Clinicians of the Future Leisure

Adaptive Surfing: Push the Boundaries

Adaptive Surfing

When I began researching types of adaptive sport, surfing really caught my attention. Adaptive surfing was something I had not come across before. As I dug deeper, I found that people of various abilities adapted their boards and surf style in a range of ways to enjoy the thrill of catching a wave. I was inspired to see people finding a way to participate, whether they have experienced an amputation, congenital condition or even a visual impairment. I came across some truly inspiring content of people utilising an array of assistive equipment and strategies to support their participation in adaptive surfing. Adaptive surfing really made me think outside the square of what is possible in adaptive sport.

Adaptive surfing is becoming an increasingly popular and more recognised sport around the globe. In 2015, the first International Surfing Association’s (ISA) World Adaptive Surfing Championships was hosted in California, USA. Australia was close to follow, developing the nudie Australian Adaptive Surfing Titles at the Australian Surfing Championships, providing opportunities for Australia’s most talented adaptive surfers to be recognised on a national stage. Surfing Australia has provided a resource which outlines the classifications in competitive adaptive surfing. You can view the classifications here.

The classifications outline how people can surf in different ways, such as kneeling, laying or sitting. There is also a classification for people with visual impairment.

With these exciting developments in adaptive surfing, and the recent inclusion of surfing as a recognised olympic sport, only time will tell whether adaptive surfing will be included as a competition in the paralympic games. This video showcases the opportunities provided to adaptive surfers at the Australian Adaptive Surfing Titles. Take note of the different strategies and equipment the participants are using to ride the waves.

Let's Surf!

The beauty of adaptive surfing is that the boards can be modified according to the surfers abilities. I’ve come across some extremely innovative ideas! I’ve been able to discover some board accessories and features that adaptive surfers may use and I want to highlight just some of the ways people are participating; but the possibilities are certainly not limited.


Grab Handles

Handles can be installed on a board for people requiring some extra support to stabilise and stay on the board. For example, surfers who have experienced an amputation of an arm may benefit from a handle. Or, a person who has reduced movement in their legs may benefit from a handle to increase their stability when laying on a board. Handles can be placed on a board in varying positions according to the person’s needs. Below are examples of grab handles being used by adaptive surfers.



Boost Surfing: Electronic Fin

One of the latests advancements in surfing technology is the Boost Surfing Electronic Fin. This electronic fin can be attached to a surfers board. This can be used by people with and without impariments, and could be an option for surfers with physical limitations who may not be able to paddle on their own or may have difficulty paddling continuously. The Boost Surfing fin is  connected to a smartphone application so surfers can adjust the power and duration of the ‘boost’ based on their experience level and needs. It will be interesting to find out if this technology will be useful and widely adopted by adaptive surfers in the future. You can find out more here.


Adapted Surfboard Shapes

Boards can also be shaped to suit a surfer’s needs. Pictured below are examples of different ways a board can be shaped to support different abilities. For example, for people with lower limb amputations, ‘grooves’ can be shaped into the surfboard to assist in stabilising as the person kneels to ride a wave.


These are just some of the options out there today, but it’s most certainly not limited! The main message that I gained from researching adaptive surfing is that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to enabling a person to participate. I think this is a valuable lesson, to be open-minded and to not be afraid to try something new. Innovative assistive equipment and thinking outside the square is making surfing more of an option for people with a disability on a social level.

I found it challenging to identify how to access surfing equipment to facilitate participation in adaptive surfing. Some people may not require extra equipment or a modified board, others may need significant adaptations for them to participate. In this case, finding a board shaper or manufacturer that can accomodate for these adaptations or extra accessories may be challenging and come at a cost. There’s got to be a board shaper who is up for a challenge out there somewhere!

Find Out More

There are many people and organisations spreading conversation and promoting participation in adaptive surfing for all ages and abilites. The Disabled Surfers Association of Australia supports people with an intellectual or physical disablity to spend a day at the beach and catch a wave. There are organisations in each state of Australia and there are also opportunities in New Zealand. See more here.

