Looking back at the year 2016 you may remember that the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, Donald Trump became president of the USA, the UK votes to leave the European Union, and the deaths of Muhammad Ali and Prince...I remember those things, but also a few key others: The 2nd annual World Adaptive Surfing Championship took place in La Jolla, the first publication of the Adaptive Surfing Magazine, and a historic decision that took place in August of 2016 when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced to the world that surfing will be included in the Olympic program for the 2020 Tokyo games. This took the surfing industry by storm. Every elite, competitive surfer started to calculate what their age would be for those games and to think about the possibility of “I finally have a chance to represent my country and be an Olympic medalist.” What a year to remember.
Fast forward one year later... in July of 2017 the International Surfing Association (ISA) announces that the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) officially recognizes the ISA as the International Federation (IF) for para (adaptive) surfing. What does this mean? In short, it means ISA is the agency chosen by the IPC to set the standards for para surfing, to include the development of rules, classification, drug testing, and everything else for competitive para surfing. In the end it is ISA who will be responsible for doing everything necessary to present the sport for the Paralympic games program. This is a hefty duty that the organization is taking very seriously. In the past 3 years we have seen tremendous growth in the sport because of the ISA World Adaptive Surfing Games, first run in 2015. From the start, ISA created an advisory board to help develop the sport to include high level competition, adaptive clinics, symposiums and beautiful marketing. Due to this each year more and more countries cultivate the sport in their homelands and increase the number of events (recreational and competitions) to help drive adaptive surfing.
Recently I had the opportunity to attend the first European Adaptive Surfing Seminar. It was held in the Canary Islands and conducted by Play and Train, with EU countries representing Spain, Portugal, France and Italy. I was honored, along with my good friend Alex, to be the Keynote speaker for the seminar. Many topics were discussed, such as information on the International Surfing Association (ISA), the adaptive surfing classification system- past, present and future, presenting organizations and research on adaptive surfing, equipment, and athlete panels. The entire weekend was a huge boost for the adaptive surfing community and brought the European countries closer together to unite as a forefront on the sport.
A key presentation was made by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Media & Communications Director, Craig Spence. (It is important to note that Craig was on the island for a total of 20 hours and came specifically to give this presentation. This shows the impact of our sport and how keen the IPC is in giving para surfing a fighting chance to be included in the Paralympic program.) There were several points that he made that need to be addressed and the key topics include: increasing the number of overall participants (and countries participating), gender equality, drug testing compliance, and classification.
Believe it or not, the Paralympics is a grassroots movement that begins with the recreational participant. It starts with having an opportunity to get on a surfboard for the first time. For most of us, we can probably remember the first time we got on a surfboard and paddled out. We may have not caught many impressive waves that day, but in the days to follow, many were had. Often, people are given the opportunity to try surfing for the first time because of a family member, friend or an organization. There are many organizations nowadays that promote adaptive surfing and provide people with their first chance to ever get on a board or do so after a life changing incident (motor vehicle accident, sickness, operation, etc.) This is the stepping stone where we all begin. Some remain at this level and surf only once, twice or several times in their lifetime. Others progress to regularly practice the sport as a lifelong recreational passion.
Then there are the elite, those that not only practice the sport as a lifelong recreational passion, but become so good that they compete against the best, and even become the best. They are the steps to becoming a World Champion, and, hopefully in the near future, becoming a Paralympian. People have to begin somewhere, and that is why we need to look at adaptive surfing as a whole. By driving new surfers to the sport it will increase the overall participation and push elite competition. This is necessary if our sport is to be recognized. Specifically, the IPC requires that 32 countries have a competitive presence within the sport. This does not mean that 32 countries will have a representative at the Paralympic Games within the sport, but that 32 nations are fully involved in competitive adaptive surfing, demonstrating global participation.
Further on that topic, we discuss gender equality. It’s not hard to look at our sport in its current state to see that it comprises mostly of males. This needs to change. We have a responsibility to make the sport equal across genders. Not all sports strive to do this. But we can, with a concerted effort, easily change the way the world looks at gender equality, starting with sport. This is our opportunity to educate people across the globe and spread the teaching and therapeutic benefits of surfing. This is a requirement for our sport and will be a requirement of the IPC as it believes in gender parity.
The next subject is very important for qualifying for the Paralympic Program... Drug Testing. This is needed for elite level competition and is required in all Paralympic sports. Over the years we have seen how drugs or doping can enhance the ability to practice a sport. This is an unfair advantage and can cause serious health issues to the person who is using this method to cheat. Let’s be clear before we move on, it is cheating. First off, it’s stated very clearly in the rules. Second, you are using a substance to gain a competitive edge against your opponents. This is not right in the spirit of competition. Certain agencies are working hard to make sure that this does not happen. However, as National Federations and athletes, it is your responsibility to not use prohibited substances and train as hard as you possibly can. As drug testing comes more of a factor in the competition of para surfing, Therapeutic Use Exemption forms (TUEs) will become necessary for athletes to complete. A TUE states that an athlete has permission to use a certain substance that is otherwise prohibited. This is especially important for the adaptive surfer who is using prescribed medications for a specific medical need. I encourage you to read more about the subject, but also remember that there is a prohibited list; TUEs will not be allowed for all medications/substances.
Finally we come to a matter that is always an ongoing debate, classification. In the world of adaptive sports, classification is a necessary evil. It is imperative to have such systems to “equalize” the playing field; this has been discussed many times before and will many times later. What I would like to approach is how everyone can take an active role in classification. Simply, follow the protocol. Classification is very dynamic and changes every so often. This is because we are always trying to make it better. However, it is important to know that when using a current system, it most likely is the best system at that point in time. That doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t change in the future; who knows, maybe someone is working to further develop the system or creating a new one altogether. The best way to know if something is working is with everyone’s full cooperation. Once this is happening, then the research can be done on that model with meaningful results. At that time you make adjustments as needed. In order to have full cooperation, each competition across the globe should use the same classification system. Think about it...hypothetically, if a competition in Asia is using their own system different from one in South America and Europe, how will each of them be able to compete equally in a World Games or Paralympic event? The athletes would have competed against athletes in different class systems which would have them at different levels, thus, changing the overall outcomes. This also degrades the validity of competitions as they do not have the same meaning as each other, making it harder to find a true champion. If, as a sport, we want to be recognized in the Paralympic program, we need to compete using the same set of international rules.
The time to come will be an important period for para surfing. In order to be accepted in the 2024 Paralympic program, interested sports will need to apply to the IPC in mid-2018. In the year 2019, the IPC will select its sports for the 2024 Paris games. Para surfing has a pipeline to become a Paralympic sport but will need to comply with all standards set by the IPC. This is a long and difficult pathway, but is attainable if we all play an active role.