What Is Adaptive Surfing? | Ocean’s Power to Heal

Bethany Hamilton was 13 years old when she went for a morning surf on Kauai’s Tunnels Beach with her best friend Alana Blanchard and Alana’s father and brother. While lying on her surfboard belly-down and conversing with Alana, a 14-foot-long (4.3 m) tiger shark attacked her.

Her left arm, which she had been dangling in the water just below the shoulder, was quickly bitten off by the shark. The very same arm she needed to paddle and balance while perfecting her surfing tricks – gone in a blink of an eye.

Everyone was left wondering how she’d surf and if she’d ever surf again. She did and even won awards. Hamilton refers to herself as an “adaptive” athlete. But, what is adaptive surfing and an adaptive athlete, you ask? This article brings the answers to that and more.

What Is Adaptive Surfing?

Adaptive surfing is simply defined as riding ocean waves toward the shore on a surfboard while overcoming a physical limitation.

But, to the global community of adaptive surfers, the hundreds of local and international organizations that support the sport, and the army of volunteers who devote their time to adaptive surfing events, adaptive surfing means a lot more.

Adaptive surfing means – surfers leaving their wheelchairs and crutches behind to hit the waves. It is making surfing more accessible to youngsters and adults because of advancements in board modifications, bespoke prosthetics, and the warmth of wetsuits.

Adaptive Surfing: Leisure, Competition, or Therapy

Adaptive surfing is an outdoor sport that takes place in a natural, dynamic, and physically demanding setting. Compared to other typical adaptive water sports, shifting waves, rip currents, tides, and the beach appear to be a new method (such as swimming, rowing, or sailing).

Adaptive surfing can be divided into three broad categories of treatments based on this foundation: sports leisure and play, competition and high performance, and therapeutic technic or rehabilitation proposals.

In the first category, adaptive surfing as leisure can be found in various casual settings, such as sports tourism, recreational activities, or simply free-time or weekend pursuits.

At the competitive level, the adaptive surfer’s high performance and results are considered. It has a more formal commitment since the sports practitioner becomes a professional athlete, adhering to the tight training, feeding, and resting standards to concentrate on competition results.

The adaptive surfer is focused on achieving greater results than other surfers in this form of intervention at a competitive level.

The last category is a therapeutic intervention. This is similar to the previous one because its particular motor, psychological, and social skills must be met. Although the surfer/patient is focused on achieving better results in this type of intervention, he focuses on his rehabilitation and social inclusion.

He achieves all these by realizing independence and functional autonomy in his daily living, rather than outperforming the other surfer.

Who Can Surf?

Anyone, especially those with particular requirements, such as those with a disability, who require extra support, specialized equipment, or an adapted surfing experience to fit their abilities, can do adaptive surfing.

Impairment Type

Athletes must have a physical or visual disability to compete. And, in order to compete, athletes must have a classification.


Adaptive Surfing has six divisions:

  • OPEN AS 1 (Stand/Kneel – Upper Limb Amputees, BK Amputees)
  • OPEN AS 2 (Stand/Kneel – Kneel, AK Amputees)
  • OPEN Visually Impaired
  • OPEN Upright (Waveski)
  • OPEN Prone
  • OPEN Assist

Each division has its own set of categories that must be met to compete.

How To Get Classified

Each participant’s application will be reviewed by the ISA Adaptive Surfing Classification Review Committee, which will determine their eligibility for adaptive surfing events.

Adaptive Surfing on Global Stage

The 4th annual World Adaptive Surfing Championship, held in early December 2018 in La Jolla, CA, with a record-breaking 120 players representing 24 national para-surfing teams, demonstrated the rise of adaptive surfing.

Team USA Wins Historic First Gold Medal at 2018 Stance

The International Surfing Association (ISA), the same governing organization responsible for including surfing in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, hosted the four-day event. In total, 12 individual world champions were crowned in six categories, including Team USA’s first-ever overall team gold medal.

The popularity of the competitive side of the sport is at an all-time high, thanks to the ISA’s continued efforts to have Adaptive Surfing included in the 2028 Paralympics in Los Angeles. This level of excitement and intensity is not exclusive to great athletes.

