Resilient Athletes

Surfing helps Maine teacher cope with changes


This ongoing photo series examines the ways the coronavirus pandemic has upended and reshaped athletes' lives.

Kate Strait loves the sight of the fresh tracks she leaves in the snow as she walks down the beach to the Maine coast. Temperatures dip toward freezing during the first three months of the year, but that doesn't stop her. If there are waves, the eighth-grade science teacher will surf them. It helps break up the long days spent in front of the computer teaching her students virtually during the coronavirus shutdown.

Even without the current global conditions, Strait, 38, would be surfing. She was diagnosed with Lyme disease last April, but surfing was her sanctuary long before that. It puts her mind at ease, offering enough clarity to drown out the constant physical pain her body feels.

Lyme disease compromises Strait's immune system, meaning she must protect herself with a mask and gloves in public places. Surfing open water offers a sense of freedom. The only protective gear she and other winter surfers like Brooke Hoerner Knippa (pictured here) require in the water are a wetsuit and booties. "If I let my mental state go to a dark place as far as letting my anxiety and stress get the best of me, I'm putting myself more at risk," Strait says.
When school was closed March 13, Strait (center) was overwhelmed. Physical activity drives her, so she dreaded the thought of being in front of the computer up to 10 hours a day. She had to learn several new online teaching platforms and it's still unclear when, or if at all, in-person classes will resume. "That first afternoon [after classes] there were actually waves, and I just took off because it immediately just grounded me," Strait says. "I could breathe again."
Strait (far left) surfs in Maine with a group of women, including Hoerner Knippa, Tess Jacquez and Molly Spadon (from left), who have still been able to meet at the few beaches that have remained open after the March stay-at-home order. Surfing in a group has continued to bring immense joy to the community during a tough time. "I get enjoyment out of seeing people have a really good ride and smile," Strait says. "You're connecting to something so much greater than yourself."
Ocean temperatures in Maine warmed up closer to 40 degrees in April, a balmy respite from the early winter months. "When you get wet you're not getting that extreme ice cream headache, which is really nice," Strait says. "Sometimes if you get held under for four or five waves in February or March, your head feels like it's going to pop off."
The women have alternated their surfing between Higgins Beach and Pine Point. Surfing etiquette, such as not getting too close to one another while riding a wave, has parlayed into social distancing. "Tess and I are still going to surf together," Strait says. "Instead of pulling up to the parking lot and give each other a hug, we just don't hug. Everybody at this point is being realistic and cautious."
Strait broke her back playing basketball when she was 14, which ended her hopes of playing collegiately. She learned to surf then, and has since relied on it in other tumultuous times. In 2013, she ended an engagement, both of her grandparents died and a friend took their own life. She moved to New Zealand, returned to Maine in 2016, and had back and knee surgeries the following year. "It kind of unraveled everything in a way for me because I thought I had done all this healing, then all of these injuries stripped me of my physical identity," Strait says. "The only thing I can still do is surf. Even though I was in pain mentally and emotionally, [surfing] just takes you out of your own way."
“The only thing I can still do is surf. Even though I was in pain mentally and emotionally, [surfing] just takes you out of your own way.”
For the past five years, Strait (left) and Jacquez (right) have led Ladies Slide Night, an instructional class that takes place on Wednesday nights in the summer. The nights have been so successful that they added an extra session last summer. "When they take a lesson from other women, they feel that camaraderie, warmth and connectedness," Strait says.
It's uncertain whether the event will be hindered by COVID-19, but the return of the summer activity would be a welcoming presence for these wave-chasers, after the past few months. "It's so, so awesome," Strait says. "I get more enjoyment out of seeing somebody stand up for the first time because they get it. They understand why we do this."
Written by Anthony Gulizia

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