Sports

Trials, tears and triumphs in Surf City USA – Team SA para surfers emerge from the impact zone at world champs


Tracy McKay is captain of Team SA’s para surfing squad. In the run-up to the World Para Surfing Championship at Huntington Beach in southern California, she and some of her team members parked their van in the lot at the iconic surf spot for a practice surf. The swell was “going off” – solid and glassy, with buttery two- to three-foot waves breaking left and right.

But her mission was not that simple. McKay was stranded in her wheelchair on the pavement, unable to get across the strip of sand to paddle to the backline.

She and her team made a plan. She hitched a ride on a beach buggy operated by a world ultimate frisbee contest that was taking place on the beach.

McKay is painfully familiar with accessibility challenges, having been diagnosed with cancer 20 years ago, leaving her with a walking impairment that worsened over time. 

Another hurdle followed. While McKay familiarised herself with the quirks of the break by paddling on the north side and between the imposing pylons that hold up the pier, a local male surfer yelled: “Don’t come here. We are not going to give you a wave. Go to the other side.”

McKay’s pre-contest anxiety shot up in unfamiliar water. But she shrugged off the hostile welcome and pushed on through the surf.

para surfers

Captain Tracy McKay emerges from her heat and gets a lift with assistant coach Owami Zama. (Photo: Ant Smyth)

Para surfers rule

Overnight, a magical sea change in attitude occurred. Access tracks were set up on the sand and marquees, with bold International Surfing Association (ISA) / World Para Surfing branding, were erected. On the south pier, para surfers from multiple countries were nailing their flags in the sand and getting acquainted with the waves.

Locals now embraced the seven-day event on their turf, with 184 athletes welcomed from 27 countries.

Contestants watch the heats from the beach lineup. (Photo: Sean Evans)

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Similo Dlamini saves time in her tight 20-minute heat by getting a ride on beach wheels to paddle back to the backline through the rip at the pier. (Photo: Ant Smyth)

Since the inaugural world para surfing event in 2015 up to now, para surfers had been relegated to the placid, playful breaks of La Jolla and Pismo. To boost chances of a positive imminent announcement about para surfing’s entry into the LA 2028 Paralympics, the ISA upped the ante by holding this year’s worlds at “Surf City USA” – Huntington Beach pier – the location for the 2022 World Surfing Games that opened up selection for the 2024 Olympic Games, which will see Jordy Smith and a few other top South African surfers competing.

McKay is among a team of nine Team SA para surfing athletes who travelled – often solo on multiple 24-hour-plus journeys – to represent their country a few weeks after the gees of the Bok victory in Paris. 

The build-up to the contest

The team confronted many hurdles, including funding shortages and lacklustre support. Individual surfers had been left to raise their own funds, with some dropping out. Former world silver medallist, Khayelitsha single mom and social grant recipient Noluthando Makalima endured the heartache of watching her teammates compete live on a small screen in Durban. 

The manager and two coaches withdrew at the last moment, in part to make funds available to athletes. 

In the build-up, the team connected through a WhatsApp group headed by McKay, who was captaining Team SA for the second year. While the Durban surfers had gone on training sessions and gained from the expertise and gravitas of a newly appointed coach, big-wave legend John Whittle, and assistant coach Owami Zama, the surfers from other regions were introduced to the two coaches at Huntington, leaving little time to observe and strategise individual styles and special needs.  

The nine surfers were a diverse bunch who shared at least one thing in common – the ability to overcome obstacles.

Interviewed at the contest site shortly before entering the water for the finals in the Women’s Prone 1 Division (surfers who catch waves without assistance), McKay said that initially she risked being the only female athlete as others waited anxiously for funding. She hung out for an agonisingly late cut-off of 24 October, with the contest starting 12 days later. It paid off, with group funding for car hire sourced through a car dealership, and some team members getting $1,500 discretionary grants from the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF). Three women – Kneel Division Durban athlete Similo Dlamini, Amanzimtoti-based Natashia Siebert and visually impaired Capetonian Michele MacFarlane – confirmed their trips.