It also includes the growing number of people who want to experience the healing power of the ocean on their first wave, as well as others who are returning to surfing after spinal cord injuries that have changed their lives.

The ISA (International Surfing Association)

The International Olympic Committee recognizes the International Surfing Association (ISA) as the World Governing Authority for Surfing. Shortboard, Longboard, Bodyboarding, StandUp Paddle (SUP) Racing and Surfing, Para-Surfing, Bodysurfing, Wakesurfing, and other wave riding activities on any wave or flat water using wave riding equipment are all governed and defined by the ISA.

They aim to use surfing to make the world a better place by promoting, developing, and leading surfing in all of its forms worldwide while also uniting the global surfing community and promoting accessibility and universal involvement.

The Birth of Adaptive Surfing

Jesse Billauer was one of the best junior surfers in the world in 1996, and he was going to compete professionally. Billauer struck a shallow sandbar headfirst while surfing his local break in Malibu, CA, shattering his 6th vertebrae and rendering him paraplegic.

But it was his road back to being able to surf that paved the way for those who have been paralyzed to have access to surfing.

Life Rolls On, Billauer’s non-profit group, presented its first event, “They Will Surf Again,” in 2001. LRO took a step into the unknown on that day, and TWSA has now developed into a nationwide, ten-city tour that has touched thousands of lives.

Each event welcomes up to 50 participants who will spend the day surfing waves and sharing the stoke with hundreds of wetsuit-clad volunteers. Safety personnel does the heavy lifting of getting the competitors back into position to catch waves. They remain right there, within reach, to either lead the surfer onto the wave or tandem surf in together.

Billauer is naturally present at the events to express his gratitude to the local volunteers who make the events possible and meet with the athletes.

Adaptive surfing began to take shape with Jesse Billauer’s Life Rolls On, despite a few lone pioneers who tried to work out the sport as early as the late 1970s.

Surf Is Up for Adaptive Surfers

Adaptive surfers don’t have to wait till competitions like TWSA come to town to get their start. Beach Wheelchairs, which are expressly intended to take surfers to the water’s edge, are available in most beach communities. Local surf schools have also provided classes and camps for disabled people in their areas.

Jennifer Steffener, co-owner of Coastline Adventures Surfing School in Brick, NJ, has noticed a steady increase of adapted surfers seeking training. “The sport is really growing as awareness increases for people with physical and developmental challenges,” Steffener said.

The National Surf School and Instructor Association has accredited Coastline Adventures, and the crew is Red Cross CPR, and First Aid qualified. “Our sandy beaches and summertime water conditions are a great environment to introduce surfing to our guests, and we are eager to accommodate adaptive surfers the best we can with equipment the student feels comfortable with.”

They present surfing as a lifestyle, with topics such as water safety, ocean science, environmental awareness, surf etiquette, and cultural history, according to Steffener. Despite their busy summer schedules, she and her team participate in the local Best Day event one weekend each year.

“Helping people and sharing your passion of the water is a life-changing event. It is, without a doubt, the highlight of my staff’s summer,” she points out.

Getting Involved In Adaptive Surfing

You can participate in Adaptive Surfing in various ways, including registering as an Adaptive Surfer (if you are impaired), volunteering to assist in Adaptive Surfing Clinics, and arranging an Adaptive Surfing Team-Building where you can have fun while giving back!

Famous Adaptive Surfers

  • Mark “Mono” Stewart
  • Mike Coots
  • Quincy ‘The Flying Squirrel’ Symonds
  • Bethany Hamilton
  • The Blind Surfers Of Brazil (Derek Rabelo and Figue Diel)


To put it simply, adaptive surfing is not only a sport. Adaptive surfing is a movement. It is a lifestyle. It’s a chance for both young and old to harness the ocean’s force and ride waves. And it’s changing people’s lives.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

Q: Is there Paralympic surfing?

A: Yes. The World Para Surfing Championship boosted the sport’s popularity across the ISA’s global member network, with new grassroots programs springing up in Australia, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, France, and South Africa, to mention a few.

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