In a bid to share that experience with others, Saraiva founded AdaptSurf with the help of two friends. Similar organizations already existed in other places with vibrant beach cultures, such as California and Australia, but Saraiva says AdaptSurf was the first of its kind in Brazil. And it convenes every Saturday and Sunday of the year, weather permitting, he added.
"It was really touch and go at first," Saraiva said. The group would show up at a designated spot on Rio's upscale Leblon beach with one used surfboard and a couple of parasols. At first, there were just three participants, but AdaptSurf has steadily grown and recently received a generous donation to buy new mesh ramps and runways to help people cross the fine white sand and a fleet of special wheelchairs made from a fast-drying mesh and all-terrain monster tires.
"People who spend their whole lives in a wheelchair get on a board and manage to catch a wave and their self-esteem goes through the roof," Saraiva said, adding that even for those participants with disabilities so severe they can't do more than be wheeled, knee-deep, into the water, just being on the beach does a world of good.
Now several dozen disabled people come from across this metropolis of 6 million to attend AdaptSurf, some braving hours-long bus rides to be there every weekend. The group has even had people come from as far as the capital, Brasilia, some 725 miles (1,170 kilometers) away.
Though they set up their parasols directly in front of a lifeguard station, AdaptSurf has never required its services — a fact Saraiva attributes to the care the group takes. When the ocean's too choppy or the undertow too threatening, they forgo the water and practice their moves on land. Even when the water's at its calmest, participants generally surf one at a time, with at least one able-bodied helper.
Andre Souza, a 33-year-old who was paralyzed from the waist down in a 2001 motorcycle accident, had never surfed before he chanced upon AdaptSurf. Now, he hopes to enter the Guinness Book of World Records as the disabled surfer who's spent the most time on a wave. While the typical disabled surfer spends an average of about 10 to 15 seconds on any given wave, Souza last year spent slightly over three minutes riding an "apororoca," a giant wave that sweeps up rivers in the Amazon region at certain times a year. He hopes to surf another "apororoca" later this year.
"The first time I caught a wave I can only describe as the happiest moment in my life," said Souza, a lean, strong man with a quick smile and dark, sparkling eyes. "It's the place where I feel the most freedom I've experienced since my accident. All day long, all night long, you are literally a prisoner in your chair, in your bed, in your body. I don't have words to describe the sensation of liberty I feel on my surfboard."
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