The withdrawal of two coaches meant that Whittle and Zama were “overstretched and struggling to cope”, said McKay. Whittle was recovering from hip replacement surgery eight weeks earlier and was meant to be the land coach, “but we forced him into the water”. 

Doug Hendrikz with coach Owami Zama. (Photo: Ant Smyth)

Team SA fly the flag at the opening ceremony in Huntington Beach. (Photo: Sean Evans)

The two coaches took on the challenge with gusto, passing on tips in the build-up and strategising the ever-changing swell conditions from one tight 20-minute heat to the next. For athletes who were eligible for assistance, the coaches swam, surfed and pushed beach wheels in back-to-back heats. 

It was no small feat logistically to galvanise the team and to adhere to a gruelling schedule from Monday to Saturday, the first heats from 7am. Team SA was spread out across the city, since accommodation prices near the pier were prohibitive, although the exchange rate had strengthened marginally (thanks, Siya Kolisi). Boards, wheelchairs, wetsuits, canes, orthotics and other support gear, including the South African flag, were lugged back and forth.

In transit, $900 in cash disappeared from his luggage. He sprained a thumb in his first heat, bruised his right knee where his leg is amputated, and suffered ‘self-inflicted’ sun damage. His custom wetsuit vanished hours before his second heat.

McKay said it was a relief to pass on some duties she had assumed to teammate and multiple-medal winner in the Men’s Stand I Division, Ant Smyth, who stepped in to help rally the troops.

And despite their trip being touch-and-go, the Team SA athletes appeared undeterred. The nine surfers were a diverse bunch who shared at least one thing in common – the ability to overcome obstacles, to find a way out of the impact zone.

SA multiple champion Ant Smyth performs a cut back at the pier break. (Photo: Jersson Barboza)

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JP Andrew heads down the face of a wave in his kneel heat. (Photo: Sean Evans / ISA)

JP Andrew – bouncing back from a shark attack

Men’s Kneel Division contestant John Paul (JP) Andrew lost his right leg to a shark at Muizenberg at the age of 16. He fought his way back to life after cardiac arrest and massive blood loss. He abandoned the ocean for 20 years, watching as his buddies made real his dream of embarking on sojourns to Bali and other epic surf destinations. 

Andrew picked up a knee board less than a year ago. His muscle memory kicked in and he was notified in September that he had made the cut for the worlds.

You need to think of your next plan, because you can be sure that the next ‘down’ is coming. Something will go wrong, be prepared, but don’t dwell on it.

He too pulled the trigger at the 11th hour after securing a CAF grant to cover return flights. While in transit,$900 in cash disappeared from his luggage. He sprained a thumb in his first heat, bruised his right knee where his leg is amputated, and suffered “self-inflicted” sun damage. His custom wetsuit – cut off at the knee – vanished hours before his second heat. 

He entered the water in a hastily borrowed suit from the Huntington Surf & Sport Store – the redundant suit leg tied up at the knee. 

He struggled in tricky conditions, catching one wave and scoring a 3.5, not enough to make the cut for the semifinals.

Doug Hendrikz (third from left) receives the bronze medal in the Men’s Sit Division at the closing ceremony on 11 November 2023. (Photo: Pablo Franco / ISA)

Andrew (36) hits back with humour to confront challenges, seeing life as a comedy of errors. “You need to think of your next plan, because you can be sure that the next ‘down’ is coming. Something will go wrong, be prepared, but don’t dwell on it.”

A graphic designer by profession, Andrew feels gratitude for the experience which saw him ranked 13th in the world in his division in his inaugural contest. 

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Team SA’s Similo Dlamini sitting in the backline during her heat at Huntington Beach in California. (Photo: Sean Evans / ISA)

Similo Dlamini – the ‘girl surfer from KwaMashu’

Andrew’s teammate, Similo Dlamini, jokes that she is “that black girl from the township who surfs”.

Dlamini’s right leg is underdeveloped as a result of proximal femoral focal deficiency. She grew up in KwaMashu, north of Durban, with a can-do family who encouraged her to try everything. “I won the Lotto when it came to my family,” she told Daily Maverick, adding that she is “differently abled, not disabled”. 

