In August, I spent a picture-perfect day in Wildwood, New Jersey, for “They Will Surf Again,” a free, one-day event that helps people with disabilities go surfing.
The overhead comment of the day: “I got my inner mermaid on! It’s a feeling that you’ve never felt before if you’re not disabled.”
Some surfers I met were born with conditions like spina bifida that have limited their mobility. Others had experienced an accident that changed their lives.
Will Lawler has used a wheelchair ever since an accident that injured his spinal cord.
“I was so depressed watching people go down to the beach every summer,” he said. “And then I found out they had the adaptive surfing program, and I’m like, this is awesome.”
These days, Lawler stays pretty active with adaptive sports, including rock climbing and tennis.
On this day, there were 100 surfers, along with a team of volunteers keeping them safe.
“We have deep water, mid water, shallow water volunteers,” said event organizer Kerry O’Connor. “And what they do is basically form a gauntlet, and the surfers are brought out to where the wave break is. That way, if they need assistance, if they wipe out, there’s a swarm of people ready to pounce and get them help and back out there riding waves.”
Once the surfers got out into the waves, they rode between the team of volunteers all the way to the shore.
O’Connor is a surfer himself, and he brought that passion to Einstein Health Network and MossRehab, which now sponsors the day.
“This year we’ve sent down over 80 volunteers of doctors, nurses therapists, supporters, family who come down to be a part of the event and help persons with disabilities ride the waves,” he said.
“They Will Surf Again” is hosted by Life Rolls On, an organization that promotes adaptive sports all over the country.
I met surfer Jack Cavanaugh just as he was about to take his turn. Cavanaugh suffered a brain injury in college and says that, ever since then, life has been a bit monotonous. Then his physical therapist at MossRehab encouraged him to give surfing a try.
“She’s like, ‘Jack, you’re doing this,’ and I was like, ‘I don’t know — like I can barely walk as it is, so now they’re gonna tell me to swim?’” Cavanaugh said.
Cavanaugh has participated in this event for the past four years, and made progress each time.
His first year, he came in a wheelchair. He vowed that for his second year, he would walk to the event, and he did. His third year, he got up on his knees on the surfboard.
“There’s so much freedom you can’t even describe it,” Cavanaugh said.
As his turn came up to surf, he quietly mentioned that he might try standing up on the board. A small crowd gathered to cheer him on.
Before we knew it, Jack was riding a wave, and then, all of sudden, he stood up.
“That was awesome!”
“That was epic!”