There’ve been quite a few people I’ve admired over the years – individuals whose outlook, tenacity and actions have inspired me and got me going. So I thought this blog would be the perfect excuse to interview some of these inspirational people, to find out who they are what makes them tick.
First up is Llywelyn Williams, one of the rising talents in UK adaptive surfing. Llywelyn lost his leg and almost his life in a devastating accident in 2011, when he was run over while skateboarding. At just 16, the accident left him in an induced coma for 6 weeks, with a catalogue of injuries so severe, his parents were told that he might not make it through the night.
But just 5 years later, the Abersoch local burst onto the adaptive surfing scene as the first person to represent Wales at the ISA Word Adaptive Championships, where he finished in 5th place, beating the world number one in the quarter finals. Since then, he hasn’t looked back, racking up an impressive set of results competing in events all over the world.
I recently sat down with Llywelyn over Skype, to learn more about adaptive surfing, aiming for the top against the odds and his long term goals.
So when did you first start surfing?
I started surfing firstly when I was in youth club, so I was around 12 or 13. I started with the surf club there, met some good mates, and when that finished, I carried on really.
I’m part of a good surf community, Porth Ceiriad and Hells Mouth are the local breaks around here, so there’s loads of good surf shops and lots of the local guys surf.
Do you remember anything from the day of the accident?
I’ve seen pictures and I think I kind of remember bits of it, but I think it’s just what my friends have told me. My mind’s blanked that day out.
Just before the first time I opened my eyes – some people think I’m crazy for this – but I was literally going towards a light and a shadow came out of nowhere and said ‘it’s not your time’ in Welsh. I opened my eyes and I saw all my friends – I had no idea what happened and apparently I was skateboarding along the road and got hit by a car.
How long did it take you to get back into the water after the accident, and how did that first surf feel?
I got run over in the Sept, made it home just before Christmas and then I really don’t know when I got back into the water for the first time… probably about 6 months after the accident.
Phil Woods of Abersoch Watersports got me back into the water for the first time. He made me a foamie shortboard so I started belly-boarding on that. As soon as I got back into the water, I felt alive again.
On land everything’s on weight, everything hurts. But when you’re in the sea you float and it’s like there’s no pain and it clears your head – it’s great. When I get stressed out now, I just go into the sea and it’s gone.
You said after the accident that that you wanted to do everything that you did before, but better. Where did that drive come from and where did you find the strength?
When I came home from hospital, I had my family and friends all around me and they were pushing me into everything I was trying to do – they would say ‘do it yourself’ so it made me think ‘I can do this’, and it gave me the drive to do everything I used to do.
The whole village helped me. When I was going around in my wheelchair, everyone would push me around and help me get from door to door. Now I’ve got a quad bike which makes things easier as well.
When you got back into surfing, did you have to think about your style beforehand, or did it develop naturally when you got into the water?
It came naturally. When I first got back out there, my friends had to help me into the water, and push me into waves and stuff because I was that weak. I was body surfing on the foam board and then after I built my strength up, I popped up onto my knee and that was my style.
I’ve got a really high amputation, so when I pop up to my knees on the surfboard, I then grab two different rails. Depending on which way I’m going I put my hands on different places on the board to get the grip, weight and balance right.
How different are the boards you ride now, from the ones you rode before you lost your leg?
They’re the same boards. I got on exactly the same boards when I got back out there. People suggested that I try knee boards, but I tried them out and I want to stick to the normal surfboards I already had.
How about wetsuits?
O’Neill help me out with wetsuits. Phil has a contract with O’Neill, so as soon as I lost my leg he emailed them to see if they could cut a suit around my stump and they said yes. So we measured my leg up on a suit, sent it off and they’ve been cutting wetsuits for me since then. That’s a big bonus.
Was getting into adaptive surfing comps an ambition when you first lost your leg?
Not really. I did a year, a couple of years without actually thinking about anyone else who surfed like an adaptive surfer.
Then I got into adaptive surfing. I was reading up about it, looking at videos and stuff of the first ISA Worlds and I saw nobody from Wales was there. I was like, ‘right, I’m going to do this’, so I posted some pictures online, and sent some emails. As soon as the pictures went up, a friend of mine from home [Siôn Bryn Evans] did a short video, and we posted that, and it got a lot of attention. And then we posted some more pictures saying my aim was to get to the Paralympics.
