Adaptive Surf Project puts surfers back on the waves

12As a college student and new resident on the Grand Strand in the late 90’s, Myrtle Beach’s Brock Johnson learned to surf. A lifeguard by day, and a surfer in his free time, Brock spent as much time as possible in the water over the next 13 years. And then the accident happened.

Three years ago, his life changed dramatically. While diving off a boat at Bird Island to catch a football, Brock hit shallow bottom and was paralyzed. “There are a lot of things that you immediately miss, like walking,” said Johnson. “But, for me one of the things that I missed and was afraid I would never be able to do again was surfing.”

Johnson, a board member of Coastal Carolina Adaptive Sports and Recreation out of the North Myrtle Beach Aquatic Center, participated in a surf event in North Carolina put on by Life Rolls on, and began a process that would eventually bring adaptive surfing to the Grand Strand.

“I learned how to surf again with Life Rolls on and Ocean Cure and became friends with those guys. The president of Ocean Cure and I decided that we wanted to do it here in Myrtle Beach, so last September, we had the first adaptive surf clinic in North Myrtle Beach.”

Now in its second year, the “Wheel to Surf” adaptive surf expo was held Saturday in North Myrtle Beach and drew 22 surfers from North and South Carolina.  The event partners handicapped surfers with volunteers to safely allow the riders to catch waves and ride them to the beach.

It was that 2013 inaugural event that spawned the idea for the Adaptive Surf Project.

Local surfers Luke Sharp and Brandon Bellegarde met Johnson at that 2013 event and the idea was conceived to put together an organization to help. Sharp and Bellegarde, along with surfer James Samaha created the Adaptive Surf Project to raise money to build custom made surfboards for handicapped surfers.

Standing on the beach during last weekend’s ESA event that featured an adaptive surf division, Sharp remembers when the idea hit. “I asked Brock how often he was able to get out, and Brock said ‘I got to surf one time last year’. Well, I surf almost every day and thought, this isn’t fair. I can’t imagine not being able to surf. These guys have an injury, but we have to figure out a way to get them back out in the water surfing.

“So, we set up a fundly.com account and we raised almost four thousand dollars to build three surfboards for Chris (Skinner), Brock, and Roni (Veronica Tario).”

The newly formed group then approached Surf City in Myrtle Beach and Todd Sutz with Island Inspired BrockSurfboards about custom creating boards for the riders. “Originally, one of my main concerns was safety, but the more I talked with each of the individuals like Brock and Chris,  that used to be surfers, I realized that they are more about performance,” said Sutz. “You really have to balance performance and safety. Chris and Brock and Roni, they want to do something on the wave. They don’t want to just cruise.

“Most regular surfboards have a dome deck, so when you lay on it, if you can’t control the muscles in your body, you’re going to roll off of it. So, what we did with the adaptive boards is, we scooped out the contours so that it actually cradles them, and holds them in place in the middle of the board. You also have to do straps and inserts that the rider can push against. Chris controls the board with his elbows and forearms, so he needs to be locked in, to be able to maneuver the board and lift himself up,” Sutz added.

Once those boards were in place, the next step was getting the surfers in the ocean and partnered with a rider to paddle them and add stability and safety.

Local surfer and head of the Adaptive Surf Project, Brandon Bellegarde is one of the partners that perch on the board with the rider to position them in the wave. “I don’t even think about surfing myself, I think about getting the best wave and riding a line with them and keep them safe.”

With boards built and partners to surf with, the next step would involve the local chapter of the Eastern Surf Association (ESA). Sharp made the connection, “We talked to Tom, the local director of the ESA and he agreed to hold a contest for them.”

That initial contest was held in Cherry Grove last weekend as part of the Anderson Estep, Cherry Grove Surfing Championships, and is thought to be the first ever along the Grand Strand and possibly anywhere.

notherA large crowd gathered along the shore to watch the three surfers, Chris Skinner, Brock Johnson, and Veronica Tario compete. The single heat format was cheered heavily from the spectators and Tario emerged as the winner, although most would agree that all three surfers were winners.

“Now, we need to get other people involved, so that whenever they want to go surfing, they have someone to call up to take them,” said Sharp.

The Adaptive Surf Project is beginning a new phase of fund raising called “10 for 10” with a goal of raising 10 thousand dollars to build 10 more boards. Bellegarde said the fundraising effort is beginning immediately, “You can go to our website, AdaptiveSurfProject.com to donate, or put in requests for boards and we’ll work with Todd to get them built”.

For Johnson, the effort of others is truly appreciated, “I tell people that going back out in the ocean for me is like going home. I love it so much, it makes me happy, and it makes me feel alive. There are not a lot of things in this world that make me just feel alive, and this does.

“It’s like my Zen moment. I don’t worry about anything else, except that next wave. I can just sit there and be happy. Even if I’m not riding a wave, I’m happy sitting out there and paddling.”

Find the Adaptive Surf Project online at https://www.facebook.com/Adaptivesurfproject

Find them on Fundly at https://fundly.com/adaptive-surf-project

Images courtesy of Nancy Hayes and Luke Sharp

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