Sometimes, resiliency requires a little kick-start. At Operation Rebound, part of the San Diego-based Challenged Athletes Foundation, that kick-start can come in the simple form of a surfboard and a wave.
Operation Rebound, which has a national reach, is designed to help disabled military veterans and first responders participate in sports. The nonprofit’s local surf clinics are especially popular.
“My wife and I go every week to see the troops in their hospital beds,” says Nico Marcolongo, a retired Marine who served two tours in Iraq and now heads up Operation Rebound. “We let them know that they’ll be able to do all the things they used to do and all the things they never dreamed of doing. One of the ways of getting right back into life is this surf clinic.”
Every week, volunteers and family members gather on the beach in Del Mar to coach and cheer on the athletes, some of whom are missing multiple limbs. Marcolongo, who returned home with post-traumatic stress, says the surfers aren’t just dealing with visible injuries, either. “I came back a lot different,” Marcolongo says. “I can empathize with these guys. In a lot of the troops it’s not the physical wounds that hold them back. It’s emotional. It’s psychological.”
And out on the water, he says, those emotional scars can fade dramatically.
“Not only do you get the endorphins going, but you get to be part of a team,” he explains. “Surfing is individual, but when they’re out there together, they’re inspiring each other.”
Not that it’s easy. Many of these surfers are learning to pop up on a prosthetic, or sometimes on two stubs. Many are only recently healed enough to get in the water.
“It gives them a freedom of mobility a lot of times before they even get their walking legs,” says Marcolongo. “It gives them a sense of empowerment and freedom.”
And exhilaration, says Chris Small, who lost his lower leg in 1994 while on active duty serving in Okinawa. He participates in the clinics as both a volunteer and a challenged athlete. “There’s nothing that compares to that feeling,” Small says. “I’d kind of forgotten it until I started surfing again.”
Operation Rebound, which serves about 1,100 challenged athletes throughout the U.S., supports any athletic endeavor, from cycling to triathlons, covering everything from equipment to travel and entry costs. Some athletes have been extraordinarily successful, like Oscar Sanchez, a San Diegan who didn’t let a spinal cord injury stop him from winning a gold in hand cycling at the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing.
But for most participants, winning a medal is less important than boosting morale.
“They see that not only is it good for them, but it sets a strong example,” says Marcolongo. “That’s exactly what they did in the military. They’re still leading.” (858/866-0959, www.challengedathletes.org) ANNAMARIA STEPHENS