Meet Paraplegic Surfer Christiaan Bailey: "Amazingly When We Hit the Water All Pain Melts Away"

Jason Lock

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Updated 999d ago

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There's a positive upward trend of adaptive surfing right now, largely due to the ISA World Para Surfing Championships that is elevating the sport to the masses as well as building a passionate team who are keen to give athletes a worthy platform.

And think of the likes of Bethany Hamilton, Mike Coots, who are continuing on their chosen paths, all driving eye balls to adaptive surfing - plus, Bethany's just announced plans to compete full time on the QS as well. Of course, there's more going on behind the scenes too. Take for example, Christiaan Bailey, from Santa Cruz, has been instrumental in the growth of the sport and was on the ground to help get the first ever ISA adaptive competition live. For him, it's more than a passion project after shattering his back during a skating accident in 2006.

You'll probably recall Christiaan putting on adaptive expression sessions on the WQS and CT over the years and now, as well as working closely with the ISA, he's also the adaptive athlete representative for USA Surfing, an ISA team world champion, seven-time ISA medalist, five-time USA national champ and maybe the only male adaptive surfer to rip apart Pipeline.

Anyway, as this year's AmpSurf ISA World Para Surfing Championship draws near - it's this week, in fact from March 11-15 in La Jolla, California - we decided to check in with Christiaan to talk early life, his injury and how that changed his mindset and what more can be done to help support adaptive athletes.

Watch live: The AmpSurf World Para Surfing Championships from March 11, HERE

First, for people who do not know, where are you from and where did you learn to surf?
I'm from Santa Cruz, California and I learned to surf at Cowells beach, which is just down from Steamer Lane.

Tell us about your early life, how does skating and surfing fit into it?
Well, I grew up in the full tilt maelstrom and gladiatorial arena that is Santa Cruz, California. In the 80's and 90's, Santa Cruz had replaced Venice "Dogtown" as the last great seaside slum.

An area steeped rich in both surfing and skateboarding history and culture. A nexus if you will, for the progression of both sports.

That said, as a kid, my idols at the time weren't on the other side of the country, these pro surfers and skaters were all right in my front yard and from a very young age, I had the opportunity to train and be trained by some of the best.

So as a kid, when you have surfers like Jay Moriarity and Peter Mel or skaters Steve Caballero giving you advice, it cuts the learning curve pretty steeply.  Fast forward a few years, and I had become a professional freesurfer and skateboarder and was living in Morocco at the time. I helped my friend start a backcountry surf expedition company in Agadir and we were spending weeks at a time, exploring the unspoiled beauty and incredible surf of Mauritania and Senegal. It was a dream life!

And then in 2006, you had an accident while skateboarding, what happened?
I had come home to Santa Cruz from a Morocco surf expedition in June of '06, I had been awake and travelling for the better part of 48 hours and was wrecked. I kicked open the door, threw my bags down and piled into bed, only to be rudely awoken not even 30 seconds later by a phone call from our team manager, saying they were filming a skate video and desperately need my part done today.

So I pulled myself together, grabbed my skateboard and headed to an old skatepark in the heart of the Westside, named Derby. I put together quite a few good runs and as the sun was going down, famous last words "One last trick"... I pilled into the bowl at full speed (about 35mph) and went to do a boneless 360 fingerflip over the Derb gap, which was a 15ft space between the bowl and the sidewalk. My knee blew out on takeoff and I landed backwards leaning forward and compression fractured two vertebrae in my back.

What did the doctors say?
That I had sustained a spinal cord injury and would never walk normally, if I do at all, for the rest of my life.

What were your initial thoughts after that accident?
I've always loathed the internalising of the "could of, would of should of" questions. To me personally, they're counterproductive to learning critical life lessons and more often than not, only inhibit you being able to move forward. I've always tried my best to take situations for what they are, so my initial thoughts were, "when and how the hell can I break out of this hospital" [laughs].

How did life change from then on? What was your mindset?
There's a critical reevaluation point, that everyone goes through, after sustaining a profound and fundamentally life-changing injury.

For myself personally, I'm a very goal oriented person, so I found that setting goals for myself each day, even if they were only small ones, was very constructive. The nerve pain we experience as paraplegics, can sometimes stop a team of oxen in their tracks. Amazingly enough for whatever reason, the second we hit the water, all of that pain melts away

The worst thing you could do is sit at home. Sitting around leads to dark thoughts and you can royally screw yourself mentally. So I set out to occupy my schedule everyday, to make the necessary adaptations to get back to doing the sports I love.

My boys at Santa Cruz bicycles took a cutting torch to my wheelchair, we then rebuilt it from the ground up so that I could hit the skatepark again and I started designing surfboards, so they could amplify the abilities I did have and I could get back in the water once again.

It was a trying time in my life, but also profoundly exciting, and I credit the fact I wasn't nearly as depressed as I could have been, based largely on the fact that I kept busy and was surrounded by great friends.

I guess a general question is, why surfing? What drew you to it?
Surfing is the source. The dance with nature, that has and always will, draw us to it. Post injury? It's incredible therapy, the nerve pain we experience as paraplegics, can sometimes stop a team of oxen in their tracks. Amazingly enough for whatever reason, the second we hit the water, all of that pain melts away.

And you’ve set up a non-profit as well right, tell us a bit about that?
About 14-years-ago a friend of mine and I embarked on a mission to create the first adaptive surfing camp in Costa Rica.

The foundation was called Ocean Healing Group and we'd create all inclusive adaptive surf adventure, for kids who use wheelchairs and their parents. Over the course of 14 years, they've held 29, 10-day long camps.

I was the co-founder and executive director for a decade, until I took up my position with USA Surfing, just prior to the launch of the ISA World Adaptive Surfing Championships in 2015. While i'll always love and cherish my OHG family, my goals in recent years have focussed on getting our sport into the Paralympics. I've had a 27-year career now in professional surfing, I want to see it through to the Olympics and Paralympics before my time is done.

Which event are you competing in at the world games?
I'm in the Prone division 

Christiaan at last year's games.

Christiaan at last year's games.

© 2022 - Grant.

And, of course, this isn't your first competitive...
I have seven medals in total, four Silvers a bronze and a gold. Yes, I've been involved on the ground floor I'm afraid.

I spent 11 years doing expression sessions on the QS & WCT trying to promote adaptive surfing, until 2012, when at Bells Beach CT, I received an interesting email from Alex Reynolds at the ISA, talking about a concept he had (the adaptive world championships) and if i'd be able to join them in assisting them build it.

You have to remember, back then, the adaptive surfing community was incredibly small, with only a few of us scattered all over the world. Well, it turns out that he had tracked down and assembled all the other major players in our community and together, we created the first ISA Adaptive surfing board and wrote the book.

When I look back now to what we created and more importantly, how it's grown the world adaptive surfing community, it fills me with joy. That first ISA games in 2015, was the spark that lit the fuse. Now there are adaptive surfing comps all over the world and it's all being done independently, which is absolutely incredible to see.

Do you think there’s more that can be done to support adaptive athletes?
Yes, that hardest thing for adaptive surfers at the elite level, is mainstream sponsorship. It's one thing for those of us who were already in the surf industry prior to getting hurt and our contracts followed us, but for others who perhaps weren't, or the upcoming next generation of kid parasurfers. It's near impossible to be able to afford going to these contests. Thats hopefully something that will change in the future.

For live broadcasts, results and more from this year's AmpSurf World Para Surfing Championship, go HERE