At most trade shows I've attended there always seems to be a “latest and greatest” new product, concept, or service that debuts and catches the buzz-worthy attention of the attendees. This year, at the Abilities Expo in Los Angeles, I heard a lot of chatter about a new adaptive experience and sport no one had heard of before. Paddleboarding. Paddleboarding?! Yes, you read that right! Paddleboarding for wheelchair users! I had to find out more so I headed straight to the Living Spinal booth to pick up the brochure for Onit Ability Boards. It seemed to look as straightforward as it sounds with an image of a standard stand up paddleboard and a wheelchair attached to the top. Um, yes please, where do I sign up?! Luckily, my friend Andrew Hippert at Living Spinal pointed me in the right direction.
A couple weeks later I headed down to Oceanside, CA to meet up with native Hawaiian and Onit Ability Boards inventor, Kawika Watt, to learn how to paddleboard for the first time! Honestly, I had no idea what to expect. Paddleboarding is something I never tried prior to getting paralyzed so I was super excited for a brand new water sport experience. (And most of you know how much I love water, sports, and new experiences = a win-win-win for me!) Upon the first moment I met Kawika, it was apparent he lives and breathes the ultimate laid back lifestyle on the water. His love for people is so genuine it immediately reflects why he invented an adaptive paddleboard in the first place. “To make sure nobody feels left behind,” he says simply. I know, super cool attitude, right?!
As soon as I spotted paddleboarders in the water and empty wheelchairs on the dock, I couldn't wait to leave the land behind! So much so I almost forgot I needed to learn how to actually paddleboard first. Kawika relayed a quick paddling lesson and basic safety precautions (which reminded me of the instructions I got on my “kayaking date” in season 1 of Push Girls). Getting on the board consisted of a fairly easy chair-to-chair transfer and I settled in comfortably. As Kawika slid my board from the dock into the water, butterflies started to fill my stomach! He calmly explained the instructional board has outriggers and nobody has ever tipped it over before but I couldn't help to think I might be the first to break that record! However, within two paddle strokes my nerves disappeared and I was thinking of nothing else but going out explore the beautiful harbor!
I didn't initially get the hang of paddling perfectly, as some people kindly pointed out my paddle was backwards a few times (haha), but I truly could have paddled all day (save for a slight concern of overworking unused muscles my first time out). An athlete at heart, I appreciated the leisurely aspect, but also the endurance I felt. And the fact it can be a competitive sport should I choose to get serious about it.
Perhaps the ONLY thing I initially missed from paddleboarding was getting splashed or feeling the water on my skin, which is part of the experience doing other water sports I love. Those who like to stay dry will love that aspect. It's hard for me to be around water and not want to dive right in! But once I was back on the dock, I noticed others at the end of their session leaving their boards for the water to cool off. Duh, why didn't I think of that? So that's something I'll do next time!
Most overall, I felt a feeling of freedom I as navigating through the water on my board. It strikes me as interesting to notice many people I've met, who use wheelchairs or prosthetics, strive for experiences that exude a feeling of physical freedom. Perhaps because some of us had/have confronted seeming limitations since birth or an injury. But paddleboarding is yet another adaptive sport that shows how truly unlimited we are, should we choose to seek a physically active lifestyle. My friend Andrew is a C6-C7 high functioning quadriplegic who also describes the experience of paddleboarding as “free” and there is “no better feeling than out on the water.” Andrew has enough dexterity to hold the paddle and do his own paddling, but those with very limited or no use of the arms or hands can still experience the exhilaration of adaptive paddleboarding with a guide who paddles from back of the board.
I've come to realize I get most excited about outdoor activities I can share with others no matter what their physical ability level is. I even met a new friend, Erica Davis, on the day of my experience. She is an amazing world-class athlete (Paratriathlon National Champion and 1st female wheelchair user to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. Yeah, jaw meet floor!) and we grew an instant bond all while she graciously showed me some cool paddling tips! I absolutely LOVE how Paddleboarding affords me the opportunity to share an awesome activity simultaneously with all of my friends, whether they stand or sit. In the vision of Kawika, “nobody gets left behind!”
Those interested in trying the Onit Ability Boards (it's always FREE) can contact Kawika at 760-712-2222 to schedule an appointment.
Interested in buying your own Onit Ability Board? You can purchase them here from Living Spinal – a company that donates a portion of its proceeds to SCI research with every order!