What Is Para Surfing? | The Sport for the Adaptive Surfer

Last Updated January 27, 2023

The elite of the para surfing community gathered in Pismo Beach, California, from December 6 to 11, 2021. For the sixth edition of the International Surfing Association (ISA) World Para Surfing Championship, they battled the waves and demonstrated their abilities.

Surfers from 24 countries competed, with the International Surfing Association (ISA) hoping that the sport’s expansion will help the governing body achieve its goal of competing in the 2028 Paralympics in Los Angeles.

If you have been a huge follower of surfing, you’d understand this part of surfing particularly caters to our adaptive surfers. But, if you’re new to para surfing and you are looking to find out more, we’ve prepared a good read for you.

What Is Para Surfing?

What Is Para Surfing? | The Sport for the Adaptive Surfer 1
Bruno Hansen (DNK)

Para surfing is a modified style of surfing that allows people with physical limitations to surf on a surfboard. The International Surfing Association (ISA) is the sport’s international governing body.

Since 2015, the organization has crowned adaptive surfing world champions. The original categorization of adaptive surfing has transformed into para surfing in recent years, especially when surfing became an Olympic sport.

What Is Adaptive Surfing?

Surfing ocean waves on a surfboard while overcoming a physical restriction is what adaptive surfing is all about.

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

Surfers leaving their wheelchairs and crutches behind to hit the waves are adaptive surfers. Because of developments in board modifications, bespoke prostheses, and the warmth of wetsuits, it is making surfing more accessible to children and adults.

ISA Para Surfing Classification

To compete in para surfing events, athletes must have a qualifying impairment. The physical disabilities are specified in the International Standard for Eligible Impairments, as defined by the Athlete Classification Code of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC).

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The ISA Para Surfing Classification is a process in which qualified Para Surfing Classifiers evaluate competitive adaptive surfers’ strength, flexibility, balance, and coordination to place them in one of nine Para Surfing Sports Classes.

The classification goal is to place each athlete in their best surf class to ensure high competitiveness and a more equitable playing field, reducing the influence of impairments on sports performance.

The ISA Para Surfing Classifiers start by determining whether an athlete has an underlying health condition that could result in an “IPC approved” or eligible impairment.

The classifier panel will determine whether the impairment(s) fulfill the Minimum Impairment Criteria.

ISA Para Surfing offers seven physical classes and two visual sports classes.

Para Surfing Sport Classes
Sport Class Description
Stand 1 Any surfer who rides a wave in a standing position with an upper limb amputation or congenital or impairment equivalent or short stature.
Stand 2 Any surfer who rides a wave in a standing position with a below-the-knee amputation or congenital or impairment equivalent, or leg length difference.
Stand 3 Any surfer who rides a wave in a standing position with an above-the-knee amputation or both lower extremity amputations or congenital or impairment equivalent.
Kneel Any surfer who rides a wave in a kneeling or sitting without paddle position with an above the knee amputation or both lower limb amputations or congenital or impairment equivalent.
Sit Any surfer who rides the wave in a sitting position that does NOT require assistance paddling into a wave and getting back on the board safely.
Prone 1 Any surfer who rides the wave in a prone position that does NOT require assistance paddling into a wave and getting back on the board safely.
Prone 2 Any surfer who rides the wave in a prone position that DOES require assistance in the water, paddling into a wave, and getting back on the board safely.
Vision Impairment 1 Any surfer who rides a wave in a standing position with IBSA classification Level B1.
Vision Impairment 2 Any surfer who rides a wave in a standing position with IBSA classification Level B2 and Level B3.


10 IPC* Approved Eligible Impairments
Physical Body Function Impairments (5) Physical Body Structure Impairments (3) Visual Impairments (3)
Impaired Passive Range of Motion Limb Deficiency IBSA Vision Impairment B1
Impaired Muscle Power Leg Length Difference IBSA Vision Impairment B2
Hypertonia Short Stature IBSA Vision Impairment B3
*IPC=International Paralympic Committee

Terminology Definitions:

Spinal cord injuries, brain injuries, strokes, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, low stature, congenital limb deficits, leg length discrepancies, amputations, and eyesight impairments are all fall under approved underlying health conditions or medical diagnoses.

