Occupational Therapy OT

| 13 October 2023

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Empowering Surfers to Find Freedom in the Water

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The sixth annual U.S. Open Adaptive Surfing Championship (ASC) was held from September 6th to 10th at the Oceanside Pier in Oceanside, California. The University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS) was the event title sponsor for the fourth consecutive year. The international gathering of champions showcases the transformative athleticism of adaptive surfers and highlights the University’s commitment to community support and hands-on education.

“This event exemplifies our dedication to interprofessional education, allowing our occupational therapy and physical therapy students to apply their classroom knowledge in a real-world context while giving back to the community,” said Maureen Johnson, PhD, MS, OT/L, BCPR, C/NDT, CHSE-A, USAHS Assistant Professor of Occupational Therapy Programs and Head of Classification for the International Surfing Association (ISA).

USAHS students bring their expertise in occupational therapy (OT) and physical therapy (PT) to the world tour and support athletes and the adaptive surfing community as they participate in the life-changing event.

Watch USAHS’ video of the event (below) to hear about the transformative event from adaptive surfers, student volunteers and event creators. U.S. Open athletes talk about the energetic, life-giving feeling of competitive adaptive surfing, and student volunteers. share how the competition puts their skills to work in a real-life setting. “Our success is based on the relationship we have with the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences,” said event creator Charles Webb.

Dr. Johnson and Webb talked with the San Diego Union-Tribune about serving pro athletes with disabilities and promoting adaptive water sports.

Dr. Johnson described the differences between able-bodied surfing and adaptive surfing. “Regular surfing, or able-bodied surfing, they have a shortboard and they stand up and pop up really fast, and they ride waves with really quick, snappy turns. It’s real aggressive,” she said.

When someone has a permanent challenge, like a spinal cord injury or amputation, their ability to surf in the same way changes. “I started looking at what’s fair here,” she explained.

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Dr. Johnson described the different positions that they developed for adaptive surfers. “We have three standing conditions for physical issues. If something’s wrong with one arm or the other arm, they can stand in the upper limb standing. If something’s wrong below the leg, like an amputation or one leg is longer than the other, they can do below-the-knee standing. If it’s above-the-knee amputation, or a whole leg affected (like with cerebral palsy), they can do above-the-knee standing. Then, there are two standing provisions because we have blind/no vision and blind/low/partial vision, and they surf standing. Then, we have one for kneeling, so some people have an above-knee amputation, but they don’t want to use a prosthetic because it slows them down, so they kind of get on their knees and surf.”

Webb is an adaptive surfer and paddleboarder. He created the Association of Adaptive Surfing Professionals (AASP) and founded the Stoke for Life Foundation to bring awareness to the rehabilitative benefits of adaptive water sports through clinics and education.

The U.S. Open Adaptive Surfing Championship, powered by Stoke for Life, is also Webb’s vision. With over 100 athletes from more than 17 countries participating, the competition gives adaptive athletes a professional, high-level platform to perform and get paid.

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“We’re offering adaptive athletes the opportunity to be a professional and travel internationally and surf some of the best waves on the planet,” he said of the competition.

A car hit Webb in 1986, and he sustained a T7 and T8 incomplete injury. “It changed my life. It took me a long time to find my purpose and figure out who I was.”

He said a common misconception is that, with a life-changing injury, you have lost part of yourself. “Who you are is still always there, you just have to figure out the new who you are and how to adapt to that.”

Webb was always an athlete and used his wheelchair to lift weights and swim. Then, he discovered adaptive paddleboarding and the Onit Ability Board. As one of the first paraplegic athletes to participate in the 2013 Battle of the Paddle, an open-water paddle race, Webb went viral as he competed with more than 400 non-disabled paddleboarders for over five miles.

Webb said there are different styles of surfboards, adaptive surfing divisions and styles – independently, sitting up or lying down, or assisted by a team. “I surf on a wave ski, so I sit on top of a surfboard with a kayak paddle. It just feels like surfing, for me,” he said.

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The key is to find a way that surfing still feels like surfing for the athlete. “That’s what every adaptive surfer will tell you. When you say, ‘Why do you surf like that?’ they’ll say, ‘Because it feels like surfing.’ Being a surfer before my accident and being able to get on a wave ski and get barreled, hit the top of the lip, and do a cutback, all of these maneuvers that I was able to do as a regular surfer, I can still do as an adaptive surfer. That’s why it feels like surfing,” Webb said.

USAHS has signed on to sponsor the U.S. Open ASC in 2024 and 2025. The event advances adaptive water sports and promotes inclusivity in the surfing community. Read more about the championship and make sure to watch the video.


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