Published in The Standard, March 7, 2013
PROFESSIONAL surfer and wheelchair skater Christiaan “Otter” Bailey is inspiring Victorians with disabilities to get out of their chairs and into the ocean.
After a surf trip to Morocco in 2006, he arrived at his Santa Cruz home in California exhausted but still willing to shoot some footage for a skating video.
While trying to pull off a skateboarding trick for the camera, he fell on concrete and crushed several vertebrae in his back.
From that day he was paralysed from the waist down.
Yet that didn’t stop him from doing what he loved and within two days of leaving rehab Bailey was back in the ocean.
He is now travelling throughout Victoria to inspire kids with disabilities to make the most of their lives and get involved in adventure sports.
“I see the atmosphere of rehab professionals, doctors and even parents who mean well but they often treat people with disabilities like fragile vases that will fall and shatter,” he said.
“What people don’t realise is that these kids have usually gone through so much surgery and hardship that they are actually a lot stronger than people give them credit for.”
Bailey holds several surfing world records and was the first paraplegic to surf Mavericks in California.
He also won the 2009 WSA national championships in Trestles and performed at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
In 2007 he started focusing on promoting adaptive adventure sports and co-founded the Ocean Healing Group.
The non-profit organisation, based in Costa Rica, enables young people with disabilities to try out adventure sports such as snorkelling, surfing, fishing and horseback riding.
“What we are trying to do is break down other peoples’ preconceived barriers and get these kids to discover their own strengths,” he said.
“They learn that anything is possible, that they don’t have to just sit on the sideline.”
With the help of the local community, Warrnambool’s Harvey Thulborn-McCorkell and his schoolmate, Paddy Giblin, raised enough money to travel to the United States last year to meet Bailey.
They tried out a range of adaptive adventure sports and surfed from the Californian coast to Costa Rica.
Thulborn-McCorkell’s mother Kylie Thulborn said the trip was life-changing for the two boys.
“We are so fortunate because he is not only the boys’ mentor but he is their friend,” she said.
“Christiaan is just something money can’t buy — he is passionate, he lives his life and his attitude and ability to adapt is just so inspiring.”
Ms Thulborn said adaptive adventure sports was at a grassroots level in Australia but was confident it would eventually spread throughout the country.
“It’s about getting kids off the sidelines and encouraging them to be the best they can be.”
Bailey has visited Australia a number of times but this is the first time the 31-year-old has visited Warrnambool.
Since he arrived in Australia last month, he has been busy promoting adaptive adventure sports and visiting schools across Victoria.
He will appear at a number of events in coming weeks including the Barwon South Western League Skate, BMX and Scoot Competition grand final in Colac.
This Saturday he will give a wheelchair skating demonstration at 12.30pm at the Port Fairy Folk Festival.
Bailey also encouraged any interested people to attend the community surf day and barbecue on Sunday, March 17.
He will hold a demonstration at 9.30am at the Warrnambool Surf Club before people with disabilities can try surfing.
Wetsuits and surfboards will be provided.
He will also visit Melbourne and surf at Bells Beach before the end of his tour.
Although Bailey heads home next month, he intends to continue surfing, skating and sharing his story.
“I absolutely love seeing the kids grow and form a positive perception of who they are,” he said.
“The problem is that these kids aren’t usually challenged and they need to be challenged in order to develop the right mental attitude and improve their overall health.”