Meet Bruno Hansen, Paralysed After Car Jacking Now Five-Time ISA Adaptive Surfing World Champion

Matt Rode

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Updated 292d ago

The ISA Adaptive World Championships are under way in Pismo Beach, California, with dozens of the world's greatest adaptive athletes in the mix to take home a title.

And a name you may know is Denmark's Bruno Hansen’s -- whose personal journey in particular has been a long and involved one, from a tumultuous childhood in Africa to running surf charters in the Mentawais, then losing mobility in his legs after a violent crime and ultimately becoming the five-time prone surfing world champ. Between opening ceremony events in California yesterday, we sat down with Brun for an animated chat about the ISA Games and how surfing has shaped his life.

Good to see you, Bruno! Stoked you are back in California. Where did you fly in from?
I live between Panama and Bali. I’ve lived in Indo most of my life, but now I mainly live in Panama. But I was originally born Denmark, moved to Zimbabwe. We had to flee during the civil war, so I moved to South Africa when I was seven and grew up there. Then I ended up as a captain of a surf charter yacht in the Mentawais in the early 1990s! I was just a young guy and convinced the South African owner of the yacht to make me the captain because I’d work for free.

I was back in Cape Town visiting the boss while the boat was being worked on in the offseason, and I got car-jacked. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time at night—I was being a bit slack, not as careful as I normally would be. Basically, four guys came up to me and a girl in the car, and we were lucky they didn’t kill us. They ended up breaking my back.

Bruno calls Denmark his home country but now spends load of time in Bali.

Bruno calls Denmark his home country but now spends load of time in Bali.

That’s so heavy. I imagine you were in a bit of a dark space after that for a while?
Oh gosh, five years of it. I ended up in Mexico, on heroin and other drugs. But then I started surfing again. I was in Rio Nexpa and paddled out on a board and tried to drown myself, but I couldn’t. I wouldn’t stop floating, my ass was just popping out of the water like a cork, so I couldn’t drown.

I was out on this girl’s longboard, and I ended up getting hit by a little bit of foam and it pushed me toward shore for around 30 metres. That was my first wave in a number of years, and it sort of just rebooted me. I became a new human and started surfing again, and 15 years later I won my first world championship. And now here I am in Pismo Beach, trying to win my sixth!

So you are a five-time world champion?
Yeah, I have five medals! I don’t really know how—I sort of Forrest Gump’d my way through it, to be honest. I’m still riding old surfboards—one of them is super old. When I arrived in California for my first contest, I showed up without any boards or wetsuits or anything, and Byrd gave me an old board to ride. It was a 25-year-old egg. And I still ride that thing! I have a fish that I ride as well, but the guys are always teasing me, telling me “Oh, you are still riding those old dogs!” I love these boards.

But there are a bunch of young, strong guys who are up and coming in my division (prone), so I think this year I will really have to work at it.

There are a number of challenges that come with riding prone as a disabled athlete. I met a guy down in Baja who had mounted fins on the deck of his board to help keep his legs from dragging off the side.
Yeah, those guys who use fins that way freak me out! If you do one thing wrong, you could take a fin between the legs and slice yourself open. When I see that, it makes me shiver! I just bungee my legs together. I have a $1 bungee cord that I use. A lot of people ask me my most important piece of surf equipment, and I tell them it’s my $1 bungee cord! I think that’s a lot safer than having something sticking up from the board.

It sounds like surfing has played a big part in helping you rediscover your joy in life after your injury. What role does competition play in that for you? How important are the world championships to you?
First of all, being in a wheelchair a lot of the time, you don’t expend a lot of energy, because you aren’t using your big quad muscles. Surfing gives you a chance to get your heart beating and keep the muscles in your back strong. A lot of us who have broken our backs have metal in our backs, so keeping those muscles strong helps keep us healthy. When you are in the chair all day, the kidneys need to be worked properly, and the liver gets squashed. There are medical benefits to being on a board and in the water

So surfing has more than one aspect to it, for me. It has a physical fitness aspect that is important, as well as the mental and spiritual aspects. I think all three of those are important. And I find that if I don’t surf, I become much weaker—even if I am working out in the gym and riding the hand cycle. And that causes a lot of other complications.

