The Gift – Adaptive Surfing

“People remember me. That is my gift. Imagine an advantage like that. What would you give to have most of the people you meet remember you? I gave my right arm, and so far it has been worth it. Actually, I still have a right arm. It just looks a bit funny and doesn’t work properly.

People often wonder, and some ask, how I manage to do stuff with only one arm. What I say to them is this: imagine everyone else but you had three arms, and they kept asking you how you manage to do stuff with only two arms. What would you say?

Sometimes, I catch a reflection of myself in a mirror or shop window. It is still a bit of a shock for me to see myself with an arm like mine, because you do forget. It is during these split seconds that I admire my friends and families because they accept me as I am. And if they can, then so can I.

People don’t actually remember me… they remember my arm. But it’s all the same to me because it is this arm that has defined my character.” – Antony Smyth; 2008.

adaptive surfing

Adaptive Surfers are surfers who surf with disabilities and therefore have to “adapt” their style or equipment so that they can enjoy the wonderful sport of riding the ocean waves. In December last year I became the world Adaptive Surfing Champion. My gift just keeps on giving, doesn’t it?

The world champs were hosted by the ISA (International Surfing Association) in San Diego, California. Twenty-two nations attended the event with 78 surfers competing in 6 divisions. It is a very big affair, no less than any other able-bodied event. The pressures are the same, the disappointments, the joy, the pride of representing your country. These emotions were all very present and very real for us adaptive surfers. The only difference is that we were all physically flawed, “Perfectly Flawed” as the famous amputee surfer Mike Coots calls it.

My journey started at age five after a car accident left me with a paralysed right arm. A minor disability compared to almost all my adaptive surfing friends, but the journey and emotional challenges are similar for all of us.

Surfing with one arm was the easy part. The solution was simple for me; just paddle with one arm. You really only need one arm to paddle and actually paddling with one arm has made me a better waterman. I have a more efficient paddle stroke and I have an acute ability to read the ocean and save energy through timing and positioning while I am surfing. My disability has enabled me to use brains over brawn – a silver lining, and my life is full of them.

The more tricky part of my journey was how to manage other people’s emotions around me. This is different in the sea compared to on land; surfers are an honest bunch. I think because it is so powerful and unpredictable, it humbles us all whatever our ability. It is a great leveller. And a level playing field tends to exclude pity, and all of us disabled people are more comfortable in the absence of pity. Pity rears its ugly head on land though, and I learned from an early age how to deal with it. I learned how to read and manage people’s emotions around me, protect them in a way. And that is why surfing is so good for me as a disabled person. In the absence of pity I flourish.

I have competed in able-bodied surfing competitions all my life, competing with the best surfers our country has to offer and they don’t give me an inch in the water. Neither do my friends, both in and out of the water. I think that they also forget, and for that I am very thankful. Treat me normal and I will respect you back.

Antony Smyth finished fourth in the SA Masters Surfing Championships in 2016. He is also the current Adaptive Surfing Champion and current World Adaptive Surfing Champion.