There’s ‘freedom’ in the water for adaptive surfers at championship in Oceanside (2024)

For Charles Webb, the point of creating the U.S. Open Adaptive Surfing Championship was to build a professional platform that would honor his community of disabled athletes, giving them an opportunity to perform at a high level while also being paid to do it.

“We’re offering adaptive athletes the opportunity to be a professional and travel internationally and surf some of the best waves on the planet,” he said of the competition, which is in its sixth year and taking place through Sunday at the Oceanside Pier.

Webb, founder of the Stoke for Life Foundation, a nonprofit promoting the rehabilitative benefits of adaptive water sports through education, is also the creator of the Association of Adaptive Surfing Professionals and an adaptive surfer and paddleboarder. He was one of the first paraplegic athletes to compete in an open water paddle race (the 2013 Battle of the Paddle), a viral moment of him competing with more than 400 able-bodied paddleboarders for more than five miles.

Webb took some time to talk about this year’s competition and his own experiences in adaptive water sports; he’s joined in this conversation by Maureen Johnson, who’s head of classification for the U.S. Open, an occupational therapist, and an associate professor at the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences’ San Marcos campus, which is the title sponsor of the competition. (These interviews have been edited for length and clarity. )

Q: Most people are likely familiar with how nonadaptive surfing works; can you talk about the differences in adaptive surfing?

Johnson: I’ve done a lot of research on that, actually. Regular surfing, or able-bodied surfing, they have a shortboard and they stand up and pop up really fast, and they ride waves with really quick, snappy turns. It’s real aggressive. Then, you have longboarding, which is like a 9-foot long surfboard where they kind of stand up and walk along the board. They’re very graceful in what they’re doing. Then, there’s knee boarding, boogie boarding, and body surfing. What happens when someone has a permanent situation, like a spinal cord injury or an amputation, they can’t really do it in the same way, so I started looking at what’s fair here. Looking at that, what we came up with are different positions. We have three standing conditions for physical issues. If something’s wrong with one arm or the other arm, they can stand in upper limb standing. If something’s wrong below the leg, like an amputation or one leg is longer than the other, they can do below the knee standing. If it’s above-the-knee amputation, or a whole leg affected (like with cerebral palsy), they can do above the knee standing. Then, there are two standing provisions because we have blind/no vision and blind/low/partial vision, and they surf standing. Then, we have one for kneeling, so some people have an above-knee amputation, but they don’t want to use a prosthetic because it slows them down, so they kind of get on their knees and surf.

Webb: There’s different divisions, so there’s different styles that people surf. Some people surf sitting up, they surf lying down. Some people need assistance, so they surf with a team. Some people are independent in the water and they don’t surf with anybody. There’s different divisions in adaptive surfing versus the different styles of boards. I surf on a wave ski, so I sit on top of a surfboard with a kayak paddle. It just feels like surfing, for me. That’s what every adaptive surfer will tell you. When you say, ‘Why do you surf like that?’ they’ll say, ‘Because it feels like surfing.’ Being a surfer before my accident and being able to get on a wave ski and get barreled, hit the top of the lip, and do a cutback, all of these maneuvers that I was able to do as a regular surfer, I can still do as an adaptive surfer. That’s why it feels like surfing.

Q: The Stoke for Life Foundation website mentions your disability and injury. Are you comfortable talking about what happened and what your adjustment has been like?

Webb: Sure. I got injured in 1986, so it’s been 36 years or something like that. I was injured when I was 19, on a motorcycle, and I got ran over by a Buick Skylark. That’s a T7, T8 incomplete injury. It changed my life. It took me a long time to find my purpose and figure out who I was. A misconception with a life-changing accident or injury is that, ‘You lose a part of yourself’ or ‘You’ve lost something.’ Realistically, you don’t lose who you are, you just lose confidence in who you are. Who you are is still always there, you just have to figure out the new “who you are” and how to adapt to that. Your heart and your soul and your morals really never change, but your attitude and your level of anxiety and fear and stress might be something that changes. The recovery process for everybody is different. For amputees it’s different than it is for spinal cord patients; and for quadriplegics and people that lose limbs, it’s very different. It just depends on who it is and every disabled person, I say, is a fingerprint. They have their own story and they’re unique in their own way.

[A T7, T8 incomplete injury] is the level of my spinal cord where I’m injured. There’s either a complete injury where your spinal cord is completely severed, or incomplete where your spinal cord might still be intact, damaged, torn, or bruised or pinched. I have a little bit of sensation in my lower extremities, but no movement.

Q: How did you first get into adaptive sports in general?

Webb: It was basically surfing. I’d always been an athlete, but I never got into adaptive sports, I just wheeled my wheelchair and lifted weights, stuff like that. I didn’t adhere to any adaptive sports. Basically, I just kind of did it myself and just pumped weights and swam. When I got introduced to adaptive sports, it was through adaptive paddleboarding with the Onit Ability board [an adaptive paddleboard], and that’s how I did Battle with the Paddle, so it all kind of went hand-in-hand.

My brother met a guy named Kawika Watt who made a prototype paddleboard that nobody had ever ridden and he gave me the opportunity to be the first paraplegic to ride the board, or first disabled person to ride the board. I did that and we developed a faster sports model board and in doing that, I did the 2013 Battle of the Paddle. After that, that went viral, me paddling against 484 able-bodied people on the open ocean for 5.4 miles or something like that. Then, I started doing adaptive paddleboard races. Paddleboarding, for me, was a different animal. Moving water with a single-blade paddle offers a different vibe and a different healing and all kinds of different things. It got me right away, so I just dove right into paddling and long-distance paddling. Eventually, I paddled from Dana Point harbor to Oceanside harbor, nine hours on my 14-foot race board.

There’s ‘freedom’ in the water for adaptive surfers at championship in Oceanside (2024)
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