Before the ISA World Adaptive Surfing Championship (WASC) was held in LA Jolla, California in September of 2015, most adaptive surfing competitions were a bit of a catch all. There was no consistency in the rules of who was competing against each other and how they competed. The first adaptive surfing competition that I attended was in 2004. I remember showing up excited to watch the competition and to see the progression of the sport. As we got closer to competition I saw the heat draw and realized the surfers were all grouped together and it did not matter if they had a below knee amputation or if they were paralyzed, they were in the same heat together. This was not the fault of the organizers, adaptive surfing just had a long way to go, but these events acted as a catalyst for the adaptive surfing opportunities we see today.
One of the main reasons that all of the adaptive surfers surfed in the same heat is because there were very few adaptive surfers at that time. Adaptive surfing was in its infancy and not too many people were taking the plunge. The sport was pushing the boundaries and showcasing what could be done, but with few adaptive surfers in the water in general, there were even less participating in competition. Adaptive surfing was starting to be recognized and people were learning about the sport for the first time, not so much competing. Although there were only a few who were competing, many dreamed to. Competitions did not have enough adaptive surfers, so athletes with different impairments were placed together in a heat. It was impossible to accurately place them in the same division based on a minimum impairment requirement- today’s standard best practice for classification.
With the sport new to competition, few adaptive divisions being held and few surfers competing, another major factor to consider is consistency of athlete classification. If one competition in the United States was hosting an adaptive division they had their own set of rules and ways to divide the athletes. If you went to another competition up the coast, you would find a new set of rules. This was the case throughout the world until the ISA WASC occurred in 2015 setting a standard for all to follow.
Over the past two years the sport has flourished. There are many newcomers diving in and challenging each other. New programs have emerged worldwide and existing programs are growing and receiving attention they once lacked, all while promoting the sport and expanding its reach to others. With a growing audience for adaptive surfing, the sport continues to progress. Progression can be both quantitative and qualitative. Sometimes it can be counted (number of participants, number of events, etc.), other times you just feel it.
Go to any local beach to watch an adaptive surfer and it is not hard to conclude that the progress of the sport has helped develop better equipment. It was not that long ago when using plastic piping and duct tape was the norm. Today you will find more people surfing on custom boards that were made to fit their individual needs and conditions they surf in. They surf on custom made surf prosthetic or use cushions cut to their body type. Subsequently, the safety of the sport has progressed along with the equipment. Adaptive surfing has its challenges and safety concerns for new participants, but the advances in equipment have helped modify a way for more people to participate. It also pushes the limits, allowing for progressive high performance surfing never seen before in adaptive surfing. Deep tube rides and calculated blow-tails are commonplace and adaptive surfers are charging waves that most people have no business tampering with.
The athletes are becoming better surfers each day they paddle out. It is not often that you do not see more than one adaptive surfer paddling out with another. Together, the surfers push the limits of what can be done on a wave and who can do it first. This level of competition is friendly, but helps with the overall progression of the sport. It is because of this, more and more surfers want to compete in organized events. Ten years ago you could barely find enough adaptive surfers in one location, if you could find any to hold a heat. Now things are different. Surfers are showing up to events and ready to surf against each other. In some nations, there are seasons where adaptive surfing competitions are held over a series of events. Adaptive Surfing was growing and there became a need for an advanced classification system, utilizing the International Paralympic Committee’s (IPC) standard, to fairly and universally place surfers in divisions. Once a classification system was developed and adopted across the globe in 2015, surfers could compete in a more equal format. With the rise in friendly competition, an increase in surfers and their equipment and a global event to look forward to, it was evident that more competitions were needed at all levels.
A National Championship is the culminating event that many nations use to select their National Surf Teams. In 2016 we saw more National Championships for Adaptive Surfing appear than years prior. France, Australia, Chile, Brazil, USA, Hawaii and South Africa are the countries that held events prior to the upcoming 2017 ISA World Adaptive Surfing Championships and used the competition as a platform for who will advance to represent their nation. This increase in elite level competition is what strengthens the field at a World Championship event. It is needed to ensure that the “best of the best” are representing their countries and surfing with others at the same elite level.
As each year passes more National Championships will be created and new champions will be crowned. Athletes are developing their sport and pushing the limits of what can be done on a board. We now have a classification system that is following IPC standards and is utilized across the globe and the International Surfing Association recently applied for membership with the International Paralympic Committee, bringing the Paralympic Games in the line of sight. The future of competitive adaptive surfing is on the rise.