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Local adaptive surfer hopes to show what's possible with paralysis

Jesse del Mar is one of 104 surfers who competed in the Adaptive Surf Championships.
Ben Reed
Jesse del Mar is one of 104 surfers who competed in the Adaptive Surf Championships.

Jesse del Mar is an adaptive surfer who says being in the ocean has always been a part of him.

When he was 7 years old, del Mar picked up a surfboard after watching his idol, Montgomery “Buttons” Kaluhiokalani, perform tricks on a shortboard.

Del Mar injured himself doing what he loves after he surfed over a wave and broke his neck in 1997.

The 55-year-old surfer has since been paralyzed from the waist down, but that didn’t stop him from catching waves with his friends.

 Jesse del Mar is more than 100 surfers competing in the Adaptive Surf Championships.
Cassie Ordonio
After his accident in 1997, Jesse del Mar continues to surf in competitions.

“When we get out there, and they see us like, 'Oh my God, that guy is crawling into the water. Oh, he’s going surfing,'” del Mar said. “And they’re like, ‘Oh, these guys are in wheelchairs, and they’re out, and they’re going surfing.’ Which is great.”

Del Mar was one of 104 surfers from 18 countries who competed in this year's AccesSurf Adaptive Surf Championship in Waikīkī.

Hawaiʻi is the first stop of the world tour. Surfers will now travel to Costa Rica and California in the coming months.

Cara Short, an executive director of the nonprofit AccesSurf Hawai‘i, said organizers and athletes worked hard to make this event happen. She said her favorite part of the competition was the community.

“We all do it because we want to be together, and that’s exactly what this is,” Short said. “It’s an exceptional community of people.”

Athletes with ranging disabilities compete in 17 divisions to fit their surfing style. Surfboards are adapted to that person’s needs, so anyone can participate regardless of their impairments.

Since the beginning

Del Mar is a prone surfer, meaning he lays on his stomach and rides waves like a boogie board.

Since 2006, del Mar has been a member of AccesSurf Hawai‘i, empowering people with disabilities through accessible water programs.

When he started competing in 2007, there were only eight surfers, del Mar said. Now there are more than 100 surfers across the world.

Del Mar even met his inspiration, Kaluhiokalni, through AccesSurf while training to surf after his injury.

“Having my idol, working with AccesSurf, being there pushing me, he was the main reason I pushed myself to get into surfing," he said.

However, Kaluhiokalani died in 2013 from ongoing complications with lung cancer.

"It hurts because he passed away, and having been able to see where I got to now. I’m proud to be a part of this surfing revolution. I’m just happy to get other people involved and inspire them," del Mar said.

 Jesse Del Mar's surfboard has a photo of his inspiration, Montgomery "Buttons Kaluhiokalahi.
Cassie Ordonio
Jesse del Mar's surfboard has a photo of his inspiration, Montgomery "Buttons" Kaluhiokalahi.

Del Mar paid tribute to his idol on his surfboard. It has an imprinted Hawaiian flag with a photo of Kaluhiokalani.

He encourages others with disabilities to get in the water if that's what they want to do. “Don’t give up. You can go out there. You can get out there and surf and not just sit in the chair and watch everybody else.”

Cassie Ordonio is the culture and arts reporter for Hawaiʻi Public Radio. She previously worked for Honolulu Civil Beat, covering local government, education, homelessness and affordable housing. Contact Cassie at cordonio@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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