Hawaii’s first adaptive surf lessons proves the ocean is for everyone

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

But then there’s the magic moment when you ride the momentum of the wave. Feeling euphoric – like flying on water. The ocean demands respect, and one of the best feelings is playing in harmony with it.

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

“There is flexibility in surfing, not just for people with disabilities, but for everyone,” Figi told USA TODAY. “Yes, the ocean will smoke you, but you have what it takes to keep pushing.”

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browse It is a great form of exercise in a natural environment and has been shown 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.

Turtle Bay Resort is located on the north shore of Oahu, next to Kawela Bay, a protected bay where coral reefs break up wave energy into a gentle, smooth wave.

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

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

Turtle Bay Resort is located on the north shore of Oahu, next to Kawela Bay, a protected bay where coral reefs break up wave energy into a gentle, smooth wave. It’s easy to get into the water from the beach, and access trails make it even more accessible. It was the perfect place for adaptive surfing lessons.

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Turtle Bay Resort is located on the north shore of Oahu, next to Kawela Bay, a protected bay where coral reefs break up wave energy into a gentle, smooth wave.

Back to the board

Originally from Vancouver, Canada, but now living in Hawaii, Feige grew up spending most of her time outside enjoying board sports, such as skateboarding and surfing. When she was 18, she fell badly during a big ice 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 strong swimmer, she tried surfing again two years after her injury. “You need strength and skill in the water. How am I going to get over the sand? How am I going to deal with the current and the waves?,” she said.

Feige started out in the whitewash — where most beginners spend their time, without riding full waves or being able to do much except walk upright — by paddling on her stomach and appearing on her knees. “I didn’t think anything else was possible,” she said.

Feige learned how to surf again after an incomplete spinal cord injury.

It was wrong.

Feige met other adaptive surfers who showed her that she could still catch green waves and ride them like she did before her injury. Now, she has multiple Paralympic surfing world titles, as well as being a surfing and skiing coach and physical therapist.

“No matter who you are, the background you have, you go to the ocean, you feel alive,” Vig said. “There can be challenges when living with a disability; It can be isolating at times. When you catch a wave, you do it – it’s agency. And everyone needs a little play time.

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

“My goal is to create the gold standard for adaptive surfing lessons,” Vig said. First, students ages 4 and up fill out a questionnaire form to let teachers know their medical needs and physical abilities. Each student is paired with two coaches for a “more personalized and personalized experience,” according to Feige.

Each trainer is trained to work with people with various disabilities. If Feige is in Hawaii, she’ll be teaching the lessons herself. “Not many people have an adaptive surfer leading the lessons as well,” she said.

We welcome surfers of all skill levels. Beginners can try surfing for the first time, while those with more experience can learn how to progress, be more independent, and work on maneuvers.

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

Each trainer is trained to work with people with different disabilities and skill levels.

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

For an hour, students are taken to calm waves with the help of instructors. They also photographed their session.

The Turtle Bay Resort itself is easily accessible, says Figi. Entrances to the resort, spa, fitness center, restaurants, shops, and select guest rooms and suites are ADA accessible. There are also ADA lift or transfer wall systems for pools and hot tubs.

Surfing lessons are just the beginning of what Feige and O’Brien want to do with adaptive surfing in Turtle Bay. They hope to host adaptive surfing clinics, where groups can network and learn together, as well as events.

“It shows you that surfing is for everyone,” O’Brien said. “There are no restrictions on who can and cannot surf. The ocean is for everyone.”

Have you or someone you know experienced accessibility issues while travelling? 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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