Riding the Waves

August 2018
Written By: 
Dawn Bryant
Photographs by: 
Randall Hill

Wheel to Surf offers the chance for disabled surfers to get back out on the water

PHOTO: Tracy Price poses with relatives and volunteers with Wheel to Surf after they took him surfing in Cherry Grove in May—the first time Price had been in the ocean since he became dependent on a wheelchair after an ATV accident in 2004.

Tracy Price sat in the specially equipped, sand-friendly wheelchair, gazing out at the waves, a bit of fear in his eyes. The beach lover was about to get in the ocean for the first time since an ATV accident 14 years ago stole his once active lifestyle and left him dependent on a wheelchair. But for a while on this overcast Sunday, Price won’t be relying on that wheelchair. He’ll be free of the chair and one with the waves thanks to a group of local surfers who want others—regardless of their disabilities—to experience the freedom and fun they find riding the waves.

Though excited, Price was a bit nervous, apprehensive. Wheel to Surf volunteers lifted him from the wheelchair and placed him on a modified surfboard, then started moving him out deeper into the ocean. Price’s wife Carla accompanied him as far out in the water as she could go and a cheering section of relatives stood in the sand eagerly watching every move.

“Oh, they are way out there with him now,” his cousin Travis Cecil said, excited to see his relative back in the water.

For nearly 30 minutes, Tracy Price rode the waves. Like any new surfer, he at first ended up with mouthfuls of the salt water. He’d fall off the board, but the volunteers—who were at his side the entire time—simply put him back on the board for the next wave. By the time he was back in the wheelchair in the sand, the nervousness and apprehension were long gone, replaced with a reinvigorated spirit and excitement.

“That was fun,” Price said as beads of salt water dripped from his hair. “It felt great. There’s nothing like the ocean. I’ve missed it. … Out there, you are just floating. Man, it feels good. I caught a couple of good waves out there.”

Price was one of more than a dozen people the volunteer surfers took out during this “mini” Wheel to Surf, which is part of a growing adaptive sports movement along the Grand Strand. The surfing events started about five years ago. There’s also basketball games on Wednesdays and bike rides every Thursday at the North Myrtle Beach Park and Sports Complex.

First-timers on the modified bikes always have similar reactions.

“It’s just smiles and cheering. It means so much,” said volunteer Luke Sharp, who usually leads the bike rides. “It’s just pure joy. You can’t beat that, really.”

Kimberly and Jerry Coleman of Conway recently discovered the events and bring their children Nicole, 16, and Shea, 8, who has cerebral palsy and a seizure disorder, to bike and surf. Though Shea doesn’t speak, they know he loves being in the ocean—he doesn’t want to get out when his session is over. At a recent Wheel to Surf, Shea rode the waves on a sit-down board, putting out a little yell of joy every time the waves brought him in, said Vann Horne, the volunteer surfer who rode the waves with Shea.

“Watching his face, how it lights up when he’s out there, makes it all worth it,” Jerry Coleman said.

Catching the Wave

Brock Johnson started the Wheel to Surf events about five years ago simply because he wanted to surf again. A Myrtle Beach resident, he had embraced the coastal lifestyle for years: he surfed regularly, was a lifeguard in Surfside Beach, enjoyed water skiing, wake boarding—any activity in the water.

But in a split second seven years ago, that “beach bum” lifestyle changed.

He fractured his neck when he dove from a pontoon boat into shallow water off Bird Island, North Carolina, not realizing the boat had drifted from the deeper waters where he dove safely earlier that day. Johnson, 40, has been in a wheelchair ever since.

“I just didn’t want to accept it at first,” Johnson said. “I just didn’t think that way. I wanted to get better.”

He worked with experts at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, which specializes in spinal cord and brain injury rehabilitation. It wasn’t long before he was ready to get back in the water.

“I just decided I was going to go surfing,” Johnson said. “I wasn’t going to let anything stop me.”

