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Choppy waters, smooth surfing

A participant in They Will Surf Again gets ready to hit the water with help from USC physical therapy students. (Photo/Sean Limahelu)

It was a gloomy and windy Saturday for the annual They Will Surf Again event in Malibu. Despite the chill in the air, Devon LeBlanc was all smiles as she sat, perched in her wheelchair, waiting for a chance to catch a wave in the frigid water.

“I am super excited,” said LeBlanc, who was participating in the event for the third time earlier this month at Zuma Beach. “I like it because, even though I have a disability, it makes me feel like I can do sports.”

Upward of 50 USC students from the Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy were on hand to help the nearly 40 surfers, all of whom had some kind of disability, experience the thrill of surfing.

The event was part of Life Rolls On, a series of quality-of-life programs affiliated with the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation for people with spinal cord injuries, most of whom are paraplegics and quadriplegics.

They Will Surf Again was started about 13 years ago by Jesse Billauer, a Los Angeles surfer who was paralyzed in a surfing accident. The event provides participants with the opportunity to ride waves by using adaptive equipment.

For participants, the day was largely about taking advantage of the chance to experience mobility through surfing. But it also gave them the opportunity to network with other individuals and families facing similar challenges. Most important, perhaps, it was meant to inspire them to reach for new goals despite their lack of mobility.

USC’s physical therapy students have been active in the event for several years as part of the division’s service-learning programs. The service-learning aspect of the division’s curriculum aims to get students out of the classroom to practice the skills they learned during their coursework at USC.

With They Will Surf Again, students assisted the dozens of surfers in all aspects of the event, from preparing them for the experience to helping them onto the surfboards. They also got into the water, swimming or wading alongside the surfers to make sure someone was nearby in the event one of them fell off the surfboard.

Courtney Sanford, a second-year student in the Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program, was participating in her fourth event. She got involved because of her interest in working with patients with neurologic disorders.

“This is one way to get exposed to people with different conditions,” she said, adding that it serves as a reminder to consider each patient’s specific needs, even when it comes to simple tasks.

For Tim Chen, also a second-year DPT student, it was his first time as a volunteer at the event. He said seeing the surfers brave the choppy water was inspirational.

In the clinic, he noted, patients with severe spinal cord injuries are among the toughest cases for most physical therapists. Seeing them enjoy a day of camaraderie reinforced in his mind that physical therapy is, at its core, about helping patients reach new heights in spite of their physical challenges.

Choppy waters, smooth surfing

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