Think Out Loud

Oregonians ride waves with adaptive surfing

By Rolando Hernandez (OPB)
Oct. 27, 2021 4:49 p.m. Updated: Nov. 3, 2021 9:55 p.m.
A person in a wet suite lays on a surf board in the ocean.

Adaptive surfing allows someone with a physical disability to enjoy ocean waves.

Monique Kelley / Monique Kelley


Monique “Moon” Kelley grew up skateboarding on the Oregon Coast and never once imagined she’d be an athlete. But after a car accident left her paralyzed from the waist down, she picked up adaptive surfing with the help of instructor Gabe Smith. They both join us with details on how adaptive surfing works and Kelley’s goal to go to the Paralympics.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Growing up on the Oregon coast, Monique Kelly was never interested in surfing. Then, five years ago Kelly was paralyzed from the waist down in a car crash. Now with the help of Instructor Gabe Smith, who is the Director of the Nelscott Reef Pro, that’s a big wave surfing competition in Lincoln City, Kelly is riding the waves on an adaptive surfboard. Monique Kelly and Gabe Smith join me now. Welcome to Think Out Loud.

Monique Kelly and Gabe Smith: Thanks so much, so excited to be here.

Miller: I’m excited to have you on Monique. Let’s start with you. As I mentioned, you were paralyzed from the waist down after a car crash in 2017. Early on, what did you imagine that the range of activities you could do would be like, how did you envision your life going forward?

Monique Kelly: In the initial stages of my injury, I honestly thought my life was over, I thought that the things that I used to find joy in were over for me. It wasn’t until I recovered to the point where I could engage in physical activity again, get out of a back brace, that I decided that I wanted to take up an adaptive sport.

Miller: How did you decide what that might be?

Monique Kelley: You know, honestly, I had no idea what sport I was going to be interested in, having never been an athlete before in my life. This opportunity to surf just kind of fell into my lap when Gabe reached out to me and offered me adaptive surf lessons.

Miller: Gabe Smith- this gets to just sort of a lucky timing, it seems, on both of your parts. When did you start working, broadly, on accessibility issues for people with various disabilities on the coast?

Gabe Smith: Well, it happened at the 2019 Nelscott Reef Pro event. We had one of the spectators, a dad, missing his legs, and he started talking to me about adaptive surfing. I’d never really thought about it before. We then ended up having an event in Coos Bay, my hometown actually, and we had about a na… [Connection lost]

Miller: We’re going to work on Gabe Smith’s connection, there because it just sort of melted away for a second. But Monique Kelly, Can you still hear me?

Kelley: Yes.

Miller: Okay. Gabe Smith. We’re gonna, we’re gonna see if we can get a better connection. So what happened in Coos Bay a couple years ago?

Gabe Smith: So because I had met Larry at the event and he explained to me about Adaptive Surfing, I ended up hosting an Adaptive Event in Coos Bay, in my hometown, and we had about 100 people show up and I really got to sort of be exposed to that whole thing. And then Christiaan Bailey, Captain of the Olympic Surfing Team decided he wanted to come with me to my Big Wave event and bring about five different adaptive surfers from all over the world. We’re talking France, the U. K.; these guys were coming for the 2020 event, and then COVID hit. So I found myself sitting at Bahama Boards Cannon Beach Surf Shop with access to two beach wheelchairs, thanks to the City of Cannon Beach. I had been taking people out there just to access the beach. And I had a friend who had broke [sic] his back in a motorcycle accident. I talked him into coming and trying surfing. He actually laughed at me and thought I was crazy, and he did really good and unfortunately COVID hit and he kind of went into exile, and he ended up dying. I felt like my old goal of teaching people to Adaptive Surf was kind of over with. I just kept thinking about it. And then I met Monique through the surf shop, and I offered to take her adaptive surfing. And she was totally into it.

Miller: Monique, what was your first thought when Gabe said, do you want to go out on a surfboard?

Kelley: To be honest, having grown up on the Oregon Coast, I always looked at people surfing like they were absolutely nuts. I never in a million years imagined myself being out on the water.

Miller: What did you think was nuts about surfers?

Kelley: In the Pacific Northwest specifically, the conditions are totally different than down in California or much anywhere else. The water’s murky. It’s pretty cold. And yeah, it just seems a little dangerous.

Miller: So what made you say yes?

Kelley: Honestly, Gabe sold me on this idea that we could make an impact on not only the disabled community, but in the Oregon community as a whole. One of our goals is to bring universal access to all of the beaches in Oregon and that was really the idea that got me to sign on initially.

Miller: Gabe Smith, this is a little bit different from Adaptive Surfing, it seems like almost the first thing you were doing in terms of helping people with disabilities, literally, get access to the beach. What are the challenges for people in wheelchairs or people who have mobility issues? The challenges of sometimes even simply getting to the beach and then when they get to sand, of moving around?

Gabe Smith: Well, we have a couple of beaches in Oregon that are accessible, such as Cannon beach, but unfortunately there are not very good waves right out in front of Cannon Beach. So all of the beaches in Oregon share the same problem. We have really huge waves throughout the winter, and any kind of wheelchair ramp or any kind of pad or anything you would put out there, it’s going to get washed away in the wintertime. Wheelchair ramps are super expensive. It just hasn’t really had enough, I guess Oregon interest in order to put the infrastructure in to create those wheelchair accessibility ramps for the beaches. And most importantly, none of them exist at an Oregon surf spot. It’s not like you can just go surf anywhere. There’s only a few beaches that actually are good for this, Short Sands, which is Oswald West, the main beach for surfing in all of Oregon and you can’t get down there with a wheelchair. So, I literally have to push her down to the bottom of the rocks, pick her up and carry her into the sand. Same with anybody else. And you know, this is how we’ve been accomplishing this. We’ve been carrying them over the rocks, we’ve been carrying their wheelchairs down to the beach. The city’s wheelchairs help us, but you know, they’re kind of a poor location, not a very good surf spot. So that’s kind of the big difficulty with surfing in general, beach access for anyone that has a disability, there’s just no infrastructure in place. Currently there’s steep steps, there’s jagged trails. I mean, we haven’t put in the time and effort to make these accessible to everyone, and that’s a fact.


