This is Carolina: Adaptive Surf Project trades wheels for surfboards

This Is Carolina: Adaptive Surf

SURFSIDE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - It started with 17 surfers and now it's grown to 56, with people coming from both Carolinas and as far away as Georgia.

More than 100 people volunteered to help those 56 surfers in last weekend’s Wheel to Surf event, in partnership with the Adaptive Surf Project.

Wheel to Surf has about ten events a year, and it’s harder than regular surfing because you have to “adapt to surf.” It’s life-changing not just for the surfers, but the people putting it on.

"On the way back out I'm thinking about the wave I just surfed, and when I get out there I'm thinking about the next wave. And that's it, just everything else goes away,” Ernie Johnson told WMBF News of how he feels on the surfboard.

Johnson was one of the 56 surfers at Saturday’s Wheel to Surf event in Surfside Beach.

“So, there’s inside waves and their outside waves. The outside waves start from a 10 and your score goes from a 10 down, the inside waves start from a five down,” he said, explaining the way surf scoring works.

From the way he talks, you’d think Johnson has been surfing his entire life. But, that’s not the case. He was paralyzed while playing football at Conway High School in 1997.

“All the pain, all the hardships and what happens with a spinal cord injury, for me personally, all that stuff goes away in the ocean,” Johnson said.

Johnson was skeptical about surfing at first. But friends Luke Sharp, the director of Adaptive Surf Project, and Brock Johnson didn’t give up on getting him in the water. It paid off.

"I’d tell him that the surf report looks good, ‘Do you want to surf in the morning?’ So, Luke, for few months, would get up and meet me at the pier at 6 o'clock and we'd surf for 45 minutes,” Johnson said.

His most immediate goal for this year is to win nationals in adaptive surfing, which he said is possible.

“I love the ocean and if you look at the map of the world, and if you look at Micronesia, all you see is ocean and just a bunch of little islands,” Sharp said.

He’s a teacher. He taught in Micronesia, and surfed there, before coming back to the U.S. He’s a teacher at Horry County’s Alternative School, and just like a true surfer, he plays the ukulele.

“We wanted to start something that’s going to make lives improve, lives of a lot of individuals. Everyone deserves to be happy, everyone deserves to have joy,” Sharp said of why he and a handful of other Cherry Grove surfers started the Adaptive Surf Project.

He said it started about six years ago for three other friends who also surfed but had suffered life-altering injuries. One of those friends is Johnson.

Johnson was paralyzed after jumping off a boat. He decided to turn tragedy into triumph. Under the Adaptive Surf Project, he started Wheel to Surf.

“It’s the best day you could have. To have people that don’t have the ability to get out on the surfboard on the beach, don’t have the ability to surf on their own, we have this wonderful community that comes together to make it happen, and we do it more than once a year now which is really beautiful,” Johnson said.

Johnson was picked as one of the first adaptive surfers for Team USA. He hopes to qualify for the World Championships.

Ernie Johnson is also finding success in the sport he didn’t know he’d come to love.

Both men have competed in San Diego and the Caribbean. The 2024 Adaptive Surf Paralympics is on the radar. This is adaptive surfing’s first year in the Paralympics.

“Happiness. One word. There’s a lot of happiness, there’s a lot of camaraderie, a lot of people caring about each other. Unity would be another word we have a lot of people coming out to support us. Without the help of everyone we wouldn’t be able to have events like this,” Johnson said during the Wheel to Surf event.

The next surfing event is Saturday, June 1 in North Myrtle Beach.

It’s the Anderson Estep Cherry Grove Surfing Championship. All divisions will be featured; however, the East Coast Adaptive Surfing Champion will be crowned at the competition. That person will move on to nationals next month in California. The memorial competition is held annually for local surfer Anderson Estep, who was lost at sea while surfing in 2013.

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