Mariah Meredith said she feels closer to God each time she gets on the water.
“I do praying. I remember spiritual songs,” she said. “Although today the waves felt like I got slapped in the face by the Father.”
The Florence resident was one of several surfers who rode waves in Surfside Beach Saturday as part of this year’s first Wheel to Surf event.
Wheel to Surf is a series of adaptive surf clinics that’s taken place on the northeast coast for five years for people who have disabilities.
Nonprofits Adaptive Surf Project, which raises funds for adaptive surfboards, and Coastal Adaptive Sports, a paralympic sports club, organized the event.
Many from other organizations like Surfrider Foundation and North Carolina-based Ocean Cure also pitched in in volunteering and providing resources.
“It’s perfect. Today couldn’t be any better,” said CAS president Brock Johnson.
Johnson took up adaptive surfing and helped start the clinics after hurting his neck in a diving accident seven years ago which led to him using a wheelchair.
Johnson had been an active athlete and avid surfer in the Grand Strand for years before being paralyzed.
“I missed surfing so bad after my accident I didn’t even know it was even possible,” he said of adaptive surfing.
He said he feels thrilled seeing newcomers participate for the first time.
“It changes their face from totally scared to the best day of their life,” he said. “Once they do it, they’re hooked.”
He noted the kickoff was the first that made use of a newly constructed wheelchair accessible ramp at the 13th Avenue South beach access. He credited town leaders for approval of the project which was proposed by several locals and makes it easier for adaptive surfers to get onto the sand.
As morning hours ebbed, one heard sounds of churning waves and dozens of volunteers in four groups garbed in bright tees cheering each time a participant caught a break.
Meredith, who has a mitochondrial disorder and uses a wheelchair, says being in the ocean helps clear her head, having also participating in adaptive surfing two years ago.
“It helps get your mind off your problems,” she said. “It helps for at least a short time get your pains away. It’s invigorating and energizing.”
Billy Wood agreed.
He compares the feeling of hitting the water to ending the school year knowing you passed.
“It’s a freedom you really can’t get anywhere else,” he said. “It’s a natural feeling. It’s awesome.”
Wood became paralyzed from the chest down and started using a wheelchair due to a wreck that happened 21 years ago.
Around four to five years ago he met Johnson, who introduced him to adaptive surfing.
“I’ve grown up in Myrtle Beach. I surfed before my accident,” he said. “I’d be going to work cooking in the hotels and I’d have my surfboard in the car so when I’d get off work I could get on the waves.”
The chairman of Surfrider’s Grand Strand chapter Joey Skipper says the sport is therapeutic.
“This is the best stress relief you will ever have,” he said. “Surfing’s not a physical thing. Surfing’s a way of life. It’s a frame of mind. It has nothing to do with our abilities.”
Kristopher Angone of Little River said he became interested in water activities like scuba diving and adaptive surfing after retiring from the U.S. Air Force in 2015, having lost his right leg three years prior.
“You’re not worrying about a wheelchair or walking on the sand or dealing with any of the stuff on dry land, you get that freedom out there,” he said. “Your disability goes away for a little while.”
Angone rips on a red waveski, a hybrid of a kayak and surfboard. He’s done adaptive surfing for a few years after finding out about it while in Virginia Beach.
“The water is really where I like to be,” he said. “I’m not at a disadvantage if I go in there with someone who has two legs. I’ve got the same ability as they do and I think that’s what I like about it so much.”
Another Wheel to Surf event will be held in North Myrtle Beach on Sept. 8 and smaller clinics will be held in Cherry Grove on the first Sunday of June and July as well as on Aug. 19. The program will take place twice in Charleston following the September event.