When you are in the chair all day, the kidneys need to be worked properly, and the liver gets squashed. There are medical benefits to being on a board and in the water. So I think it’s a lot more than the competition and the mental aspects that keep you focused and positive.

That being said, I’m highly competitive. If I’m going to do something, I want to do it properly. I actually didn’t know about competitive surfing before I came to the world championships for the first time. I was just in Bali surfing with my mates, crawling over the rocks out to secret spots, trying to keep up with my friends, riding shitty old kneeboards and anything else I could find.

When I came to the first ISA world champs, I had no expectations. As I mentioned, I didn’t even bring a surfboard! I thought everyone was going to be much better than me—that they would all be professional surfers. And I’m not saying they aren’t great surfers—many of them are extremely talented. But I didn’t really put myself in that same category when I came to my first contest.

But I have that hunger and that drive. I grew up poor in Africa and had to work my way through life. I’ve had to suffer—I’ve been in two armies and had to go through stuff. And I think that gives me an edge, if I’m to be honest, over those who have grown up with a bit of money and had help and equipment and such. I never had that. I was just with a bunch of mates in Bali, trying to keep up. They’d just drag me down to the water and drop me off and say, “See you out there,” and I’d have to crawl my way into the ocean and try to get out to the lineup.

That was normal for me. So when I arrived here, it was amazing to go from zero to hero. And I realised that competition is quite healthy. You make so many good buddies and have mates from around the world. I can go anywhere around the world and stay with buddies who have one leg or one arm, and we are quite a sight to see, crawling along the beach to go for a surf!

For me, the whole competitive aspect of it—I love it, but I’m also kind of fading away from the need to win. It’s not as important to me to win anymore. I mean, I’m here to win this week, but it’s not my ultimate goal in life anymore. I’m getting older and the younger bucks are coming through, and I think I’ll thrash along as long as I can, but it’s just as important that it’s mutual companionship. You know, everyone is broken in some way, but we can all be together and be happy. That’s kind of where I’m at right now.

It sounds like there is a lot of camaraderie among the competitors.
Oh yeah, there’s a great vibe and great camaraderie amongst all of us—on shore. On shore, we are all buddies. But once we get in the water, it all changes! I actually apologize to my teammates before we go out. I tell them, “Listen here, if we are going to do a job, let’s do it properly. We aren’t just going to go out and ride some foam and show the people who are watching ‘Oh, look, disabled people can surf too.’ Once we are out there, we go for it.”

I’m going to surf to the best of my abilities and show the kids who are watching, who might be stuck in a chair or whatever—I want them to see what is possible. I want them to think, “I can do that. I can be a bit of a rock star and be competitive.” Because competition can be healthy. It can push you to new levels of self-awareness and understanding.

I’m still highly competitive. But I’m not fully focused on it and possessed by it now, like a madman, like I used to be. For instance, this year I am sharing a house with some Brazilians. In years past, there’s no way I would have done that. I would have been staying in my own room, meditating and visualizing all day. I guess maybe as we get a bit older, priorities change. But it’s still a fantastic event. I haven’t seen any of these guys for two years now, because of COVID-19. And now, getting to see everyone from Chile and Peru and Brazil, and my Aussie mates—it’s really great, it’s an amazing gathering. The only downside this year is that the crew from South Africa couldn’t come because of the recent lockdown due to the new variant. They were fundraising and training all year, but then couldn’t come. So that’s a bummer.