Impaired passive range of motion, impaired muscle power, limb deficiency, leg length difference, short stature, hypertonia, ataxia, athetosis, vision and intellectual disability are the Paralympic impairments. Para surfing does not employ intellectual disability at this time.

Despite impairing function, several impairments are classified as “Non-Eligible Impairments” for Para Surfing. According to the International Paralympic Committee, non-eligible impairments include discomfort, hearing loss, low muscle tone, hypermobility, joint instability, endurance, and poor respiratory function.

Each Para Surfing Surf Class has minimal impairment criteria for each eligible impairment. The minimal impairment criteria were developed based on the impairment being severe enough to impact the sport of surfing.

Amputated fingers, for example, are regarded as a disability, although missing digits is not enough of impairment to affect surfing. For a list of qualifying impairments, minimal impairment criteria, and descriptions of each Para Surfing Class, see the “ISA Para Surfing Classification Rules & Regulations.”

Para Surfing Eligible Impairments

Impaired Muscle Power

Surfers with decreased muscle power have an underlying health problem that prevents or limits their capacity to move or create force by contracting muscles spontaneously.

Examples include spinal cord damage, whether total or incomplete, tetra- or paraplegia, muscular dystrophy, post-polio syndrome, and spina bifida.

Impaired Passive Range of Movement

A lack or restriction of passive mobility in one or more joints characterizes surfers with a limited range of motion. Arthrogryposis and contracture caused by chronic joint immobility or trauma to a joint are examples.

Limb Deficiency

As a result of trauma (traumatic amputation), disease (amputation due to bone cancer), or congenital limb deficiency, surfers with limb deficiency have a partial or whole absence of bones or joints (dysmelia).

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Leg Length Difference

Surfers who have a discrepancy in leg length due to limb growth disruption or trauma are classified under this para surfing impairment.

Short Stature

Surfers who are short in stature and have shorter bones in their lower limbs fall under this impairment classification. Other examples are growth hormone deficiency, achondroplasia, and osteogenesis imperfecta.


Surfers with hypertonia because of injury to the central nervous system have increased muscle tension and a diminished ability to stretch their muscles. Traumatic brain injury, cerebral palsy, and stroke are only a few examples.


Ataxia causes disorganized movements in surfers due to injury to the central nervous system. Traumatic brain injury, cerebral palsy, stroke, and multiple sclerosis are only a few examples.


Athetosis causes continuous, sluggish, involuntary motions in surfers. Stroke, cerebral palsy, and traumatic brain injury are only a few examples.

Vision Impairment

The eye with greater visual acuity while wearing the best optical correction utilizing spectacles or contact lenses or visual fields, including central and peripheral zones, is used to determine the visual class. Athletes will be divided into the following sub-classes:

VI1 = B1: Visual acuity poorer than LogMAR 2.6

VI2 = B2 and B3: B2 (visual acuity ranging from LogMAR 1.5 to 2.6 (inclusive) or visual field constricted to a diameter of less than 10 degrees) and B3 (visual acuity ranging from LogMAR 1.4 to 1.0 (inclusive) or visual field constricted to a diameter of less than 40 degrees)

All athletes are evaluated and reviewed by the International Surfing Association’s (ISA) para surfing international classifiers to decide if they are eligible, ineligible, or under review.

Para surfers are seeded into their proper sport class when the panel finalizes.

Para Surfing To Be Included in the Paralympics

Following the spectacular debut of surfing at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, Fernando Aguerre, President of the International Surfing Association (ISA), emphasizes the ISA’s drive and ambition to have Para Surfing included on the Paralympic Games sports program.

The International Surfing Association had previously applied for Para Surfing to be included in the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games but was unsuccessful. With the 2028 Olympic Games in Los Angeles as the next possible opportunity to add new sports to the schedule, the International Surfing Association (ISA) is hoping to recreate the historic premiere of Olympic Surfing on the Paralympic stage.

The ISA organized the sixth edition of the 2021 Pismo Beach World Para Surfing Championship from December 6 to 11, hosted by AmpSurf, a significant force behind the sport’s global growth and development notably at the elite level.

Athlete participation has more than doubled since the event’s start in 2015, with 133 competitors from 22 countries representing all five continents competing in the 2020 edition.

