Weekend Warriors: 7 Adaptive Athletes Everyone Should Know

Michelle Yap

Danielle Burt and Alana Nichols, two of the women who competed at the first-ever world adaptive surfing championships.

LA JOLLA, Calif. -- The surfers came from as far as away as Australia, Norway and Brazil -- some in wheelchairs, others with prosthetic legs and canes -- to ride the waves of La Jolla Shores beach in the hopes of returning home with medals, glory and memories of an epic time.

The final day of the first-ever International Surfing Association (ISA) World Adaptive Surfing Championship on Sept. 27 drew hundreds of spectators to the beach, where they cheered on 69 adaptive surfers from 18 different countries, only seven of whom were women.

The paucity of female surfers meant the women faced off against the men in the water -- in divisions that ranged from standing alone to assistance in catching the waves. Here's the stories of the seven awe-inspiring women who surfed that day.

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Meira Duarte: "We wanna show the world that we're bad-ass sometimes. Disabled people are some bad-ass people, too."

Meira Duarte, 30, Team Hawaii; full-time mother (photo above)
Division: Upright (surfers who ride waves in a seated or kneeling position)

Her story: Duarte, a 2004 Paralympian, teared up as she recalled the car accident she had at age 14 in her native Samoa. The accident left her wheelchair-bound for five years, though she is now able to walk with assistance.

"These are tears of joy to look back and see where I am right now," she said. "I hope we push that next disabled person who thinks they can't do anything to get up and do something, and see what they're capable of."

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Danielle Burt is also a snowboarder, skateboarder and rock climber -- and was the only female competitor in the "stand" category.

The resident of Ewa Beach, Hawaii, said she also surfs in an effort to be a role model for her two children, Lani, 8, and Kanoa, 5. "I wanna be the person that, if they struggle, they look to and go, 'Mommy did so good even though she's got broken legs.'"

"We wanna show the world that we're bad-ass sometimes. Disabled people are some bad-ass people, too."

Danielle Burt, 30, Team USA; physical therapist (photo at right)
Division: Stand

Her story: "You think your life is over. You think you'll never be athletic again. And you see that one picture, that one blog, that one video [of someone else in a similar situation doing a sport] and then you're like, 'Done!'" Burt said of realizing she wanted to try surfing. Burt's right leg was amputated while she was in a coma after a motorcycle accident.

After her recovery she took up surfing -- and she's also an active snowboarder, skateboarder and rock climber. Burt was the only female competitor in the "stand" category.

She was especially excited to connect with adaptive athletes with prosthetics whom she had been communicating with online. "I've been talking to some of these athletes for a couple years now. We've been throwing ideas back and forth. Now we get to meet each other in-person, so we actually get to see our prosthetics [and] give tips. Everybody's just stoked."

"I hope with this competition, other women will want to get out there. And if they contact me, I will totally take them out and show them how I do it. It's important to try."

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Fran Brown raised raised 3,000 British pounds so she could make the trip to La Jolla, California, from Great Britain.

Fran Brown, 30, Team Great Britain; physiotherapy student (photo above)
Division: Assist (surfers who receive support getting into a wave but ride it independently); Brown suffered a spinal cord injury after falling off of a ladder.

Her story: "I just love the ocean. I can forget my disability when I'm out there," said Brown, who is based in London and grew up surfing in Cornwall in southwest England. After her accident, she underwent four years of rehabilitation during which she was unsure about whether she would ever be able to get in the water again.

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Diane Whitcomb trained for the event with her coaches in early-morning sessions on Waikiki Beach in Hawaii.

To get her and her assistant across the pond to the U.S., she started a crowdfunding campaign on social media and raised 3,000 British pounds.

"Maybe [this event] will help access at beaches [for disabled surfers]. Cornwall is getting better; there are beaches with beach wheelchairs now. But it's only the last couple of years that people have been making that happen. So, hopefully, if adaptive surfing grows more here and in the U.K., we can make that a bit more mainstream everywhere. Every beach should have at least one wheelchair."

Diane Whitcomb, 64; Team Hawaii (photo at right)
Division: Upright

Her story: "I've always sat on the sidelines. And now I'm not!" said Whitcomb, who was born with a genetic disease called Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease that affects her motor and sensory nerves. While she has been an active swimmer, SCUBA diver and outrigger canoe paddler, she added "surfer" to her athletic repertoire only two years ago. "I don't think there was this much [for adaptive athletes] when I was younger. I also had my own issues about 'I wanna be normal, I don't wanna be labeled.' I was embarrassed to do stuff."

That attitude has changed considerably, especially since she discovered the adaptive surfing community. "I feel like I'm just like everybody else. You don't feel so isolated."

To train for the contest, she did early-morning "dawn patrol" surf sessions on Waikiki Beach with her coaches, who cheered her on and waved the Hawaiian flag from the beach.

And at 64, did she ever think she could call herself a competitive surfer? "No, I did not. I never even thought I would surf. I'm thrilled to be here. This is a new life."

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Evelyn Gimeno was the only female representative from Argentina.

Evelyn Gimeno, 21, Team Argentina (photo above)
Division: Assist

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Alana Nichols has won three Paralympic gold medals, in alpine skiing and wheelchair basketball.

Her story: The only female to represent Argentina, Gimeno was born with cerebral palsy and has been surfing for four years.

"I'm really proud to be around all of the other adaptive surfers here from all around the world," she said through an interpreter. "I want everyone to know that we're not afraid of the ocean and to get out there anyways, no matter what, and have fun."

And like many of her fellow competitors, she had one goal in mind: "To get the best waves I can."

Alana Nichols, 32, Team USA; Paralympian in skiing and wheelchair basketball (photo at right)
Division: Upright; Nichols was paralyzed in a snowboarding accident as a teenager

Her story: "I was just one hundred percent stoked to be in the lineup with some of the best waveskiers in the world," Nichols said of being the lone female to make it to the semifinals in the upright division. "I caught some pretty good rights, and I got a really good wipeout. It was just so cool."

The ISA championship was only the third surf contest the three-time Paralympic gold medalist had ever entered since taking up the sport less than a year ago. And she had no shortage of stoke for her fellow female riders.

"I just love watching Meira surf. She's so passionate. And Diane -- she's got a heart for it, too. I love her," she said. "Looking back at how small our contingency is as females [this year]. But you know, we were pretty mighty. I can think of 10 women I need to have here next year."

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Darian Haynes earned the "copper" medal -- a fourth-place finish in the "assist" division.

Darian Haynes, 15, Team Hawaii; high school student (photo above)
Division: Assist

Her story: Haynes has been surfing for five years and was the only female to place in the competition, earning a copper (fourth-place) medal in the "assist" division. Born with Erb's palsy, she has limited use of her left arm but is able to stand upright on a board. Her family spent approximately $4,000 to bring her to the event.

She enthusiastically shared her tips on sharing the waves with other surfers: "Just duck under the water, and don't get hit in the head!"

Her mother, Eugenia Whittenburg, noted that bringing home a medal will help Haynes deal with some of the bullying she has been experiencing at school over her condition. "She's happiest when she's in the water," Whittenburg said.

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