In terms of fundraising and finding ways to afford to come to the world championships, is it mostly the athletes who have to do it? Is there any industry support?
Oh man, yeah, lots of fundraising and finding creative ways to make it work. Nobody is getting their way paid We were joking about it today. I’m staying with Pirata, who is an amputee, he has two gold medals for stand-up; and also Fellipe Kizu, who competes on the wave ski and has three gold medals. And I have five gold medals for prone surfing.

And we were laughing about how we have like 10 world championships between the three of us, and none of us have any sponsors. And these guys surf so well! You should see Kizu on the wave ski. I reckon he’s the best adaptive surfer in the world. He’s in a goat boat, and he wants to surf Jaws! He drops into 15-foot waves and gets barrelled and comes out and does an air. On a wave ski!

But none of us are sponsored—we all have to scrimp and save, sometimes we have to sleep in cars, but we are still winning. And perhaps that’s why we win. When you arrive and have to sleep in a car for a few nights, you are cold and hungry and a bit pissed off, and that gives you the drive. You aren’t waking up in a nice, cozy duvet with a pretty girl next to you bringing you some warm tea, you know? That’s not happening for some of us.

I see the future changing for the youngsters. Hopefully they will have some sponsors and the Paralympics and stuff. But for us old goats, you know, we joke about it—we were here from the beginning, we will be here until the end, and we will be those old toothless guys doing commentary for the young kids competing.

In regard to the Paralympics, is surfing going to be included soon, now that it has been added to the Olympic schedule? Will we see surfing in the Paralympics in 2024?
No, it likely won’t happen for 2024 in Paris. But I think we will see it in 2028, in Los Angeles. But I really think it needs to happen in a wave pool, as this provides a level playing field. Take Pismo as an example. The tide here comes in and goes out so far because it’s such a shallow bank, so whoever surfs a final at low tide—it’s anyone’s game.

It’s not going to be the best surfer who wins, it’s going to be luck of the draw. And those who are surfing their finals at high tide—well, they are going to have the pick of the waves. So I think the Paralympics need to be in a wave pool, and I think it will be 2028 in LA.

Speaking of wave pools, have you or any of your adaptive athlete friends there at the event in California had the chance to surf the Surf Ranch?
No, but we would love to! We have spent a lot of time in the Wavegarden in England, because it’s more affordable, and that’s awesome—but the Surf Ranch is just another level of quality and none of us have gotten to ride it. Well, I think one young Brazilian adaptive surfer might have—I think a rich guy paid for a day there or something. But we would all love to have the chance.

Hopefully you’ll get the chance soon—considering the positivity that you are injecting into the sport.
You know, after having a traumatic injury and a challenging time in life, I think it makes one grow. And I like to say that everyone is disabled in some way, whether it’s physically or mentally or spiritually. Sooner or later, we all are going to come across our disabilities. For those of us who are physically disabled, it’s in your face and you have to see it and overcome it and get over it, because you don’t have the option of just burying it under other things.

And then I think when you overcome the physical and mental side of it, there comes a time of spiritual growth, where you try to understand life and help your buddies and other people, and just give a smile—help wherever you can. Not that we are saving the world, mind you, but I feel like every person in the world has their own disabilities that they are dealing with, and we can choose to overcome them and grow as people and make the world a better place. I just want to see everyone living with a bit more responsible recklessness—or maybe it’s reckless responsibility, I’m not sure (laughs).

One thing that is so important to me is the health of the oceans. Water is a healing therapy, but I think a lot of people don’t realise the damage that we are doing to it. I did a talk for a symposium last night, and one thing I brought up was the masks we’ve been using because of the pandemic.

It sounds crazy, but 1.5 billion of those masks went into the ocean this year. That’s 130 million masks in the ocean per month! We all love the ocean and want to use it and enjoy it, but we also have to look after it. I’m a big advocate of finding small ways that we can help protect the ocean and make the world a better place, even if it’s as simple as wearing a reusable mask instead of a single-use one, or sharing a bit of positivity with the people that we meet each day.

Well, you are definitely inspiring us to be a bit more responsible and aware. Thanks Bruno, and good luck this week!