It was about 4:30 in the morning and I couldn’t sleep any longer. Out of the corner of my eye I could see that it was still dark outside and the outdoor lights were still on. And try as I may, I just couldn’t go back to sleep.
I woke up many times that night thinking about the ocean- how it would feel like to be in it again. It had been eighteen years since the last time I was in the water and I found myself as excited and anxious as I did back when I surfed many years ago. This time though, I was not only excited but also very, very nervous. I had been waiting for that moment for a very long time.
The whole week prior to that day I had trouble concentrating on my daily activities and in a way I was glad when it finally arrived and the wait was over. Just the thought of returning to the ocean and surfing again made me feel butterflies in my stomach and I couldn’t believe that it was finally going to happen.
A few days earlier my friends and family had secretly gathered without my knowledge and planned a special return to the ocean. This would be a part of a documentary based on my life that was being filmed.. They had decided to surprise me and in doing so, honor me for all my accomplishments after my accident right up to that point. They even contacted Pablo and Alan, the two surfers that were there the day of my accident and had played a major role in saving my life.
I finally did learn about this awesome plan because my brother met with me and told me a few weeks prior to the day. He called me and told me to meet him at a local diner and surprised me by sharing the news. It was one of the most intense and emotional moments in my life. When I sat down to chat with him that day, I knew he had big news and initially I thought he was going to tell me he was going to become a father. But when our conversation began, I perceived the emotions in his voice and knew that whatever he had to say had to do with me. We sat down and talked for a few moments before he told me the big news.
“Beto, everyone got together recently and we have planed your return to the ocean this Thursday because we want you to go surfing again” He said.
I was stunned. I sat there speechless for a few seconds trying to take in what he was saying. I understood that I was going to return to the ocean and surf again, but my mind started racing and for a moment it felt as if time stood still. For a few seconds a lot of memories raced through my head. Memories about the days when I surfed as a teenager and about everything I had been through already as a result of the surfing accident. Good and bad memories rushed through my thoughts. After those initial moments my mind became somewhat calm and in the place of these memories came questions and doubts. : Was I going to be able to do it? Would my paralyzed body allow me to get on a surfboard? Was I going to enjoy it or regret it? My mind was a mess for a few seconds.
I did regain my composure and then excitement started to fill my body and soul. I immediately accepted the challenge.
“Let’s do it!” I told Gaby. “I want to do it!”
I never made an effort to go surfing again after my accident because of two reasons. The first beingthat I didn’t want to be disappointed if my experience was not comparable to that of my previous abilities. I had had so many great moments in the six years I practiced the sport and it meant so much to me that I was afraid to not enjoy it again. I was content with what I had and didn’t want to take the risk. I know! Funny huh? This is coming from the guy that is always enjoying new experiences and taking risks.
The second reason was that I really had no idea how to do it. Yes, I had no idea how I was going to surf again. It seemed so difficult and impossible that I really never gave it any thought. My body changed so much as a result of my accident that merely getting on a surfboard seemed a daunting task. Then there is this whole catching a wave business that’s really important to surfing. Not to mention the safety part of it! All of these doubts were just excuses anyway, because we all know that if there is a will, there is a way.
Fortunately, I have always been one to try new things and even though I had surfed before, this was going to be a whole new experience for me. I decided that I was going to enjoy it, learn from it and draw conclusions later.
The sun finally rose and I got ready as always did in the morning though this time, I was wearing swim shorts and a bit of sunblock. I was about to attempt surfing for the first time in nearly 20 years and I was going to do it in the same spot where I nearly drowned due to a surfing accident. It was exciting and I was ready.
The ride to the beach was amazing and I felt many of the same emotions I had felt back when I surfed every single day. Not much had changed in that respect. I couldn’t wait to see the waves and the conditions at the beach. On the drive there I even played the music I played back then in the 90s. It was a beautiful day and I was so ready to seize it.
As I got to my old neighborhood, my anticipation mounted. I drove up to the area where we were meeting and a group of people was already there waiting. Among them many surfers that had come to my aid the day of my accident including Pablo, who pulled me out of the water and Alan who was one of the first ones to come to my rescue. It was like a 19-year reunion. All my surfer friends were older, had more facial hair and less follicles on top. Other than a couple of them, we all had a few extra pounds as well around our midsection. It was great!
After a few moments of reacquainting myself and exchanging brief summaries of the previous 20 years of our lives we decided that it was time to head down to the beach. We had plenty of work ahead and we didn’t want to waste any more time. It was a group of about forty people heading down to the beach and I definitely felt a lot of support. My family was there, my friends, the documentary crew followed me closely and other spectators had gathered around to watch. There was an enormous buzz and energy among those present. There was something special going on and the people were as excited as me. Perhaps even more.
I can only imagine that those feelings I was having were exactly what daredevils and stunt performers feel right before the swim with sharks or jump on a motorcycle. It was exhilarating.