5 years after the accident and you were representing Wales on the world stage at the ISA World Adaptive Surfing Championships. Could you tell me a bit more about that journey and how you got there?
Ben Clifford from Surfability got in contact with me and asked if I wanted to do the Worlds. So I went down to meet him in south Wales. Surfability’s a surf school for disability surfers and the two guys that run it, [Ben Clifford and Toby Williams], they were going to go to the Worlds as volunteers to help out, but then I popped up.
Ben got in contact with the Welsh Surfing Federation. We got a meeting with them and then I was going to California with Ben as my Manager and Toby as my Coach.
So the first competition you did was a world class one? That must have been a proud moment for your friends and family, seeing you compete for Wales. What was the atmosphere like on the beach?
It was great. And the guys who came to support me – my girlfriend, my family, they were just crazy on the beach – you could hear the commentators talking about the Welsh fans going crazy. When we went there with the Welsh flag, nobody knew where the flag was from. People were asking us ‘where’s that flag from?’ and we’d say ‘Wales’. And they were like, ‘where’s Wales’? So we’d explain. Then the second year we went there, everyone knew us.
The ISA Worlds are held every year – which other domestic and international comps are there for adaptive surfers?
There’s the ISA Worlds, the Duke Oceanfest in Hawaii, the Oceanside in California, which is up the coast to where the World Championships are held. There’s one in the UK, the English Adaptive Open, one in Italy too I think. And then this year, there’s the Adaptive Pro in Australia.
Which has been your favourite competition so far out of all those that you’ve done?
I think I’d have to say the Oceanside in California – the US Open Adaptive Surfing Championships. That was the best for me, just because it was run by an adaptive surfer himself, so he knew the ins and outs of everyone and what they needed. If there was something wrong you could just tell him and he’d find a way to sort it out. It’s just easier to talk to another adaptive surfer about something than it is to talk to someone able bodied.
How do adaptive surf competitions differ from regular surf comps? Is it the same rules in terms of the wave count and scoring system?
Yeah, they’re pretty much the same, but because it’s adaptive surfing you’ve got different categories and stuff. Because it’s new and it’s growing, the judges have to learn about the different categories and people having to surf differently, using different styles. So say, me kneeling and then someone prone, it’s going to be different manoeuvres so the judges are re-learning, working out how to mark it if you know what I mean.
As an athlete, and an adaptive athlete, what surf specific training do you do? I can imagine you must have extra aches and pains because of the way you have to adapt your surfing style?
I’ve got Dan Brooke-Sutton who helps me with training and conditioning and I get help from a physio in Abersoch , Rebecca Crawford. She helps me out with the joints, massages and loosens up my muscles for competitions.
I get a lot of pain in my shoulders because I’m always on my crutches pressing my weight down. As the muscles are used to being held down I get pain when I lift my shoulders up. And then in the cold, my ankle hurts and my wrists and stuff. So it’s good to get competitions away in the heat.
You must be a source of inspiration for a lot of people, so who inspires you?
Spike Kane from the English Adaptive surf team, he’s living out in California now. He’s paralysed from the chest down and he’s doing sit down skiing and prone surfing and he’s just loving life. He’s sailed from America to Alaska as well, with three different adaptive surfers. His positivity makes everyone happy when he’s around. He’s always smiling, so everyone smiles around him.
And do you get any support from companies / sponsors?
Dry Bag send me equipment and they sponsor me to get to events. So I’d like to thank them. Dry Robe and a local caravan park, Bryn Bach Caravan Park also sponsor me.
So what’s in the pipeline for 2018?
I’ve got the English Adaptive Open Championships in June [Llywelyn won his category last year], the Duke Ocean Fest in Hawaii, the Oceanside in California and then the World Championships. I’m also going to try and do the Welsh Championships again this year.
What are your long-term goals and ambitions?
I want to get out there, see the sport grow, help as many people as I can and get as many people into the sport as possible.
But my aim is to be the World Champion – it’s got to be.
What advice would you give someone who wants to get into adaptive surfing?
If they’ve never surfed before, it would be well worth them going down to Surfability and having a go with them – Ben would help you to get into the ocean and start surfing.
If you’re depressed or anything, just get into the sea, it helps clear everything.
Thanks Llywelyn and good luck for all your comps this year!
Diolch Llywelyn a phob hwyl yn dy gystadleuthau i gyd eleni!
For more information on Llywelyn and adaptive surfing, check out his website : http://www.surfersponge.com/