Miller: Monique, can you describe once you do get down to the beach with the help of Gabe Smith and others, can you describe how adaptive surfing works?

Kelley: So for every adoptive surfer, it’s gonna be different, depending on the level of injury. For me, I do what’s called prone surfing. So I surf on my belly currently, and I have Gabe and a team of volunteers that help get me out on the water and then push me out on the waves and then we have people spotting along the shore line to help catch.

Miller: Do you remember the first time that you caught a wave?

Kelley: Yes.

Miller: What was it like?

Kelley: Oh, it was a really proud moment for me. It was one of the most exciting and exhilarating moments that I’ve ever experienced.

Miller: Can you describe the physical sensation of being moved by the water?

Kelley: It’s very therapeutic. It requires a lot of balance.

Miller: Gabe Smith. What do you get out of this work? What keeps you doing this?

Smith: I mean, obviously it’s a good thing and it feels good to be part of it and it’s more than anything, I think it’s inspirational to myself. I’ve been trying to accomplish something for five years now here in Oregon, that has had a lot of difficulty and challenges to it and folks like Moon [Monique], they definitely keep me inspired to keep going with my goal and I know I’m doing it for the right reasons, and I know that doing stuff like this with Moon is what makes me happy.

Miller: So has working on adaptive surfing changed the way you think about your own surfing?

Smith: Oh yeah. This whole adaptive program that I got involved in completely opened my eyes to an entire, different world that I hadn’t even realized existed. It wasn’t just surfing, it’s all adaptive sports. It’s all these people that, you know, they have reasons to be bummed out and they look past that and they don’t sit there and be depressed and they go and they fight for something they believe in, and the athletes in particular, the adaptive athletes, I find so inspirational because they push past what they are dealing with and they’re able to accomplish great things.

Miller: If you’re just tuning in, we’re talking right now with Gabe Smith, surfing instructor, the Director of the Nelscott Reef Pro, that’s a Big Wave Surfing Competition in Lincoln City and Monique Kelly who is an adaptive surfer. Monique, what are your goals or dreams right now in terms of surfing?

Kelley: So one of our long term goals, probably our biggest goal, is to make it to the next Paralympics, which is in four years. Short term goals, I’m hoping to go to a surf camp next year and kind of hone my skills a bit better and get to see some other adaptive surfers and see what they do and what kind of equipment that they’re using. Hopefully in the near future, I’d like to graduate from prone surfing into a wave ski, which will make me much more independent out on the water.

Miller: Meaning it would be easier for you to go out to them to come back to catch a wave?

Kelley: Yes.

Miller: More by yourself.

Kelley: So a wave ski is where you sit, your legs are strapped in, and you use a paddle, like a kayak paddle. So I’d be able to paddle myself out independently, and push myself out on the waves as well.

Miller: What would you say to other people who are paralyzed or deal with other disabilities, and who might be listening now and our thinking that will never be me. I will not go out, I could not go out on a surfboard?

Kelley: You know, I thought the same thing, but the truth is, you just never know unless you try.

Miller: And Gabe Smith, what is your plan for improving accessibility on Oregon beaches? You laid out the many challenges right now, what can you or others do to change that?

Smith: Well, a show like this definitely helps. I wanted awareness, I wanted people to know that we’re doing this. I’ve talked to state parks and they actually were kind enough to come to Cannon Beach and have a very serious conversation with me about this, explaining costs. They’re not against doing this and I just feel like the beach - wheelchair situation in Oregon consists of Manzanita, Cannon Beach and Seaside. All three towns have two chairs, each. These chairs cost like $5,000 to get someone down onto the beach, right? And nowhere else in Oregon, can you get these. Working at Bahama Boards and answering the phone, people would call from Northern California and drive all the way to Manzanita, Cannon Beach to use these chairs. And so, to me, the idea is to get enough people to care about this and we actually do something, put in some infrastructure. It’s definitely possible to make a wheelchair ramp down to the sand. My ultimate goal would be for an Adaptive Suffer to pull up to a parking lot, put himself in his chair and wheel down to the beach in his wetsuit, plop onto his board and actually go out there without a single person helping him.That was our goal for me and my friend Austin, we were so close to accomplishing it. You know what I mean? We just had this one additional or intentional place set up, say at Short Sands where we could get wheelchairs down onto the sand, at least in the summertime. It doesn’t have to obviously, work in the winter time, but not just for surfing, just so that anybody can get down to the beach because I have heard hundreds of stories of people, who’ve got to go down to the beach for their last time or the first time in years because of those chairs. It seems like a small thing, but it’s really not a small thing to the people who don’t get to go to the beach.

Miller: Gabe Smith and Monique Kelly, thanks very much for joining us today.

Smith / Kelley: Thank you. Thank you.

Miller: And I really want to give a hat tip to Nikki Davidson who wrote a great article about Monique and Gabe recently in The Daily Astorian. Thanks very much for tuning in to Think Out Loud on OPB and KLCC, today, I’m Dave Miller. We’ll be back tomorrow. Think Out Loud is supported by Steve and Jan Oliver, the Rose E. Tucker Charitable Trust and Ray and Marilyn Johnson.

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