Adaptive Surfers Shine At Byron While Pushing For Acceptance Into Paralympics

Bruce Mackenzie
Swellnet Dispatch

They might be the only surfers in the world who want to see more people in the water.

About 90 surfers from 17 different countries gathered at Byron Bay, last week for the first Association of Adaptive Surfing Professionals (AASP) contest ever held in Australia. Contest organiser Mark 'Mono' Stewart knows a deeper pool of competitors will make it more difficult for him to add to an already bulging trophy cabinet, which includes five adaptive world surfing championships. But that is a risk he is happy to take.

"My main thing is to be able to help people get back into the water," he said. "I'm sort of an old bloke now, but I want to see the future of our sport go global, and it is.

"I'm proud to be part of that as one of the pioneers."

Mark 'Mono' Stewart is a five-time world adaptive surfing champion (ABC North Coast//Emma Rennie)

Paralympic push

The AASP already has a four-stage world tour, but there is a concerted campaign to get the sport into the 2028 Paralympics at Los Angeles. Tour surfer Alana Nichols, who is a board member of the International Surfing Association (ISA) Athlete Commission, said it was all about numbers.

"We've done everything we can and the sport has grown exponentially since we started," she said. "We're just hoping for more women to come out and surf. We need gender equity, we just need more numbers all around." 

Alana Nichols is campaigning to get surfing into the Paralympic Games (ABC North Coast//Emma Rennie)

Sixteen-year-old Annie Goldsmith, who has cerebral palsy, was quick to sing the praises of the adaptive surfing community.

"There's a girl in South Australia who got me into it, and I haven't looked back since," she said. "Just have a go, come out to one of the events and watch if you don't know if you want to do it or not yet.

"It's the best community I've ever been in, from any para sport."

'A matter of millimetres'

Adaptive surfing does its best to accommodate athletes with different abilities across nine categories. Maureen Johnson, who is the AASP's head of classification, said several factors were considered.

"So we test strength, we test flexibility, we'll measure [limbs] with a tape measure," Dr Johnson said.  "It is literally sometimes a matter of millimetres and degrees. 

"So when athletes are winning, it's based on their training and their skill."

Aaron Paulk has only peripheral vision, but he scored a 10-point ride at Byron Bay (ABC North Coast//Bruce MacKenzie)

Vision-impaired surfer Aaron Paulk used plenty of both to score a perfect 10-point ride on finals day at the Byron Bay event. The Hawaiian relied on his limited peripheral vision, and a local surfer acting as his spotter, to surf his way across the peeling waves on offer at The Pass.

"So he gets me into the waves and then it just goes into the flow state after that," he said. "If you feel something drop out then you go up and hit it.

"Just from repetition, just knowing that motion and seeing the variation between white and green or blue, depending on what ocean you're in, I can pick that up through my periphery."

Brazilian adaptive surfer Fellipe Kizu Lima finds the tube in Byron Bay (Lise de Boer)

The surfers can use a range of equipment, depending on their category, but the competitive edge won't necessarily come from the board they are riding. UK competitor Pegleg Bennett uses a prothetic lower limb and has spent years finding the best design. 

"When I stand the joint gives, so my foot actually sits flat on the board," he said. "Before this I spent a lot of time up on my heel or the edge of the foot. You don't get a lot of purchase, so it's a bit…wobbly."

The Byron Bay event featured a fairytale finish. After working for years to make the contest a reality, Mono scored an almost-perfect 9.5 ride in the last minute of the final to win his division.

It goes without saying, although every surfer says it, he was "stoked".

© Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.

Mono is chaired up the beach after winning his division (ABC North Coast//Bruce MacKenzie)


crg's picture
crg's picture
crg Monday, 25 Mar 2024 at 11:55am

Onya Mono! Legend effort mate!!

thermalben's picture
thermalben's picture
thermalben Monday, 25 Mar 2024 at 11:58am

How's Fellipe's barrel!

bccelebrant's picture
bccelebrant's picture
bccelebrant Monday, 25 Mar 2024 at 12:29pm

Yeeew!! These humans are quite incredible and watching this contest online and seeing them on the beach whilst surfing Clarke's was pretty damn inspiring! Was awesome to see the support crew getting the competitors back up the beach in the modified wheel chairs. The Blind surfers blew my mind and just the froth of the competitors. Hopefully it'll stop me whinging about the small things when it comes to surfing for a while to come. And a reminder to not tune into others agro and BS attitude in the lineup. Shout out to Dale Taylor from Potty on the Tweed Coast for winning a stacked crew in his Adaptive Disability division. He's been the Aussie champ for many years now and is frothing hard in his 60's. Riding the JS epoxy weapons. You can re-watch on Youtube.

t-diddy's picture
t-diddy's picture
t-diddy Tuesday, 26 Mar 2024 at 12:01am

Epic ! Barrel looked sic

drodders's picture
drodders's picture
drodders Tuesday, 26 Mar 2024 at 11:30am

Thanks for sharing, really inspiring

Robwilliams's picture
Robwilliams's picture
Robwilliams Tuesday, 26 Mar 2024 at 11:58am

Pushing it, mono and crew. Nurturing and creating the stoke.

gavin007's picture
gavin007's picture
gavin007 Thursday, 28 Mar 2024 at 9:17am

100% Amazing and Inspiring.
If you want to come home pumped, volunteer a day with these guys. You will love it! -

basesix's picture
basesix's picture
basesix Thursday, 28 Mar 2024 at 9:43am

^ On ya gavin, crew can use the link to look at what businesses support their local DSA branch too, shop there and tell them they're legends.

Pop Down's picture
Pop Down's picture
Pop Down Thursday, 28 Mar 2024 at 10:00am

Gosh following U around on SN , basesix , leads me to good things .

Well done Gavin 007 :)

Checked it out and realise I would love a day , Popping Down to Pt Leo , and helping out .

Looks like the Summer Season may be over but , it's Always Season , 2 Register 4 the DSA ( and or a donation ) , imho .

What a bloody Good thing 2 do !

spencie's picture
spencie's picture
spencie Thursday, 28 Mar 2024 at 12:11pm

Stoked to see Mono still getting results and doing such a great job organising. Been a great surfer for so many years.

hamishbro's picture
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hamishbro Friday, 5 Apr 2024 at 8:05pm

Nice lead Bruce