As a group, we walked a few hundred yards around the big apartment complex where I used to live and most of the people there walked down a steep dirt hill that led to the beach. I transferred from my wheelchair into a truck with some help and rode down the hill to the beach.
After our truck got all the way down to the beach, we ended up about 30 yards away from the shore and with some help from the crew, I again transferred back onto my wheelchair and started to get ready. It was still around 9am and the conditions were great for what we wanted to do. The weather was in the mid 70s and there was no wind. Everything seemed perfect and so we did a quick rundown of what was about to happen.
Roberto Vera, now a local firefighter, who was there the day of my accident, was supervising the team that was going to help me surf again. He had become a lifeguard as well and so he was in charge of coordinating our return to the ocean.
After I did a bit of stretching, everyone gathered around me and he began going through all the details and a step-by-step description of how it was going to happen.
I felt pretty comfortable with the situation because I trusted all the guys that were there to help. I knew they were all experienced men of the ocean and could come to my aid if anything happened. Plus I was wearing a nice life vest that I had purchased a few days before. The plan was to carry me off my wheelchair and sit me in the sand. From there I was going to lie down and flip over onto the board. Up to that point everything was perfect. But then, because of safety, they had planned to tie me to the board so that I would not slide off which immediately made me nervous. What if I flipped over and could not come up for air because the board was on top of me?
So I objected and asked to not tie me to the board and just let me be free. The guys were not very convinced, so I had to talk them into it. See, I had never been in the ocean, but that did not mean I had never been in the water since my accident. I had learned to swim in a pool prior to that day and had actually swam many times. I also knew that being tied to the board would completely ruin the experience. Surfing is a very spiritual activity and one of its qualities is the feeling of freedom and weightlessness that it provides. It’s an overwhelming experience and I wanted to be free from my chair, from my disability and from gravity. I did not want to be tied to the surfboard. It went against everything that is surfing.
Plus, I knew how to swim and knew that if anything happened, I could flip over face up and give myself some time before someone could come to my aid. So it took a bit of persuasion but they finally agreed to go without the tie downs.
With that settled it was time to head out. Before we did, however, my brother, Gaby got everyone together and led a group prayer. Before my accident, every time I’d go surfing or even swimming in the ocean, I would say a prayer and ask for a safe return home. He asked that we’d be protected and that our attempt to surf again would be successful but most importantly, safe. This completed our preparation and it was time.
Gaby pushed me in my wheelchair out of the thick fluffy sand onto the harder moister surface near the water. The waves were breaking and my heart started pumping. We stopped there and looked out to sea for a few moments and saw something we didn’t like. Therefore we decided to move south on the beach. There was a small rip current affecting the area right in front of us so we moved about 100 yards south. Gaby pushed me really fast and we were flying down the beach laughing and having a great time. A few people ran behind us and we finally stopped where we thought was a perfect spot.
Everyone caught up and we huddled back together. They laid the surfboard next to me and proceeded to make the transfer from my chair to the surfboard. I sat down on the ground, then laid down on the cold sand and flipped over on to the surfboard. I was on a board for the very first time in more than eighteen years and it felt odd. My body was different and the sensation was way different. I could feel gravity pulling me down much harder than before. See, I don’t lay prone very often and much less over a hard surface. But even though it was a weird feeling, I was ready to head out. They asked me if I was ready and I replied, “yes!”
Three guys on each side lifted the whole surfboard with me on top and we headed out. There were a few of them that went ahead and formed a human line heading out to sea. They were going to be my safety net just in case I fell off the board when riding a wave. Many stayed on the beach as spectators and all of this was happening as a drone was in the air filming. A couple of other cameramen where roaming around filming every moment as well. It was surreal.
When we got to the water everything got real. I felt the cold ocean pacific on my skin and it felt so good. The guys pulled me onto knee deep water and I started going over the small whitewash. Water was splashing over me and I could taste the saltiness in my mouth. I started feeling so many emotions but I couldn’t even think because I was focused on balancing on the surfboard and bracing for each coming breaker. The waves were only about two to three feet at most, but it felt as if I was paddling out into massive waves at JAWS (one of the scariest surfing sports in Hawaii).
It was exciting. I was back in the ocean after so long and even though my body was different everything felt natural. I was cold and struggling to keep my head above water but I was enjoying the experience and was feeding off the emotions of everyone else around me. The guys kept taking me out and they were working as a team, they were hooting and hollering and cheering together. I was pumped!
I couldn’t believe that I was closer and closer to where the waves were breaking and there were other surfers out just beyond where we were. The only other time I had been close to other fellow surfers was while on a pier and needless to say, it was not the same. Thus that moment was special and I felt part of the surfing world again. I felt at home.
We got deep enough and close to where the waves were breaking so the guys turned me around with my back to the ocean and we waited for a wave to come. I was ready, my time had come after nineteen years and it was going to happen. Amazingly I was completely at peace. My nervousness had passed and it was as if I had done this many times before. We waited for a few moments and I suddenly heard someone say: “Here comes a good one! Get ready!” Everyone cheered: “Yea, yea! Let’s go!”