Surfing Australia provides updates on the latest events happening in surfing nation-wide. There is contact information on their website for surfing in each state of Australia. This may be a good place to start if you would like to find out what opportunities are available or to find like-minded people encouraging adaptive surfing participation.

Also, check out ‘Adaptive Surfers of Australia’ on Facebook!

Clinicians of the Future Leisure

Adaptive Sports – What if?


Imagine training your whole life to compete in one event and then being told you are not allowed to participate.

This is what happened to Blake Leeper a US athlete who was training for the 2020 US summer games. Leeper is a double amputee athlete who utilises two running prosthetics which are often referred to as running blades. Leeper was told he was not able to compete in the summer games against able bodied athletes due to his running blades providing him with an unfair advantage. 

This is not the first time an adaptive athlete has been told they are not able to compete. Following his success at the 2004 Paralympics Oscar Pistorius was the first adaptive runner to compete against able bodied athletes. However in 2008 the World Athletics implemented rule 144.2 which prohibited the use of any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels or any other element which provides the user with an advantage over another athlete not using such device. 

Adaptive athletes running on blades in paraolympics

This ruling was based on research which found that running blades could provide an athlete with an advantage, however it has since been proven that the study which produced this research was poorly made and no follow up was completed. Future studies have actually proven this is not the case and that running prostheses do not provide runners with an unfair advantage, when all elements are taken into consideration including metabolic function and running style.

Pistorius fought this ruling and in 2012 became the first adaptive athlete to run in the Olympic games. Blake Leeper is currently fighting to have his ban lifted and to be allowed to complete against able bodied athletes just as Pistorius did.

Double amputee wearing running blades

Would Usain Bolt still be the fastest runner in the world if he used a running blade?

The 100m sprint world record is held by Usain Bolt in a time of 9.58 seconds. In comparison the fastest Paralympic 100m sprint time is held by Jayson Smyth who runs it in a time of 10.36. Jayson runs in the T13 category for track events as he is partially blind. Most Paralympic events have categories in which the competitors race depending on their impairment and the functional disadvantage this places them at in their sport. 

Johnnie Peacock is a sprinter from the United Kingdom who runs in the T44 category. Johnnie has a right leg amputation below the knee. Johnnie’s fastest time for the 100m is 10.75. The differences in these runners times are relatively small when you look at the full picture.  

Imagine if there was an exoskeleton that could be used by Jonnie Peacock! Would he run faster than Usain Bolt? What if Jayson Smyth had full vision maybe he would beat Usain Bolt?

Paralympic athletes can run at the same speed as able bodied athletes with prosthetic running blades using 25% less oxygen due to the prosthetic energy return. Running blades today are made form carbon fibre and return three times as much energy as the human ankle. Current studies have found that these running blades do not provide athletes with an unfair advantage due to other factors such as cardiovascular fitness and the inability of running blades to store energy as the human leg does. Engineers are working everyday to continue to improve running blades and who knows what may be possible in the future as technology continues to advance.

Johnnie Peacock competing at the 2017 World Para Athletics championships 

Speedo LZR full body suit

Swimming has been at the forefront of the assistive technology debate in the past in regards to racing suits and whether or not they provide participants with an advantage. The speedo LZR full body swim suit which was commonly seen at the 2008 Olympic games, made famous by Micheal Phelps was banned in 2010, after FINA the governing body of swimming announced they provided an unfair advantage by cutting down on fatigue and giving swimmers more buoyancy and speed. 

Currently there are prosthetic limbs which can be used in the water however the technology does not allow for diving in or exiting the pool and they may actually slow an elite swimmer down. Bionic limbs for use in the water are also being developed. The difference between prosthetics and bionics is that a person can control a bionic limb just as they would a regular limb using their brain. This is possible through computers and sensors in the bionics which detect the signals from the brain for muscle movement. With the rate that bionic limbs are developing today they may soon be able to outperform regular limbs. 


