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‘There’s resilience in surfing’: How a surfer turned a spinal cord injury into a movement

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Learning how to surf is a humbling endeavor. There will be seemingly endless falling into the water, getting hit by waves, and having to get back on the board to try again. 

But then there’s the magical moment when you ride the momentum of a wave. The feeling is euphoric – like flying with the water. The ocean demands respect, and one of the best feelings is playing harmoniously with it. 

That feeling is what pro-adaptive surfer Victoria Feige wants everyone to experience – regardless of their physical or mental abilities. 

“There’s resilience in surfing, not just for people with disabilities, for everyone,” Feige told USA TODAY. “Yeah, you’re going to get smoked by the ocean, but you’ve got what it takes to keep pushing.”

Surfing is a great form of exercise in a natural environment and has been proven to help build confidence, resilience, and social skills in children with intellectual disabilities. Surfing has also been found to help veterans with PTSD and depressive symptoms.

To share her love of surfing with people of all abilities, Feige recently joined forces with Hawaii pro-surfer Jamie O’Brien to bring private adaptive surf lessons to the Jamie O’Brien Surf Experience at Turtle Bay Resort in early March. It is Hawaii’s first and only surf school offering adaptive surf lessons. 

“We’re really setting the center stage at what’s possible and at the same time, keeping them safe,” O’Brien said.

Located on the North Shore of Oahu, Turtle Bay Resort is next to Kawela Bay, a protected bay where the reef breaks down wave energy into a soft, gentle wave. The water is easy to enter from the beach, and access tracks make it even more accessible. It was the perfect place for adaptive surfing lessons. 

Did you know scuba diving is adaptive? Here’s the accessible way anyone can explore the ocean.

Getting back on the board

Originally from Vancouver, Canada, but now living in Hawaii, Feige grew up spending most of her time outside enjoying board sports, like skiing and surfing. When she was 18, she landed badly during a big snowboard jump and suffered an incomplete spinal cord injury that left her partially paralyzed from the waist down. Although she can stand and walk a little, Feige uses a wheelchair most of the time. 

Fiege thought her board sports career was over. However, since she was still a good swimmer, she attempted to go surfing again two years after her injury. “You need strength and skill in the water. How was I going to get over the sand? How was I going to deal with the current and the waves?” she said. 

Feige started in the whitewash – where most beginners spend their time, not riding full waves or being able to do much except go straight – by paddling on her stomach and popping up to her knees. “I didn’t think anything more was possible,” she said. 

She was wrong. 

Feige met other adaptive surfers who showed her she could still catch green waves and ride them as she had before her injury. Now, she has multiple world titles for paralympic surfing, as well as being an adaptive surf and ski instructor and physiotherapist. 

“No matter who you are, the background you have, you go into the ocean, and you feel alive,” Feige said. “There can be challenges when living with a disability; it can be isolating at times. When you catch a wave, you did that – it’s the agency. And everybody needs a little playtime.” 

What are adaptive surf lessons like at Turtle Bay’s Jamie O’Brien Surf Experience?

“My goal is really to create the gold standard of adaptive surf lessons,” Feige said. First, students from age 4 and up fill out a questionnaire intake form to let the instructors know of their medical needs and physical capabilities. Each student is paired with two instructors for a “more specialized, personalized experience,” according to Feige. 

Every instructor is trained to work with people with different disabilities. If Feige is in Hawaii, she’ll give the lessons herself. “Not many have an adaptive surfer also leading the lessons,” she said. 

Surfers of all skill levels are welcome. Beginners can get their first taste of surfing, while those with more experience can learn how to progress, be more independent, and work on maneuvers.  

“After experiencing a catastrophic spinal cord injury, I thought my ability to enjoy the ocean was over,” said Jon Price, who visited Turtle Bay and had his first surf lesson with Feige. “Meeting Victoria changed my perspective. Her experience, coaching, and energy helped provide the encouragement to push me and enjoy surfing with a new understanding of what is possible.”

The surf school has golf carts and a fibrous beach wheelchair to transport students to and from the beach. Students are taken out to the water on soft-top surfboards, which are safer and more cushioned and stable than hard-top surfboards – that can be adapted to their abilities. Handles or knobs can be added to the surfboards, and there are also risers for people who don’t have back extension or trunk control to sit on. 

For an hour, students are ushered into the mellow waves with the help of instructors. They also get their session photographed. 

Turtle Bay Resort itself is “wildly accessible,” as Feige put it. The resort entrances, spa, fitness center, restaurants, shops, and a selection of guest rooms and suites are ADA-accessible. There are also ADA lift or transfer wall systems for the pools and hot tubs. 

Surf lessons are just the beginning of what Feige and O’Brien want to do with adaptive surfing at Turtle Bay. They hope to host adaptive surf clinics, where groups can bond and learn together, and events. 

“It shows you surfing is for everybody,” O’Brien said. “There’s no limitation on who and who cannot go surfing. The ocean is for everybody.”

Have you, or someone you know, had issues with accessibility while traveling? What happened?

Kathleen Wong is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in Hawaii. You can reach her at kwong@usatoday.com.

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