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Disabled surfers brave the waves in Brazil

By Jenny Barchfield

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, March 27 2013 6:59 a.m. MDT

In this March 16, 2013 photo, AdaptSurf co-founder and physical therapist Luiz Phelipe Nobre, center, teaches surfing lessons at Barra da Tijuca beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. AdaptSurf is a Rio-based non-governmental organization that aims to make beaches accessible to the disabled and encourage them to practice water sports.

Felipe Dana, Associated Press

RIO DE JANEIRO — One minute, Renata Glasner is watching the waves crash on Leblon beach from her wheelchair. The next, she's plowing through the turbulent waters, riding the choppy waves on a specially adapted surfboard.

Glasner, a 35-year-old graphic designer who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis four years ago, is one of dozens of disabled people on this special strip of Rio de Janeiro beach who are conquering the waves. Men and women with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, people missing a limb, the blind, the deaf and even the paralyzed all hit the waves here.

They all require a different kind of assistance depending on their disabilities and maneuver their boards in different ways — some standing, some on their knees, others like Glasner flat on their bellies and using their body weight to steer the boards. But every one of them emerges from the ocean beaming.

"The taste of salt water has no price," said Glasner, who began to lose control over her legs shortly after the birth of her first child and now requires a helper to hoist her from her amphibious wheelchair onto the surfboard. "It's the taste of freedom. After you're diagnosed with a disease like mine, you can't even imagine you're ever again going to experience that taste."

Glasner is able to savor that experience on a weekly basis thanks to AdaptSurf, a Rio-based non-governmental organization that aims to make beaches accessible to the disabled and encourage them to practice water sports.

In a country where the lack of ramps and working elevators, the shoddy state of sidewalks and the shortage of pedestrian crossings make just leaving home risky for many disabled people, lobbying for their beach accessibility may seem like something of a frivolity.

But in Brazil, with its nearly 4,660 mile-long (7,500 kilometer-long) coastline, the beach is center stage for social interactions of all sorts: It's largely there that families reunite, that friendships are forged, that couples come together or dissolve and deals are struck. For the disabled to be deprived of the physical benefits of the beach and also all the socializing that goes on there is doubly isolating, says AdaptSurf co-founder Henrique Saraiva.

"Imagine, you're in a country that's surrounded by beaches, where the beach is an almost mystical place. But when you're confined to a chair, the farthest you can get is the sidewalk, and you sit there sweating under the sun and watching everyone play in the water," said Saraiva. "It's the most supremely frustrating experience."

He and two friends created the organization in 2007, some 10 years after a mugging left him partially paralyzed.

The then-18-year-old Saraiva was cycling near his home in an upscale Rio neighborhood when he was set upon by several young men who were after his bike. One of them pulled a gun.

"I saw it and kind of froze and he fired. A single shot went in through my stomach and lodged in my spinal column," he said. "Lying there on the street, I felt right away that I wasn't able to move my legs."

An extended hospitalization, a series of surgeries and months of uncertainty followed, with doctors unable to predict whether Saraiva would ever walk again. But the intense physical therapy sessions paid off and Saraiva eventually traded his wheelchair for the crutches that he still uses to get around.

Despite his badly atrophied right leg, Saraiva pulled out his old board and tried to surf again.

"It was magical. The water is the one place where I can forget about my handicap," said Saraiva. "It's the one place where I can feel like I'm just one of the guys, just like everybody else."

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