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Hawaii Contest Inspires Adaptive Surfers Around the World

Ryan Finnerty

Hawaii is known around the world as the birthplace of surfing. In the Territorial Days, Duke Kahanamoku introduced the Western world to the sport of wave riding at Queen's surf break in Waikiki. Now, under the watchful gaze of the Duke statue, Queens is once again the site of a milestone event in the world of surfing.

The 11th annual Hawaii Adaptive Surfing Championships wrap up today in Waikiki. There are plenty of surf competitions across Hawaii – but this one is unique among them. The big difference? Many of the competitors arrive at the beach in a wheelchair. 

For the past 11 years, Waikiki’s most famous wave has been home to the Hawaii Adaptive Surfing Championship. It was the first surfing competition anywhere in the world specifically for athletes with a physical disability. 

The group behind the competition is called Access Surf. The Hawaii-based organization was pioneering the field of adaptive surfing and ocean therapy. Access Surf organizes the annual adaptive surf contest in Waikiki but also sponsors monthly non-competitive beach days. 

As competitive events like Hawaii Adaptive Surfing Championship begin to organize around the world, some more mundane questions begin to arise. What equipment will be allowed? How will athletes with different degrees of physical function be paired?

Ann Yosihda from Mililani is one of the people figuring all that out. Complications from a car crash put her in a wheelchair, but haven’t slowed her down. She is a world champion in adaptive surfing and during the 2016 Paralympics became the first Native Hawaiian woman to compete in the paracanoe.

One of her projects out of the water has been to develop the adaptive surfing classification system. Depending on the nature of their diagnosis, adaptive surfers use different styles of surfing to ride waves. Some lie prone, while others sit up in a vehicle called a surf ski. Yoshida's classification system incorporates those differences, plus the degree of physical capacity within that category, to group competitors with other similar surfers.

Adaptive surf equipment is not widely manufactured or even standardized. That leaves many competitors to design their own boards with individual shapers and manufacturers. 

But even though they now ride waves in a different way, the competitors at Queen's sound just like any surfer after a good session.

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