Written by Tiki Ambassador Karen Darke.
I have never felt less prepared for a world stage than I did for the World Para-Surfing Championships in ‘Surf City’ California in November 2023.
Coming from Paralympic handcycling and manifesting gold in Rio 2016, my approach has been to follow a structured training plan, to work with a coach, to drill into fine movements, technique and strength and of course, the key to success: repetition, repetition, repetition.
I think I could still count the number of times I’ve been surfing on two hands.
This may sound a little odd to go to a World Championships with so little experience. In no way does it undermine the effort and training that other competitors put into the sport. Their grace and skill are the result of many hours and years of commitment. In California, I was in awe at their ability to ride waves with such mastery.
My participation was down to my involvement with SurfABLE Scotland.
The charity do great work to develop both grass-roots and performance-level adaptive surfing, working with all ages and neuro- and physically- diverse needs to enable surf therapy and adventure. Becoming an ambassador for the charity unexpectedly offered me a bridge into a new and adventurous physical activity and a wonderful community of like-minded people with belief in the power of the natural environment for our health and wellbeing.
There has likely never been a team so diverse in age or love of the sea than Team Scotland this year!
Through SurfABLE I met my friend and team-mate Jade Edward. Just eleven-years old and a quadruple amputee following meningitis when she was two years old, Jade has found her thing as a surfer-skater. She lights up in the water.
I was paralysed in a rock-climbing accident when I was twenty-one after a fall from a Scottish sea cliff, so the sea for me has an old association to a degree of trauma. It isn’t naturally the place that lights me up, but I am learning.
Jade had competed in the Worlds the previous year further north in California and did a great job finishing seventh. I was grateful to be there with her this time. Decades of sport as a paraplegic have given me a keen sense of proprioception. Whilst not an expert at anything other than handcycling, my balance and mind-body connection is adapted for a whole range of activities like skiing and kayaking, so whilst surfing was relatively new my body was primed.
One evening, we rode the seafront of Huntington Beach together. Jade sat on the back of my handbike with arms wrapped around providing me with a pillow. “Chicks diggin’!” a guy called to us. We were unsure what he meant, but we had our own meaning. We were definitely girls on a mission, proud to be representing Scotland, to be flying the SurfABLE flag for all they do and give, and excited if not a little intimidated to be in California-size waves. We were definitely digging it as we watched the sunset burst orange and red streaks across the relentless ocean waves, a perfect way to tune in and re-set, ready for the next days.
We joined 184 athletes from 27 nations over a week of competition. North Pacific swells blessed us with a week of non-stop waves, from knee-high peelers to head-high barrels, and the morning offshore winds made for some great conditions. We were challenged in some of the biggest waves we have faced, but everyone seized the opportunity to throw themselves into some big surf.
I believe in getting out of our comfort zones. Research into optimal human experience suggests that the level of challenge should be six percent greater than our skill level in order to keep us in a zone of flow. The neurochemistry our body produces in this challenge-skill sweet-spot makes us feel good. Surfing at the World Championships was certainly taking us into that zone and beyond. The energy of the surf felt immense. Scary. Exhilarating. Exhausting. Refreshing.
I see fear as a veil between where we are and an unknown place ahead of us. Surfing represents that veil. Whether accelerating down the face of a wave or preparing to be tumbled by a giant wall of water coming head on, the pulse of the ocean soon lifts the veil and fear transforms to flow and joy.
What a week! I finished 7th overall in the Prone 2 category which allows support to get out through the waves and a push to catch. Jade was a close 11th. It’s time to find some more waves now, develop the skills further and try moving beyond the comfort of a large foamy board. It may also be time to learn more independence in the water and see if I can step up to ‘Prone 1’, which means no assistance in the water. Eeek!! The growing awareness and access to adaptive surfing helps make this possible: thank you to all who are involved with this around the world.
And a big thanks to Tiki, SurfABLE, the World Surfing Association, the Scottish Surfing Federation, Inclusive Surfing Scotland, the team sponsors Ross-shire Engineering and Gleaner Oils, the Colin Weir Charitable Foundation, Crowdfunder supporters, to all volunteers and every single person that enabled this incredible opportunity and development of surfing that is as much a therapy as a sport. Proud to be a Tiki Ambassador!