You know it’s summer when the emails start flying from Jay Liesener to his crew. “Afternoon surf session this Saturday,” he writes. “Join us for a fun afternoon of surfing and friends.” Another: “4th of July Surf and Burn,” reads the subject line. “Join us for some waves. I’ll spend the week trying to figure out red, white and blue s’mores.” And yet another: “Surfing tomorrow at 2 p.m. It is going to be windy and choppy, so get ready for a good workout!”
Finding surfing after a spinal cord injury
When Jay was paralyzed in a trampoline accident at the age of 17, he thought he’d have to give up his lifelong passion for surfing. But 19 years later, after hearing about an adaptive surfing program, he decided to give it a try. And once he rode his first wave in nearly two decades, he was hooked all over again. “When they pushed me in on that first wave and I felt the surge of the ocean just grab ahold of the board and take off toward the shore, it was just one of the greatest experiences of my life,” he told the Cape Gazette News.
Soon after, Jay formed Team Surfgimp – a name he says adequately describes the absurdity of it all – that includes a roster of more than 30 family members and friends who help him brave the Atlantic Ocean waves nearly every summer weekend. A resident of Delaware, Jay hits the beaches armed with a custom-built, hand-modified surfboard. He is able to ride waves on his stomach, shifting his weight from side to side to navigate through the surf. His team paddles him out and they wait for a set of swells to roll in. A nudge of his board and Jay is sweeping down the wave and rushing toward shore. If he wipes out – and he often does – he holds his breath and waits for his crew to fish him out of the foam. “It’s worth it,” he says. “Going out, having fun. Being able to play again.”
Two years ago, Jay and Team Surfgimp won the “Heroes in the Spirit of Eddie Aikau” award. Their story was chosen among many nationally because it exemplified the spirit and qualities of Eddie Aikau, one of the sport’s most respected and revered surfers. To accept the honor and join in the festivities, Jay’s wife and 11 of their friends headed to the north shore of Oahu, Hawaii, for the opening ceremony of a big wave surfing competition, called the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau. Quiksilver then arranged for Jay and his team to surf with three legendary big wave surfers at Sunset Point, one of the north shores premiere waves. With head-high powerful waves breaking way out, the team paddled Jay into the surf and waited. Within minutes, a “wave grabbed me and I took off!” Jay writes in a blog about his experiences in Hawaii. “I turned right down the line and was flying. I could hear the nose clattering over the small chop on the wave as I glided faster than I had ever gone.”
They kept pushing deeper. “The waves were incomprehensibly good,” Jay writes. “Big and powerful, yet easy to catch and perfectly shaped. I had the best rides of my life! I have never gone so fast on a wave before.” The three legendary surfers “were throwing me onto the board after wipeouts and paddling me back out. Wave after wave, we kept paddling in closer to the point and pushing into the waves later and deeper. We were going for it.”
Riding the waves even when they don't go as planned
As a spectacularly huge wave came in, “I could hear it starting to break behind me,” Jay recalls. “It sounded big! I could see the lip breaking to my left. And my right! We were too deep! It picked me up and I was looking straight down the falls through the crystal clear water at the reef below. I took a deep breath as I got thrown head over heels. I was driven down deep and somersaulted twice as the wave dragged me underwater. It finally released me and I was looking down at the bottom. I still had plenty of air as my body slowly floated to the surface. I must have been five feet deep and it felt like I had been dragged a long distance. ‘Just stay calm,’ I told myself as I floated face down watching the coral deep below and preparing myself for a long wait for the team to get to me.” Almost instantly there was a strong pull on Jay’s shoulder as one of the famous surfers lifted Jay out of the water. “Our eyes connected and we both laughed,” Jay remembers. “That was nuts!”
After a hot shower, Jay sat on top of the dune watching everyone play in the perfect waves. A feeling of peace and contentment washed through his body like nothing he had ever felt before. “At that moment,” he says, “everything was right in the world.”
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