Chris Holtz has been coming to Banzai Surf School every week for the past four years. It might seem like he should’ve ‘graduated’ by now, but Chris isn’t our average surfer.
In 1995, a twenty-year-old Chris – known in his neighborhood as the indestructible kid who rode his BMX bike off the roof – crashed his pickup truck into an illegally parked car in Long Beach and was almost killed. He sustained brain damage that caused tremors and left him unable to walk or function normally. His right side is still almost paralyzed – cut-off from the command center. His speech is slurred, and visual acuity is limited. And he’s a big guy – 250lbs.
Years ago when I answered the call from his Occupational Therapist, Diane, she briefed me on her patient Chris, and thought surfing might be good therapy. They had been to several other ADA recommended programs and surf camps, but none of them worked out.
After giving me the full list of his disabilities, I was thinking this could be a tough lesson to do, and it might be hard to find the right instructors. Then she added, ‘Oh, … and he says whatever comes into his head, including hollering and profanity’.
I said, ‘Bring him down’. (We like spontaneous people :)
Since then, ‘Holtzenegger’ has surfed with us every Tuesday morning, including the cold winters. He walks with a cane and an assistant, so he never stands up on the board. He’s a joker and a kind soul – a social butterfly who says hi to everyone. He greets new friends with a handshake routine that’s become part of a series of ‘auto-pilot’ habits that Diane is trying to replace with something that better demands his … engagement.
We customized a 10 foot surfboard for him; extra thick with grip pads and handles to pull himself aboard. On good days, he can get up to his knees. On his off-days, he’ll roll off the board and lie face down in the water, pretending like he’s drowning. The first time he did that I sprinted over in a panic and heaved him face-up in the water. He just broke out laughing.
He’s also the only lesson who comes with an entourage: Diane, a Banzai instructor, and Edison (the ‘muscle’). Edison’s job is to keep Chris upright and do the heavy lifting (and Chris is heavy). Last summer Chris’s mother Linda was joined by his grandmother to watch one of his surf sessions from the beach. They stood there and cried with joy.
It comes down to what every surfer knows: The ocean heals. There’s something about seawater that speaks to our DNA – it puts all the pieces back together. Holtz has been surfing with us for four years now, and Diane has noticed on his surfing days he’s happier, more ‘perky’, as if someone turned his electricity on. “It makes me feel alive again”, he says. That goes for all of us, Chris.