Riding the Para Surfing Wave

If you’re ever short on inspiration and find yourself in Durban for a weekend, or are happy to just go online, take a look at what is being achieved by the Made for More organisation and some of the people behind adaptive surfing in South Africa.

That’s pretty much how it played out for national team coach Scott Messenger, when he and a group of fellow surfers stumbled across Made for More and offered to raise some money at their annual dress-up tennis party. They cobbled together enough money to sponsor a stand-up paddle board and delivered it to the Made for More volunteers at one of their monthly Saturday morning surfing sessions at Addington beach in Durban.

“I left that place a different person and from that point on we were in,” says Messenger, referencing himself and wife Yvonne, who is also now one of the team coaches. “The people we’ve met, the experiences we’ve had, and the waves that we’ve helped people catch, have just been epic.”

Adaptive surfing has existed in South Africa since 2011, but according to Made for More Founder and Managing Director Julia van Zyl, has only had an organised presence in Durban since 2014, when Amanzimtoti surfer Wesley Smith just wanted to offer surfing lessons to two children at his paraplegic son’s school.

“My son goes to the Open Air School (for special needs) and I offered to take two blind children for surfing sessions,” said Smith to the South Coast Sun in 2017. “It grew to other children with various disabilities joining. Unknown to me, Dries Millard was also pioneering adaptive surfing in Cape Town. We made contact via Chip Williams of Widenham and the national movement has been growing ever since.”

That national movement now totals approximately 100 adaptive surfers, with about 60 in Durban, a small group in the Northern Cape, and an increasing number in Cape Town through the Roxy Davis Foundation, which has only been going for two years, but is growing quickly.

Adaptive surfing is surfing with a disability, including but not limited to paralyses, cerebral palsy, visual impairment, blindness, mental disability, amputations etc, and there are a range of categories. These categories are segmented according to disability and whether or not the surfer is seated, kneeling or standing, or in a prone position on the board, or requires assistance to paddle into waves.

The first adaptive surfing national championships took place in Muizenberg in Cape Town in 2015, but for the past three years has been run by Made for More in Durban. MFM is a non-profit organisation that runs a number of initiatives, including adaptive surfing, and it recently took the step of setting up ‘Adaptive Surfers of SA’ to separate the sport from Made for More. That’s due to the need for this new body to be set up as a public benefit organisation and to avoid confusion. Made for More will continue to play an organisational and fundraising role for adaptive surfing in South Africa.

In terms of the sport’s relationship with Surfing South Africa, Van Zyl says the governing body has provided support in the form of medals and public liability, but hasn’t been able to provide any financial assistance.

“They don’t have money, so it’s also just understanding the challenges on their side,” says Van Zyl. “They have a host of programmes under their banner – adaptive, short board, long board, masters, SUP etc – and these are all groups of people looking for support. So, I get the frustration on both sides, and surfing is just one of those sports that isn’t going to get support from government.”

Government may have bigger fish to fry, but that shouldn’t diminish the impact that Made for More and the sport of adaptive surfing has had on its surfers.

“Throughout my life I’ve been excluded from everything, and if you go to something, you’re an outcast,” says Dave Williams, a 34-year-old IT quality assurance manager at Mr Price and national champion in the kneel division.

Williams was born without legs just below the kneecaps and was bullied as a youngster, but that didn’t stop him from participating in sports such as swimming and adaptive rowing growing up. That being said, he believes his life changed in 2020 on the very first day he dragged himself down to the beach in Durban and joined up with the Made for More programme.

This, despite an incredible fear of the ocean growing up.

“I caught this trashy little ‘foamy’, but the way that Jules, Leon and the volunteers reacted was like I’d caught a huge wave from Portgual! From that day onwards, before I could bring myself down, there would just be these screams and cheers about how amazing that was, how much better you’re getting etc,” he says. “To be included and to be made to feel so flipping special, I can’t put into words what it means to us. To get that high-five when you’re dying inside and think you’ve caught the worst wave ever, it’s life-changing, what the guys do.”

Roughly 18 months after taking up the sport, Williams is a member of the national team, with an eye on Pismo Beach in California.

“I can’t say that this is a dream, because I’ve never even dreamt it,” he says. “That’s what makes para surfing so special – people don’t realise how far-fetched this is for disabled people. Watching surfing growing up and going to events like the Gunston 500, I just thought those guys were the coolest guys I’d ever seen. But, as a physically-disabled person, you don’t ever allow your mind to even think, ‘could I ever do this?’ That’s because you don’t want to hurt yourself and you know it’s out of your league.”

Not anymore for Williams, who will potentially line up with his team-mates alongside approximately 150 other adaptive surfers from around 25 countries at Pismo Beach in December.

The International Surfing Association has hosted the ISA World Para (Adaptive) Surfing Championship since 2015, with the move to changing the name of the sport to ‘para surfing’ aimed at ultimately gaining acceptance to the Paralympics. 

“What Made for More has given these surfers is freedom – the freedom to feel like you are not disabled, you are competing on a board like everyone else, and you are not trapped by the devices you use to get around every day,” says Erika Hendrikz, SA Para Surf Team Manager.

Hendrikz has first-hand experience of the impact of Made for More and its adaptive surfing programme on the surfers who take part. Her husband Doug was a surfer before losing both his legs in a motorcycling accident and has been able to rediscover his love for the sport – just in a different shape and form – culminating in his selection for the national team.

“The team took the time to figure out how he could surf again,” she says. “It was a case of putting their heads together, because you have to adapt your way of thinking – your traditional surfing is X, so now we have to develop the X-Y and put something together that will work for the various types of disabilities. Being on the receiving end, as a family, of what they’ve done, there really are no words to describe the level of gratitude we have.”

Now, Doug Hendrikz is hopefully on his way to California to represent South Africa with his 12 team-mates, although there will only be a full complement of team members if approximately R1-million is raised to fund the trip for the surfers and their helpers, with most of them requiring assistance in the form of a travelling companion.

According to Erika Hendrikz, the team is roughly 50% of the way there, in terms of fundraising, with about R500 000 already raised, but they obviously still have some way to go.

In terms of sponsors, Mr Price Sport has already provided tracksuits, t-shirts and towels, whilst a Hawaiian beachwear company, PonoGirl, has contributed financially. Then there’s Velskoen Shoes, Surf Sock, and Switch energy drink, whilst Lizzard have offered wholesale prices for their surfing products, and brands such as Hollywoodbets have chipped in and challenged other corporates to match their financial contribution.

Obviously, first prize is to get the entire SA Para Surf Team to Pismo Beach, but for Van Zyl there’s a bigger picture.

“More than wanting to get the team to the world champs, we just want to get people into the water and have their lives changed,” says Van Zyl. “The more people we can give access to the ocean to, the better. Access creates opportunities, and it’s a beautiful thing to see.”

What’s even more beautiful is seeing what it means to the lives changed by adaptive surfing and Made for More, with Williams summing up their impact.

“Good people will gladly give you money, but what these guys do is give you time, which no-one wants to give anymore,” he says. “They would rather give you R500 and not be there, than give up their time to be there, and Made for More are there hours before anybody gets there, setting up on their Saturday, not forgetting that they have their lives to live. Scotty has woken up at 4am to meet me and sit in the surf without a board for two hours, just to watch me. You just don’t get people like this.”

Article by Dylan Rogers.



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