Dlamini (39) is an adrenaline junkie. She boxes, gyms and has completed the Midmar and Dolphin Mile swims. She has paraglided, shark cage dived and bungee jumped. A water baby from the age of three, she stumbled on para surfing three years ago while browsing the web for new adventures. She hooked up with an NGO, Made for More surf therapy, who she credits for helping her break into an elite group of world para surfers. “They opened this huge door for me.”

Team SA’s JP Andrew, Michele Macfarlane, Natashia Siebert, Similo Dlamini and Tyler Pike. (Photo: Janet Heard)

She registered for the worlds on the cut-off date after clinching support from private sponsors, including her employer, Transnet, where she works as an accountant. 

This was her second consecutive year wearing the Proteas blazer. Knocked out before the semis, she is on a mission to train harder and win a medal next year. “We will persevere, and next year, it may be different,” she said.

Towards the Paralympics

Team SA fly the flag high at Huntington Beach. (Photo: Ant Smyth)

The South African flag flew proud and high at Huntington Beach. Team SA returned home with three bronze medals and South Africa was ranked ninth among 27 nations. 

France, bruised after defeat in the Rugby World Cup, emerged as the overall winner. The para surfers representing 27 nations rose to the heightened challenge at Huntington Beach, with impressive record-breaking performances in cranking surfing conditions. No heats were put on hold despite sizeable swell and gnarly conditions at times.

Memorable moments included:  

  • Watching burly male surfer supporters from the English team well up with tears of joy as they held up high on their shoulders 25-year-old Charlotte Banfield after she won her first world gold, in the Women’s Stand 3 Division. (Incidentally, she trains twice a week with South African coach Mike Young, in Newquay). Just hours before, she told me how she had fought back after having an epileptic seizure in the water during the final at the 2021 world champs.

England’s Charlotte Banfield wins gold in the finals in the the Stand 3 Division. (Photo: Sean Evans / ISA)

US athlete Alana Nichols scored 10 for a perfect wave. (Photo: Pablo Franco / ISA)

Para Surfing

South Africa’s JP Veaudry takes a wave in the Stand 2 Finals. (Photo: Jersson Barboza)

  • In the Women’s Sit division, Alana Nichols emerged stoked after scoring a perfect 10 in her heat, in which she got her first-ever epic barrel.
  • Observing Team SA’s JP Veaudry’s inconsolable tears after a penalty for obstruction in the Men’s Stand 2 Division final cost him his gold. (He went on to take gold in a follow-up event, the Para Surf League, run by the Association of Amputee Surfers).
  • The camaraderie, banter and humour within TeamSA, including when Smyth posted a photo on the WhatsApp group of three footprints in the sand, and asked whose feet from among the group they were, and double amputee Doug Hendrikz quipped dryly: “Not me.” It triggered hilarity emojis.

In closing remarks, ISA president Fernando Aguerre said the inaugural event in 2015 had been an act of faith, an act of hope. “What a week Huntington Beach has served for us; incredible, unforgettable. Of course, in the back of all our minds is the hope – it might happen – that the LA 2028 Paralympic Games will finally include para surfing.”

If para surfing cracks the nod, Team SA knows there is work to be done, and everyone needs to pull out all the stops, said McKay. 

Liv Stone, US para surfing champion in the Stand 1 Division, received a silver medal. (Photo: Pablo Franco / ISA)

Dlamini agreed, saying that while the athletes needed to “live in the water”, they could not do it alone. “We feel the love here [at Huntington Beach], but what is the surfing industry and what is the government doing back home? My question is: Where are you?”

Future success depended on funding, said McKay, who has just been honoured as the KZN sportswoman with a disability of the year. Training was an all-year affair. She returned home with a bronze medal along with Veaudry and Hendrikz. 

Like other Team SA contestants, she has set her sights on being a Paralympian in 2028. She hopes her age (53) does not stand against her. “I won’t give up.” DM

Disclosure: Janet Heard’s son Tyler Pike was a contestant.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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