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.

Team USA Won 2021 World Para Surfing Championships

On the last day of the recently concluded World Para Surfing Championships in California, the USA won three gold medals.

At Pismo Beach, Liv Stone, Sarah Bettencourt, and Jose Martinez all won to help the host nation win the team title. Stone won the women’s stand one division while Bettencourt won the women’s prone one division. In the men’s prone two final, Martinez edged off Jesse Billauer.

Para Surfers To Watch Out For

There are many fascinating para surfers to watch out for, such as Dariel Melendez of Costa Rica, who astonished the internet with his one-legged surfing skill. People banded together to help Dariel get a prosthetic limb, and he raced in the Para Surfing Stand 2 division in 2021.

Liv Stone (USA) – Para Surf Stand 1

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American surfer Liv Stone in training prior to the start of competition at the ISA World Para Surfing Championships ©ISA/Sean Evans

Liv Stone was born with a congenital limb difference, with shorter arms and two fingers on each hand, but that hasn’t stopped her from leading an active lifestyle or competing at a high level, including playing varsity soccer her freshman year.

Even yet, Liv didn’t have any opportunity to surf growing up in Pennsylvania until she attended one of Bethany Hamilton’s Beautifully Flawed Retreats in 2017. She first learned to surf there, and she hasn’t stopped since.

Sam Bloom (Australia) – Para Surf Prone 2

What Is Para Surfing? | The Sport for the Adaptive Surfer 5Sam Bloom did not spend her childhood in a wheelchair. The mother-of-three from Australia had everything going for her in life. She had traveled the world as a surfer, fulfilled a lifetime ambition to become a nurse, and raised three sons with her husband, Cameron.

Then, while on vacation in Thailand in 2013, Sam fell through a defective hotel balcony railing, paralyzing her from the chest down and leaving her searching for meaning in her life.

Penguin Bloom, a 2020 Netflix film about her recovery, was inspired by a wounded Australian Magpie chick the family adopted and called Penguin. Sam soon found new meaning in her life thanks to the injured bird, and she was back in the water competing in para canoeing, winning two Australian titles and placing 13th in the world.

She rediscovered surfing in 2018, was picked for the Australian Para Surf Team, and won gold in the Para Surf Prone 2 division at the 2019 and 2020 World Para Surfing Championships.

Matt Formston (Australia) – Para Surf Visually Impaired 2

What Is Para Surfing? | The Sport for the Adaptive Surfer 6For more than a decade, Matt Formston has been a professional athlete. He began his career in para cycling, winning gold and silver at the UCI Paracycling Track World Championships in 2014 and 2015, respectively, and setting a world record in the Tandem Pursuit event in 2014.

Matt competed in the 2016 Rio Paralympics for Australia, but left cycling to pursue his passion for surfing at a professional level. Matt surfs nearly entirely by feel, despite the fact that he only has 5% vision.

If you were to watch him surf, the only thing that would alert you to this fact would be the words “Blind Surfer” printed on his wetsuit. The man rips himself apart.

Eric Dargent (France) – Para Surfing Stand 3

What Is Para Surfing? | The Sport for the Adaptive Surfer 7Eric Dargent was surfing off the coast of Réunion Island in the Indian Ocean when he was attacked by a shark and lost his left leg above the knee.

Eric’s love of surfing was unaffected by the attack. He even collaborated with snowboarding amputee Patrice Barattero and an orthopedic specialist to build an action sports-oriented prosthetic knee to assist him in getting back in the sea.

The prosthetic, marketed and manufactured by French company Proteor as the Easy Ride sports knee, is resistant to seawater, cold temperatures, and has a hydraulic shock absorber similar to those seen in mountain bikes. Eric won a silver medal in the Para Surfing Stand 3 division in 2020 due to it.


Regardless of skill level, many people with disabilities have discovered and experienced the sport’s life-changing aspects. Increasing the sport’s reach and audience through the Paralympic platform will help us continue our shared goal of making the world a better place through surfing.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

Q: Is para surfing included in the Paralympics

A: While surfing made its Olympic debut in Tokyo 2020, the Paralympic Games featured 22 sports, except para surfing. Para surfers will have to wait another few years to compete in the Paralympic Games.

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