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Fri, 20 September 2019

WEEKEND READ: Adaptive surfing came of age in Bali as athletes dodged 6ft bombs cracking on coral reefs, scoring 10s and wreaking havoc on convention. JANET HEARD was there.


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PROUDLY ZA: Danie Nel after narrowly missing out on gold in the prone division. Photo Janet Heard


The sea is a powerful equalizer. Ask South African adaptive surf champion Daniel Nel. He navigates land in a wheelchair. He has no feeling in his legs. In the congested tourist hub north of Kuta in Bali, there are irritating obstacles at every awkward turn. Beachfront access is often via steps. Bars and restaurants have raised, narrow entrances. There are no proper pavements. You are forced into the road, competing with a chaotic procession of tuk tuks, motorbikes, cars and tipsy tourists.

It’s downright hazardous.

But in the ocean, Nel’s terrestrial challenges are swept aside like spumes of spray. When he takes off prone on his surfboard in overhead waves at Canggu Beach, he cuts through the water with effortless, unhindered ease. He charges back through the lineup with his strong upper limbs. When he wipes out, he holds his breath, and sits it out underwater until he can clamber on his board to await the next set.

Just like many of us.

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KICKSTARTER: Nel rips up the Prone Division on Day 1. Photo Marek Stefech/Bali Adaptive Pro


The South African plumber by trade, who runs a storage business, was among 23 athletes who competed in the inaugural Bali Adaptive Pro at Canggu earlier this month.

Nel returned home with a silver medal in the prone division after a show-stopping contest that saw adaptive surfing take a leap into the future, with the first 10 point ride recorded in adaptive surfing at the first adaptive event to run at a proper surf break.

And the surfers tackled the extra challenge like they do their own lives, with wicked humour and disregard for other people’s fears about their safety.

Since the inaugural world adaptive surfing contest at La Jolla in San Diego, US, in 2015, international and national contests have taken place at breaks that are, well, a bit lame. Safety is key. Adrenalin is not encouraged.

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BLESSED: The opening ceremony took place in a Hindu temple at Echo Beach. Photo Janet Heard


Enter Bali Adaptive Pro organisers Reddog Wheatley, a double below knee amputee from Australia, and Czech Milo Brzak, who lives in Bali. They had a dream and they threw caution to the offshore. They decided enough was enough. Let’s have an adaptive event in proper Indo waves. Mainstream event organisers, under-estimate at your peril their tenacity and their will to compete.

The event kicked off with a traditional blessing ceremony at a Balinese Hindu temple overlooking Echo Beach. Surfers were grouped together in five divisions, depending on their disability – Prone, Stand (Upper Limb), Stand (Lower Limb), Kneel and Visually Impaired. On Day 1, Echo Beach was cooking, with warm tropical lines heaving onto a shallow reef, testing competitors to the max.

“Perfect conditions for a contest,” said Nel, with a grin. Nobody hesitated. Nobody withdrew.

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PROPER SURF: The San Diego organisers would choke into their Rice Krispies. Photo Janet Heard


In Nel’s prone division, contestants were assisted on beach wheels, then tossed into the shore break to fend for themselves. They bobbed around the backline and hustled for waves sucking off the reef. The waves were a solid four foot, “nice and hollow with steep take-offs and long, open face waves to pull serious manoeuvers,” said Nel.

On Day 2, the event was postponed due to wild and woolly 10 foot conditions, with only a handful out at the usually overcrowded breaks.

The contest resumed on Day 3. Echo Beach was thumping 6-8ft and closing out so the event was moved down the beach to Old Man’s, a deep water reef far offshore. The San Diego organisers would be choking into their Rice Krispies. Conditions were “big and unruly but pumped out quality waves for a decent contest final showdown,” said Nel.

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PEG LEGS: Prosthetics lined up on Day 3 tell a story. Photo Wuland Jehoo/Bali Adaptive Pro


Competitors in all divisions were hauled out to the backline by jet ski, a vaguely reassuring safety net in turbulent waters and a nasty shore break.

Injured after a motorcycle accident in 2004 that crushed the life out of his legsNel stayed focused, timing the sets and learning the rhythm of the ocean. In the 30-minute final, he hooked five waves, narrowly losing by half a point to Californian Michael Pingatore, who took gold. Nel, in his mid-40s, was injured after a motorcycle accident in 2004 that crushed the life out of his legs. Like Nel, each of the surfers has a traumatic story about their disability that would earn them “inspiration porn” high fives. But the last thing they seek is abilist sympathy.

Within the adaptive surfing community, they speak matter-of-factly about their mobility issues. They own their bodies. They joke about their artificial limbs and prosthetics. They do not share the fascination that able-bodied spectators have for “what happened” to them. Some contestants are regulars on the adaptive surfing circuit, which has been growing in size and gravitas year on year.

Many are champions, like Hawaiian multiple athlete Ann Yoshida, who is on a world tour to empower women in sport and promote inclusion in competition.

