To say that it has been exciting watching the growth of adaptive surfing in the recent years would be an understatement. The adaptive surfing community has banded together, organizations have spawned, equipment has progressed, world champions have been crowned, a pathway has been forged, and a solid foundation has been put in place to foster the continued growth of the sport. The inspiration of adaptive surfers can be seen across the globe and the future is looking bright with the recent announcement that the International Surfing Association (ISA) has applied for membership with the International Paralympic Committee, bringing adaptive surfing one step closer towards the Paralympic Games.
The brave surfers that chase waves against all odds, and the friends and family that help make it happen, can all feel the momentum of the adaptive surfing movement and, for those involved, it feels that adaptive surfing is really starting to hit a stride. However, when I tell people that are not directly involved with adaptive surfing that I am the editor at a publication dedicated to adaptive surfing, many people look puzzled.
Most people understand the concept of surfing, which by dictionary definition is, “The sport or pastime of riding a wave towards the shore while standing or lying on a surfboard”, or so it described by the Oxford Dictionary.
But then what is adaptive surfing?
According to Jon Richards, Therapeutic Recreation Specialist for the City of San Diego, Adaptive Surfing can be defined as, “the activity of riding waves while on a surfboard and adapting the activity to meet the needs of an individual”.
With that said, the term adaptive surfing has become closely associated with surfers with physical disabilities and the programs that support them, and this is an important part of adaptive surfing, however adaptive surfing casts a wider net. Granted, the ISA World Adaptive Surfing Championships and the Paralympic Games are events designed for athletes with physical disabilities and we are inspired on a daily basis by the surfers who leave their wheelchairs, crutches, and prosthetic legs behind on the sand. Yet we are also moved by the passion and fearlessness of the surfers with cognitive disabilities and developmental delays, and are equally appreciative of the programs and athletes that use surfing for therapeutic, rehabilitative and self-improvement purposes.
Take this volumes (ASM Vol. 2) featured organization, Surfers Healing, for example. They take children with autism surfing and have changed the lives of many individuals and families across the US and beyond. According to Surfers Healing, “many children with autism struggle with sensory overload; in other words, simple sensations can overwhelm them. The weightlessness and rhythms of the ocean offer a therapeutic experience, a respite from the constant assault on their senses.” Surfers Healing has been hosting adaptive surfing clinics since 1996.
Many adaptive surfing organizations serve surfers with cognitive and physical disabilities, like the Best Day Foundation for example, and it is clear that surfing has transformative and rehabilitative qualities that resonate with groups and individuals from all walks of life.
Qualitative evidence aside, let’s get technical and take a closer look at the origins of the vernacular for a better understanding of why the term adaptive surfing is used to describe a broader group than specifically surfers with physical disabilities.
The verb to adapt comes from the Latin words ad (to) and aptare (to join) and loosely means, “to undergo a modification to fit new circumstances”, however the difference is in the suffixes, -ed and -ive.
There has been much debate in years past over the correct terminology to use to describe physical activities which are modified for participants’ abilities. Is it adapted surfing or adaptive surfing? And why does it matter?
In the article titled, “Adapted versus Adaptive Physical Activity”, for the Adaptive Physical Activity Quarterly authors, Yeshayahu Hutzler and Devora Hellerstein, take an in depth look at the subject and ultimately they argue that, although we often hear the terms adapted and adaptive used interchangeably, they do not mean the same thing. According to Hutzler and Hellerstein, adapted refers to, “physical activity that has already been adapted or modified to fit the new circumstance” (i.e. modifying equipment or approach in order to surf), while adaptive refers to “physical activity that causes modification” (i.e. the changes that occur because of surfing).
It is an important distinction that the adaptive surfing movement has taken on the terminology that it has, being described as adaptive surfing as opposed to adapted surfing. First off, more often than not we see adaptive surfing that is also adapted surfing, where clearly the equipment utilized and/or the approach to riding waves have been modified, and additionally, the physical activity of surfing also causes a modification for the individual surfers, generating feelings of elation, confidence, and independence that can be translated to daily life outside the water. All of the adaptive surfers I know are beacons of positivity, in and out of the water, and for many of them surfing is their anchor and their metaphor, their Everest if you will. They can surf, so nothing is impossible.
Furthermore, often times we see adaptive surfing where the equipment utilized for wave riding and the approach taken are not modified from what would be considered traditional surfing, but the physical activity of surfing causes a modification for the participant. Take the following examples for instance:
Operation Rebound and Operation Surf are programs that take veterans and active duty military surfing. These programs have been clinically proven to reduce anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and even lower feelings of depression and suicide in participants. In short, surfing helps many veterans and active duty military transition and assimilate. Some of the participants are Injured Service Members that also have physical disabilities and require modified equipment or approach, but many of the surfers’ equipment and approach to riding waves does not have to be modified, yet the healing and therapeutic qualities of the activity are positively life-changing.
Urban Surf for Kids takes at-risk-youth in the foster system surfing. These kids often do not have a large support system or many positive role models in their lives. According to Craig Jenkins, Director of US4K San Diego Chapter, “US4K is working to decrease the number of foster or orphan teens who become part of the negative statistics by creating an ‘Ohana’ or family dynamic with them. By teaching at-risk youth about the power and healing properties of the ocean, they begin to see themselves as a part of something greater. US4K’s surf and life skills training clinics enable community mentors to work with foster and orphan youth to prepare them to transition out of the system, and give them something positive to focus on in their daily life. US4K works with some youth who have suffered incredible emotional and physical abuse and we believe that the ocean is one on of the ultimate healing tools when dealing with trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).”
When it comes to surfing there is a unique relationship between the body and the mind. An individual makes the mental decision to surf, necessary adjustments are made based off level of ability, waves are ridden, and the stoke from the whole experience invigorates the mind. It is a beautiful cycle.
Surfing legend, Shaun Tomson, hits the nail on the head in his article, “Attitude Adaption”, where he discusses the important ability for one to get in the right head space and how that impacts their ability to tackle amazing feats, like catching waves in the ocean.
Furthermore, in her heart warming article, “Surfing and the Human Spirit”, Lorna Day, mother of surfer Sam Day, pays homage to her son, who will forever be remembered as the inspiration for the Junior Seau Foundation Adaptive Surfing Program presented by Challenged Athletes Foundation. Lorna drives home how surfing can help the human spirit thrive, despite whatever physical challenges one may be facing. “We had two battles on our hands, the fight against cancer, and the fight to live well. We all come alive with different experiences and for some, surfing makes the world go round.”
In his article, “Smiling Sunburn & Stoked”, Ryan Gambrell, mentor to some and inspiration to all, outlines the pros of the mentor/mentee relationship between adaptive surfers and gives another stellar example of how adaptive surfing is more than just how you ride the waves.
It is clear that there is something unique about our favorite pastime, but at the end of the day, we do not need to get too hung up on the definition semantics of adaptive surfing, because after all, we are all just riding waves towards the shore, we are all just surfing.