The wave finally approached and they started pushing me from the sides of the board. I felt the force of their push first and then I could feel the ocean taking over. For a few seconds I felt weightless and felt the jolt of the wave pushing me to shore. My adrenaline was rushing through my body just like it did many years ago. I was surfing again.
The sounds, the feeling, everything came back to me. I could hear the rumbling of the wave breaking behind me, the sound of water splashing all around. My friends were cheering as the wave took me and I could feel the vibrations under my body from the board sliding through the surface of the ocean. It was amazing.
The ride only lasted about 10 seconds but it could have been a single second for all I cared. I was surfing again. After the ride was done I didn’t even have a chance to analyze what just happened. It was time go back out and do it again. They crew helped me again and got me into position and tried a few more times. Some waves we’re only a few seconds short and others were a full ride nearly to shore but they all were special.
After about 15 minutes and a handful of great rides, my shoulders were getting very tired and I was very cold. So I asked them to help me catch one more ride and we’d call it a day. Just like the day of my accident, we were waiting for one last ride. It was perfect symmetry.
The wave finally came and it was one of the bigger ones of the day. I couldn’t see it because I was with my back to the ocean but I could hear it in the background. Their excitement grew and I just knew that the wave was bigger. They gave me the boost that I needed and again the wave took me. I heard them cheering and I could see some of them out of the corner of my eye with their hands in the air. This was a great wave and I was riding it, prone on the surfboard looking up with a grin on my face. It was intense and it took me nearly half way to shore until I started to lose my balance. I was too tired and my right shoulder was not supporting me anymore. I could only see ocean to my sides and way down on shore I could see the rest of the spectators looking on. I was about two thirds of the way to shore when my shoulder gave then everything went black and silent. I slid of the board and was in the water. Everything got very peaceful. I was off my board and in the middle of the surf.
When I was in the water I felt a deep sense of calm. Everything was dark but I had never felt so illuminated and free. I was completely aware of what was happening and calmly flipped over and waited to pop out of the surface. Before that happened I immediately felt someone grab me and pull me out. I then heard a cheer and everyone laughing.
“Yeeeeew! Wipeout!” they were screaming.
They didn’t now, but I had intentionally launched myself off my board into the water. I knew it was going to happen because of my tired shoulders, but I decided to do it on my terms so I literally shifted my weight on the board until I went off. I wanted to feel what it was like to be taken again by the moving water of the ocean and its great power. I wanted to be one with the ocean again and needed to be completely free. I had to feel complete weightlessness and swim in the salty water even if it was only for a few seconds. It was my way of closing the circle and showing no resentment to the ocean for what had happened. It was brief, but spiritual and much needed. It set me free emotionally. I was completely in love with the ocean again just as I was when I injured myself nearly nineteen years before.
At that moment, as everyone caught up to me and pulled me to shore, we ended sitting down on the sand where the waves could barely reach us. I couldn’t speak and everyone knew I needed a moment to take it all in. I stared at the ocean and thanked God for the opportunity to be there again and felt overwhelmingly loved by everyone around me. For me, it signified a closing chapter in my life that had been open and regaining my complete love for the ocean. See, I never knew that I needed to get back in the water and surf again. I had been content up to that point with my memories from the past. But I was wrong. I needed to get back in the water to prove that I could do it again and that I could enjoy it once more. I felt like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders and was grateful for having a second chance at life.
I sat there for a few more moments and then I started to talk about it with the few surfers and friends that sat down on the sand with me. We laughed and exchanged our points of view on the whole experience. We were all very happy and I thanked them one by one. Then right before we were ready to get me back on my chair, Alan, who was there on the day of my accident, shared something incredible with me.
He said that that very same spot where I was sitting was the spot where they dragged me to after they found me floating in the water the day of my accident. He said that spot was where I laid and received first aid after my injury and where we waited for the paramedics to arrive. That seemed incredibly symmetrical to me because just 30 minutes before we were going to attempt the feat about 100 yards to the north but decided to move because of a rip current affecting that part of the beach which caused us to end up at that same very spot. That sealed it for me. That was a sign to me that everything I had done in my life up to that point had been part of a master plan and that I was on the right track. The future seemed great and I became excited for the next chapter.
They finally brought my wheelchair to where I was and helped me get on it again. We were done and the experience was over. I did a couple of interviews for the camera crew that was filming and we headed back home.
Now looking back at that day I believe it was more of a celebration than just a return to the ocean. It was a way for us as a family and group of friends to close a chapter in our lives that was yet to be finished. This was not only for me but also for every person that had crossed my path and for everyone that had supported my family and friends. It was a way for me to continue showing that with faith, a strong family and great friends, anything is possible. Even surfing when your body is paralyzed from your chest down.
I will be forever grateful for those that helped me accomplish that goal and to those that supported me with their presence or well wishes from afar. Surfing once again, was one of the greatest accomplishments of my life, thanks to them.