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FOAM FACE: Hawaiian multiple athlete Ann Yoshida. Photo Marek Stefech/Bali Adaptive Pro


An occupational therapist, we made small talk minutes before she took to the sea for the finals in the prone division against Nel and two others.

I asked her “what happened” to her. She casually replied a motorist ran a red robot and rammed into the car in which she was travelling as a passenger. Yoshida came fourth. She was among two women surfers in the competition.

But he won’t be giving a toss about thatDarian Bailey Haynes has Erb’s Palsy - her left arm is partially paralysed - after she was forced from the womb at birth 19 years ago. She surfed in the competitive Stand (upper limb) division against South African two-time world champion Ant Smyth, who - for those who need to know - was injured in a car crash at age five. But he won’t be giving a toss about that. He will be asking with some alarm, how the heck did I lose that heat, and what’s my plan to be better!?

Their super competitive division saw the arrival two newcomers to adaptive surfing, Filipino Harry Chris Marzan and Brazilian Mike Richard In the final, amid increasingly unplayable surf, Richard, an aspiring former junior pro whose right arm is lame after a motorcycle accident, completely aced the final for gold. He got barrelled. He scored two perfect 10s and a nine. He didn’t even need to surf the wave that scored him nine. It was incredible.

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OHMMM: Early morning on Day 2 in thumping surf at Echo Beach. Photo Janet Heard


Marzan, from Baler, was not only making his personal debut, but it was the first entry to adaptive surfing contests by a Filipino. Marzan’s left arm was amputated after a car accident four years ago. He scooped bronze. Another Brazilian, Robson Gasperi, came second.

Indonesian surfer Obay Yabo (Sobarudin) is another first-timer who said he was the only adaptive surfer in his country. He lives in a fishing village in Batukarus, in West Java and managed to travel across to the island of Bali thanks to sponsorship. Born without a knee cap, he walks with a wooden crutch, his limb hooking upwards at the knee. He came third in the kneeling division and became an instant sensation on the beach.

I travelled back to SA with Nel, who self-funded his trip to Bali with the help of a grant from the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF). He had his medal - a Barong mask which is a a panther-like Balinese mythological creature representing health and good fortune - in his suitcase, and a dent made to his bank account.

He was stoked.

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UPPING THE ANTE: Mike Richard got two 10s in the final. Photo Wuland Jehoo/Bali Adaptive Pro


It was Smyth who, at the prizegiving party at Sunny Café in Canggu, first commented that adaptive surfing had “grown up” in Bali.

Back home, Smyth said: “We finally had a competition over a coral reef at a spot where a normal competition would take place. Adaptive Sport has been crying out for that. As much as everyone thinks it is inspiration, it has also been patronising to put people in smaller waves.”

South African Captain Kai, who crowd-funded to take up the invite to commentate at the Bali Pro, had this to say. “The guys and girls rose to the occasion. No longer will they be happy to compete in ‘safe’, small and let’s face it, pretty boring beach break conditions like those found at the World Champs in San Diego. These are real surfers, that want to compete in real waves. The Bali Adaptive Pro proved that the sport is ready for it and that these surfers not only can handle themselves, they excel in these conditions.”

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TESTING GROUND: 2x world champ Ant Smyth on finals day. Photo Wuland Jehoo/Bali Adaptive Pro


Back home, Nel is planning his trip to the 2019 US Open Adaptive Surfing Championships and Japan national championships over coming weeks.

Adaptive surfing is not only coming of age in terms of gravitas, it is becoming more inclusive, funding challenges notwithstanding. The adaptive surfing community were excited to welcome two new first-time entrants - from Philippines and Indonesia - into the fold in Bali.

In South Africa, regular sports clinics and Expression Sessions are held at Muizenberg, Cape Town and New Pier in Durban, to introduce newcomers to the benefits of surfing - with a long-term goal to build champions in the niche sport. Among the athletes to watch is Noluthando Makalima, a 29-year-old adaptive surfer from Khayelitsha, who won the ‘Build for Better’ SA Adaptive Surfing Championships in the Prone Assist division in Durban in May. She has been selected to represent South Africa if the world championships go ahead at the end of the year.

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REDDOG: Event co-organiser Jade Reddog Wheatley. Photo Wuland Jehoo/Bali Adaptive Pro


And while Smyth returned home disappointed at his 4th place performance in Bali, he was upbeat after getting a call inviting him to the first-ever Big Wave event for adaptive surfers in a new division at a regular and pretty famous ISA Nelscott Reef Big Wave Pro Invitational competition in Oregon in the US. In a Facebook post, he wrote: “This is going to be a huge challenge for me, physically but more mentally. I am up for it and I'm grateful.”

In another first, prize money will be the same as the other divisions. Another equaliser.

* View the heat draws and scores on Live Heats here

* Disclosure: Heard is managing editor at Daily Maverick. For this story, she was an embedded journalist – her son Tyler Pike, 23 competed in the kneeling division of the Bali Adaptive Pro.

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