Double leg amputee wearing bionic limbs


If Ellie Cole was able to swim with a bionic leg would she be faster than Cate Campbell or Sarah Sjostrom

Sarah Sjostrom is the fastest women’s 50m freestyler in the world, holding the world record time of 23.67. In comparison Cate Campbell is the fastest women’s 50m freestyler on the Australian Olympic team and has a time of 23.78. Her team mate Ellie Cole won silver at the 2016 Paralympic game and swims the 50m freestyle in a time of 29.13 seconds. Ellie swims in the S9 category in Paralympic swimming as she has one leg which is amputated above the knee. 

When Ellie was three years old she had her right leg amputated due to a sarcoma, a life threatening cancer behind her right knee. She began swimming lessons as part of her rehabilitation and fell in love with the sport. Ellie made her first Paralympic games in 2008 at the age of 17 winning a silver and a bronze, and from there has continued her success winning gold at both the 2012 and 2016 Paralympics. 

With the advances in technology we are seeing today who knows what could be possible in the future. If there is a bionic limb which could be used in the pool just as a regular limb would this piece of technology be considered an unfair advantage?  Or could we see adaptive swimmers utilising this technology and keeping up with or beating some of the fastest swimmers in the world?

Ellie Cole swimming the 50m freestyle at the 2016 Paralympics 

Dylan Alcott is a well known Australian wheelchair basketball and tennis player, Dylan was born with a tumour wrapped around his spinal cord, which was successfully removed when he was five weeks old, however due to the underdevelopment of his spinal cord Dylan was unable to functionally use his legs and was left a paraplegic. 

From an early age Dylan participated in many sports but his real love was basketball and in 2008 at the age of 17 he got the chance to represent his country at the Paralympics in the Australian wheelchair basketball team. Australia won gold at the 2008 Paralympics and to this day Alcott remains the youngest male wheelchair basketball player to win gold at the Paralympics. 


Dylan Alcott Playing basketball at the 2008 Paralympics
Dylan Alcott playing basketball at the 2008 Paralympics


After coming in second place at the 2012 Paralympics and taking home the silver medal Alcott shifted his focus from basketball to tennis. 

In 2015 he took home the Australian Open title and in 2016 the gold in the doubles and single events at the Rio Paralympics. Since then he has gone onto win the 2017, 2018 and 2019 Australian Open Wheelchair Tennis championships. Dylan is a huge advocate for people with disabilities promoting the message that “anything is possible” if you set your mind to it and work hard enough. 

One of the greatest able bodied tennis players in the world is Novak Djokovic. He has 17 grand slam titles to his name and has broken numerous records over the course of his career, he has even tried his hand at wheelchair tennis on the occasion.

Dylan Alcott competing in wheelchair tennis at the 2016 Paralympics

Who would win a game of wheelchair tennis, Dylan Alcott or Novak Djokovic? 

When playing tennis in a wheelchair it is essential to keep moving and turning the entire time to ensure that you are able to get to the ball and it takes an expert wheelchair user to be able to do this. Tennis wheelchairs are designed to be light weight and usually made from aluminium or titanium to ensure that they are quick and manoeuvrable. They have steep angled wheels which assist with this manoeuvrability and turning. They also have one smaller wheel at the back and two at the front, these are referred to as castors and they ensure stability making sure the chair does not tip when the player is moving around the court. As you could imagine it takes a lot of practice to get the hang of using this highly specialised chair.  

Djokovic and Alcott competing in wheelchair tennis

Learning about all these adaptive sports and the athletes who train so hard to be at the top of their game has been truly inspirational to me as an Occupational Therapy student. I think the message they leave will inspire people all across the world with all different types of disabilities to try their hand at sports. I believe with the continual development of all these new types of assistive technology and the incredible athletes we see today that the future of adaptive sports is going to be incredible. Who knows what could be possible.