By Brock Johnson
Growing up an athlete and someone that loves the water, I developed a love of surfing after I moved to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina from Arkansas in 1997. I had been spending my summers in Myrtle Beach with my parents since I was 19 during college and started working as an Ocean Rescue lifeguard in 1998. I was even named Lifeguard of the Year in my final year for the south end of Myrtle Beach. Upon graduation in 1999, I made the move permanent, and have lived here ever since.
To say I love being in the water is an understatement, and to that point, the water is where I belong. I spent all of my free time back then wakeboarding or surfing or just being on or near it. Then in May of 2011, a freak accident turned my love of the water into a cruel irony. I emerged from a diving accident a C6/C7 quadriplegic. I was airlifted to Atlanta’s Shepard Center and endured months of therapy to regain the use of my arms and hands. While encouraged by the progress I was making, I was still struggling with the darkest time of my life. It was during one of my therapy sessions at Shepherd Center that I learned about Jesse Billauer’s Life Rolls On, “They Will Surf Again” event in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. I finally found something to truly look forward to. Just a few months later, for the first time in over a year, I was back on a surfboard! Getting back in the ocean was truly like coming home for me. I missed surfing more than I missed walking.
Once I had that feeling back, that stoke, the idea for “Wheel to Surf” was born. I credit Jesse for inspiring me and showing me a way to allow people with a variety of disabilities to get back into the water. LRO’s partner in North Carolina is Ocean Cure, headed by one if the best watermen I know, Kevin Murphy. Ocean Cure has years of experience taking people with disabilities surfing from LRO to organizations like Wounded Warriors or one of their many different annual camps. I asked Kevin if he would like to partner with the Paralympic club I work with, Coastal Adaptive Sports, and start our own adaptive surfing clinic in Myrtle Beach. He agreed, and since then we, along with our other partners and sponsors, have successfully organized eleven Wheel to Surf events and have four more planned for this year. With our work in the community and the support of many local volunteers, we have been able to help hundreds of people and adaptive surfing is now a part of the culture in Myrtle Beach. Plus we have been able to move Wheel to Surf around to places like Charleston, South Caronlina and Morehead City, North Carolina with the help of new partners.
Out of the first Wheel to Surf event, Adaptive Surf Project was born. I became close friends with some of the volunteers, Luke and Erin Sharp, Brandon and Cara Bellegarde, and James and Ellen Samaha, and they understood that getting back in the ocean once or twice a year just wasn’t enough. They wanted to do more. So we formed Adaptive Surf Project in order to do just that by designing, creating, and giving away adaptive surfboards, custom built by Island Inspired Surfboards. ASP also created a network of volunteers willing to help year round with anyone that wants to discover or rediscover the healing power of the ocean, whether through free surfing, events, or competition.
Adaptive Surf Project organized the first adaptive division in a surf competition on the East Coast at the Anderson Estep Memorial Surf Off in 2014 in Cherry Grove, South Carolina. This small event would send Adaptive Surf Project into a new direction, and open up amazing opportunities for disabled athletes to pursue their surfing dreams. My love for surfing and desire to spend as much time becoming a more advanced adaptive surfer led me to winning multiple first and second place adaptive surfing comps and being named the first South Carolina Eastern Surfing Association Champion. I’ve gone on to win three straight South Carolina ESA titles.
In 2015, the International Surfing Association announced the first World Adaptive Surfing Championships in California. As soon as I heard this news, I knew that I had to be on Team USA. After two applications and months of waiting, I found out that I would be representing my country in surfing, and life has not been the same since! This experience was the most amazing adventure that I have ever had, from the beautiful pageantry of the Opening Ceremonies, to meeting world class athletes, to the powerful Californian waves. Though I went there to win, finishing in the semi-finals was a huge accomplishment for me. I proved to myself and the world that even if you’re a quadriplegic from a small beach town in South Carolina, not known for surfing, you can still achieve your dreams.
Since then, we have continued our growing work with Wheel to Surf and Adaptive Surf Project. Last year my friend, from Myrtle Beach as well, Veronica Tario, and I competed in the USA Surfing Championships. I went back to California with the goal of making the podium and surfing Black’s Beach. With determination, a lot of luck, and of course help, I achieved both, by finishing 3rd in the comp and happening upon an unlocked gate.
Now we have added a mission of spreading the movement of adaptive surfing on the East Coast. For example, this past year Adaptive Surf Project took five surfers (Veronica, Ernie Johnson, Jeff Radvansky, Terrel Rawson, and I) to Sebastian Inlet, Florida to compete in the first adaptive divisions in Atlantic Surfing Federation East Coast Championships. This contest also included a Floridian and the runner up at Nationals last year, C.C. Roberts. This year, four of those same surfers attendedthe USA Surfing Championships.
I couldn’t be more humbled and grateful for all of the hard work and love put forth by everyone along this crazy journey, including my wife, family, friends, and our surfing community. None of this story is possible without them.