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California dreaming: Para surf hopefuls eye Los Angeles Olympics

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French athlete Eric Dargent, who has a prosthetic foot, surfs in his heat on the second day of competition at the World Para Surfing Championship in Pismo Beach, California, on December 6, 2022./AFP
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Dec 12, 2022 - 07:43 AM

PISMO BEACH, UNITED STATES — Under perfect California skies, Liv Stone elegantly flips her board into the hollow of a wave, perfectly executing the kind of move this disabled surfer would love to replicate at the 2028 Los Angeles Paralympics.

Participating in the four-yearly festival of global sport would be a “dream come true,” the 19-year-old says on the sidelines of the World Para Surfing Championship, where this week she is chasing a third title.

Born with truncated arms and under-developed hands, Stone says she fell in love with surfing in 2017, and thinks others would get to know the beauty of the sport if it were added into the Paralympics roster for 2028.

“I feel like I’m like a part of something bigger, and I don’t feel discriminated against out there in the water,” she tells AFP.

“That’s what me and everyone else here that’s competing have in common is we all have disabilities… and we feel one in the ocean, and it makes us feel at home.”

Surfing burst onto the Olympic calendar at the last Games in Tokyo in 2021.

It will also feature when Paris hosts in 2024 — though the competition will take place 10,000 miles (16,000 kilometers) away in Tahiti.

The Los Angeles edition is the first time it could feature in the Paralympics, with a decision by the International Paralympic Committee expected next year.

The deadline is on the minds of all 180 competitors who gathered in Pismo Beach this week.

South African Similo Dlamini, who was born without a right leg, was taking part in her first world championship, and was supported by a big — and noisy — contingent who huddled around her chanting and singing after she battled the foam for 20 minutes.

‘New audience’

Surfing allows “people like me who are differently abled to experience the ocean in ways that we have never thought we could,” the 39-year-old accountant says.

“We need to come out here and just show the Olympic Committee how well we’re doing and why we should actually be considered for the Paralympics.”

Divided into nine categories, the championship allows people with similar disabilities to compete on a level playing field.

One-legged surfers take to their boards with a prosthesis or using a knee or a hand to stabilize themselves.

Paraplegics slide on their stomachs and go back out to sea with the help of their teammates.

Blind athletes are guided by a partner to launch themselves into the surf, feeling the movement of the waves to determine which lines to take.

Participants at Pismo Beach hail from 28 countries as far apart as Costa Rica, Japan and Norway — the kind of eclectic gathering that the International Surfing Association (ISA) thinks will allow the sport to bag one of the 22 spots available for inclusion in 2028.

“Surfing represents something truly unique and different for the Paralympic program,” says ISA executive director Robert Fasulo.

“The timing is right for us to propose para surfing,” he says, pointing to the popularity among young people of the able-bodied competition in Tokyo last year.

The fact that 2028 will happen in a setting as perfectly suited to surfing as Southern California is the icing on the cake.

“It is one of the epicenters, if not the center, of surfing in the world. So it’s natural that the organizers and the locations would favor the inclusion of para surfing.”

Therapeutic benefits 

Since the first para surfing world championship in 2015, the number of participants has almost tripled, including a large number of women.

Studies have shown mental health benefits to surfing, something the US Navy has long known — it has been offering “surf therapy” programs for some soldiers with amputations or suffering from post-traumatic stress and depression for almost 15 years.

Similar initiatives are under way in other coastal countries.

In Peru, Pancho Arbulu, who lost the use of his arms and legs in a car accident in 2008, is part of an association that works to spread surfing to other disabled people.

For him, there is simply nothing better.

“The ocean gives you vitality,” the 50-year-old ex-airline pilot says.

“Every time I get in the water, I forget about the wheelchair, I feel like a normal person, a free person.”

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