Military heroes who competed in a world-first adaptive surf championship in North Wales say that surfing has helped them to overcome trauma, mental ill-health and serious physical injuries.
Sixteen surfers, all either serving military or veterans who have battled physical or mental injury, competed for the top spots in the Help for Heroes Adaptive Surf Championship last Saturday (23rd September 2017). The free-to-attend one-day tournament took place at inland surf lagoon Surf Snowdonia, seven miles from the sea at Conwy.
Winner of the open category, Yianni Karakousis, served as a Captain in the Royal Engineers. He suffered horrific injuries in a suicide bombing in Afghanistan in April 2013.
Yianni said that his first thought following the blast was that if the explosion didn’t kill him, his wife probably would. His second thought was that he would probably never surf again.
The pressure of the explosion had forced Yianni’s lungs almost to the point of bursting, fractured most of the bones in his face and caused traumatic brain and spinal injuries.
Yianni, who lives on Anglesey, initially recovered in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, and has since been supported by military charity Help for Heroes who encouraged him to use his love of surfing to aid his recovery. The 30-year-old says that the discipline of the sport has helped him to overcome his injuries. He said:
“For me surfing is a mindset. That determination to get out when there’s a big set coming, that determination to push yourself to improve - it’s that same mindset you need to drive yourself forward in your recovery.
“It’s been a long road for me to get where I am now, and not easy by any means, but surfing has been a central part of it.
“I really enjoyed the Surf Snowdonia championship, and being around people of a similar background to me was a big part of that enjoyment.”
Cardiff-born Chris Jones, 44, winner of the tournament’s physical impairments category, served with the Army Air Corps until he was injured in a training accident in 1998. He says that surfing saved his life when he developed acute psychological problems.
Since returning to his love of surfing with the support of Help for Heroes, Chris has gone on to be part of Team GB at the 2016 World Adaptive Surf Championships in California, returning with a bronze medal. He also competed in the 2016 Invictus Games.
“Surfing has given me something physical to do, which keeps me fit, but more important is the way it has lifted me out of the dark place I was in. It has saved my life.
“One of my biggest problems was my mental health, and I wasn’t getting any help or treatment. Surfing kept my life in perspective. The things I was going through were extremely difficult, and surfing gave me a sense of peace.
“Surf Snowdonia is better than anywhere else on the planet for adaptive surfers because of its amazing accessibility. I have mobility problems and sometimes have to use crutches or a wheelchair, but it’s so easy to access everything here because of the way the wave is. You can literally just roll into it. Getting access to beaches is very difficult for people in wheelchairs.
“Surfing is massive for me. It gives me such freedom and mental strength. To have as many problems as I do moving around on the land – and then to be able to paddle out on the water and move with speed and power – it’s incredibly uplifting.”
Andy Ainscough, managing director of Surf Snowdonia, said the Adaptive Surf Championship was a celebration of the veterans’ courage and resilience. He said:
“We’ve worked closely with Help for Heroes since we launched in 2015 and regularly sponsor visits from former servicemen and women who use surf therapy to recover from mental and physical injuries.
“Seeing the transformative effect that surfing has had on these guys has been really powerful. We wanted to showcase and celebrate that with a community event, and it was great to have such a good crowd turn out to cheer the guys on.”
Around 1,500 spectators attended the free event, which is likely to become an annual fixture on the Surf Snowdonia events calendar.
Surf Snowdonia donates waves each weekend to local youngsters via theDyffryn Valley Community Surf Club and there is now an unlikely, but growing, surf community in the landlocked Conwy Valley. Famous visitors to the inland lagoon include Larry Page, founder of Google, and Australian Jack Freestone, one of the best pro surfers in the world.
The world-first lagoon will host the UK Pro Tour on Sunday 22 October and a Halloween Scarefest on 28-29 October. The Surf Snowdonia Christmas Market will return in December.