He went to an adaptive surfing event in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. He felt like himself again riding the waves. He left inspired.

“It felt like going back home again [when I was surfing],” Johnson said. “This is where I’m meant to be. I felt like I was exactly where I was supposed to be. I decided that day I wanted to do that at home.”

Back on the Grand Strand, Johnson started spreading the word about the adaptive surfing event that he’d call Wheel to Surf. About 15 people with disabilities who wanted to experience the water either again or for the first time showed up on the beach. So did a group of surfers wanting to help.

Luke Sharp was one of them.

“My whole family surfs. We just love it, you know? You want to share it with people who wouldn’t be able to do it otherwise,” said Sharp, who is a teacher at Horry County’s alternative school.

Sharp, director of the Adaptive Surf Project, noticed an opportunity to modify boards to tailor them to the needs of the special surfers. Some have handles. Some have padding for the surfers who lay on the board and surf. Others are sized so the surfer and volunteer can ride together.

Several groups help sponsor the Wheel to Surf events, which can attract as many as 40 adaptive surfers and 100 volunteers. Coastal Adaptive Sports and the Adaptive Surf Project put on the surfing events, with several large ones and mini ones along the Grand Strand each summer, as well as in Folly Beach.

The non-profit groups, run by volunteers, rely on donations, grants and money from fundraising events to buy specialized equipment such as the beach-friendly wheelchairs, which cost between $1,500 and $1,800 each, and modify the surfboards and bikes. Organizers are also always looking for volunteers; not just surfers, but bike mechanics, runners who can run alongside the bikes to help, photographers—anyone with skills or just time to help, Sharp said.

“Just contact me and I’ll put them to work,” he said.

Price, who lives in Trinity, North Carolina, discovered Wheel to Surf while on vacation. Other adaptive surfers have come from as far away as Atlanta and Augusta, Sharp said.

“If people are willing to drive that far, I’ll take ‘em surfing,” Sharp said.

Magic on the Water

The volunteer surfers, who spend several hours in the water during each Wheel to Surf, are the arms, the legs or the eyes for the adaptive surfers, depending on their needs. They’ll ride the waves with the adaptive surfer. They’ll propel a solo surfer into the wave. They lift the adaptive surfers from their wheelchairs and work to keep them on their boards.

“Those waves beat those guys up,” said Betty Ann Shaw, who stood in the sand filming her son Brian catch waves during the Wheel to Surf in May. “They get smacked and slapped, beat up by the waves. ... They are devoted to him. Those people who volunteer—they need to be commended.”

Several volunteers said they wouldn’t be anywhere else. They love surfing and would likely be in the water anyway, so they might as well take a friend, whether new or a longtime buddy, out with them.

“It would be selfish of me to go out and not take someone with me,” Sharp said. “When they have the same level of stoke that I do, it makes me happy.”

Lifelong surfer Tyler Watkins typically is positioned in the deep water to read the waves and propel the adaptive surfers forward at the right moment.

Longtime volunteers team up with local adaptive surfers; several have traveled to California to compete in national adaptive surfing competitions. Johnson, who regularly partners with Sharp, competed in the first World Adaptive Surfing Championships and has placed in the national competition.

Brian Shaw, who is blind, feels a connection with the volunteer surfers, who tell him when the waves are coming and when to start paddling.

“Then I can take it from there,” he said, sitting in a beach chair after catching such an impressive wave that onlookers on the beach broke out into applause as he walked out of the water, with a smile so wide it consumed his face.

Those smiles make it all worth it to the organizers and volunteers.

“What’s happening here locally is really an amazing thing,” Watkins said. “What Brock has started has inspired people.”

Johnson simply wanted to surf again.

“I never dreamed of any of this,” said Johnson, who is now president of Coastal Adaptive Sports and a board member of the Adaptive Surf Project. “It kind of magically happened for me—for all of us.

“It’s blown up [since that first Wheel to Surf]. Everybody needs a little help sometimes. That’s what we try to provide.”