud the whole time. After a few rides she told me she wanted to go further out and ride the bigger open face waves, this girl was fearless!
Riley’s passion and sheer joy for surfing were contagious as we all rallied around her board to get her onto one of the bigger swells. The next set approached and as we pushed her forward she began to glide down the open face. The wind of freedom on her face, the taste of the saltwater, the wild energy lifting her towards shore, weightless.