Inside the competitors’ tent at the O’Neill Cold Water Classic you’ll find a long rack of brightly colored and stickered-up surfboards, all stashed by pro surfers preparing to paddle out for their heats. One board in particular stands out. It’s longer, wider and has handle bars mounted onto the front of the deck, designed specially for a surfer without the use of his legs.
The board belongs to Christiaan “Otter” Bailey, one of only two paralyzed professional surfers in the world. Lying Prone, Bailey will ride his customized six-finned surfboard out at Steamer Lane today as part of the Life Rolls On Foundation expression session. Bailey’s expression session will be held in conjunction with the Past Champions heat, featuring former Cold Water winners Anthony Ruffo, Richie Collins, Peter Mel, Adam Replogle, Kieran Horn and Toby Martin.
Life Rolls On is a non-profit foundation founded by Bailey’s good friend Jesse Billauer, a professional surfer who sustained a career-ending spinal cord injury in 1996. Billauer started the Life Rolls On Foundation to raise money and public awareness for spinal cord injury research, and to promote an active, healthy lifestyle among people who have sustained spinal cord injuries.
As an official ambassador for Life Rolls On, Bailey performs expression sessions at surf contests around the world to inspire those with disabilities to get out and be active. This is his third year surfing in the expression session at the Cold Water Classic.
“It’s a good outlet for me,” he said. “We’re trying to shift people’s perceptions; to challenge the paradigm of what they believe it’s possible for us to do.”
Bailey, 27, grew up surfing and skating in Santa Cruz. His natural talent allowed him to forge a career as a professional surfer and skater. He traveled around the world competing until 2006, when a freak skateboarding accident at Derby Park in Santa Cruz rendered him a Paraplegic.
Bailey, however, refused to let the injury prevent him from pursuing his passion for the waves, and these days he’s busier than ever. Bailey estimated he does between five to seven expression sessions at World Qualifying Series and World Championship Tour contests around the world, “depending on how far my sponsors are willing to send me.” He also helps to run a surf camp in Costa Rica designed for children with disabilities.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “It’s all ADA accessible and specifically driven to bring disabled kids and their families out.”
Over the last six months Bailey has also been training to become the first disabled person to ride Maverick’s, something he hopes to accomplish this winter with the aid of a tow-in.
“I’ve already [ridden] twenty-footers down in Costa Rica,” he said. “Maverick’s is much colder water and there’s more dangerous underlying conditions as far as the Boneyard, but I think if I have a good crew behind me it’s definitely achievable.”
Despite his busy schedule during the Cold Water Classic, Bailey also found time to host a special guest this week: five-year-old Zachary Puddy Siggens and his mom, Linda, who are visiting Santa Cruz from Seattle, Wash.
Zachary lost the use of his legs after suffering a stroke when he was just 18 months old. Linda, a single mother raising Zachary on her own, was searching for a male role model and a way to provide her son with opportunities to put to use the boisterous energy typical of a five-year-old boy.
“I’ve had to accept that he’s going to be using a wheelchair,” she said, “so we need to find things that people using wheelchairs can do. What can Zachary do to use his abundance of energy and outgoing nature? He can’t play soccer, but he certainly can go to the skatepark; he can surf, he can ski.”
Linda came into e-mail contact with Bailey through Life Rolls On about four months ago, and this week Zachary got the chance to meet Bailey in person and experience his first surf lesson.
“It happens all the time through Life Rolls On,” Bailey said of the connection.
Bailey took Zachary out surfing at Cowell’s on Friday during the afternoon low tide. It was Zachary’s first time being in the ocean.
“He had only been swimming in a swimming pool before,” Bailey said. “We were finding Nemo. He asked ‘Is Nemo under us?’ I told him ‘Yeah, and so is Turtle and everyone else.’ He wasn’t used to the waves, so he was a little intimidated at first but after it was all said and done I think he really enjoyed himself.”
Zachary, animated and sociable, followed Bailey all around the contest in his wheelchair Saturday. He also helped draw folks to the Life Rolls On booth — talking to passersby and passing out hats — where Bailey was selling raffle tickets to raise money for the foundation.
“It’s so important for him to see an older male in a wheelchair doing things, to be involved in the community,” Linda Puddy said of her son. “Not only is Christiaan a great athlete, but he’s also willing to take time out for some strange little five year old from Seattle who’s coming down and wants him to try on silly hats. And guys like that just mean so much.”
Contact Leo Maxam at 429-2417