Disabled Surfers Catch a “Wave” in South Africa

The International Surfing Association started the first adaptive surfing world championship in 2015
French disabled surfer Eric Dargent competes on May 30, 2015 in the southwestern French town of Hossegor during the first qualifying session for the first disabled surfing championships on September 23 to 27 in San Diego, CA. AFP PHOTO / GAIZKA IROZ (Photo by IROZ GAIZKA / AFP)

Pamela Hansford is a disabled 75-year-old surfer. A year ago, a steep wave slammed her into the shore at a Cape Town beach, breaking her neck. Today, a crowd cheers her on as she is reunited with the waves.

“It’s wonderful,” Hansford said. “To be in the water and to feel the movement again, it’s really special.”

Roxy Davis is South African surf champion. Davis’s surf school Surf Emporium has been hosting training clinics to introduce people with both physical and mental disabilities to the thrill of catching a wave. This school has been up and running since 2016.

A disabled surfer (C) prepares to compete on May 30, 2015 in the southwestern French town of Hossegor during the first qualifying session for the first disabled surfing championships AFP)

“Whether you are an able-bodied surfer or somebody with a disability, whether it’s your tenth time surfing or your very first, that joy and that stoke (thrill) is the same,” she said.

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“It gives me the same goosebumps watching each wave at each session.” Roxy continued.

People with disabilities have been surfing for decades, but it wasn’t until the International Surfing Association started the first adaptive surfing world championship in 2015, that the sport began building momentum.

Enjoy and Compete

“Competition always advances a sport,” said Ant Smyth, who captained the South African team at the 2015 games.

After a car accident when he was five years old left Smyth’s right arm paralysed, doctors suggested he take up surfing. The paddling, they said, would encourage him to use both arms.

At the first adaptive world championship, Smyth took silver in his division. At the most recent event in December last year, he won gold.

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Surfers, parents, and coaches wait for the start of an adaptive surfing event at Muizenberg beach, on January 20, 2019, in Cape Town, South Africa. – (Photo by RODGER BOSCH / AFP)

Smyth is now a technical advisor to national body Surf South Africa. He aims to increase the number of adaptive surfers, not only to show people with disabilities that surfing is possible, but making it practically accessible to them.

Teaming up with Surf Emporium’s clinics helped give the project some structure.

Steep learning curve

For Davis, the learning curve going from surf school to adaptive surf school has been steep.

“I’ve been surfing for about 22 years. I feel like I know a lot about surfing, but actually understanding different disabilities and how to put people on a board to facilitate their disability — it’s been really incredible,” she said.

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Mental disabilities are not currently recognised in any of the official categories of competitive adaptive surfing, but Davis has an all-inclusive approach at her clinics.


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