Johannes Laing-Para Surfing World Championships 2021

Para Surfing on the way to the Paralympics

Surfing made its debut at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in 2021. Sorry for the confusion, but Covid is known for turning things upside down a bit. With surfing’s inclusion in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the ISA is now promoting surfing’s inclusion in the 2028 Paralympics in Los Angeles. As the president of the ISA Fernando Aguerre emphasised: Surfing as the official sport of the state of California and the strong surf culture, appeal, and infrastructure in LA 2028, Para Surfing can offer amazing value and energy to the Paralympic programme.

The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) board recently confirmed that Para Surfing has demonstrated the competitiveness and integrity of the sport, as well as the strategic benefit to the Paralympic Games. This does not mean that Para Surfing is already confirmed in the program. However, the LA28 Committee is considering the impact that Para Surfing’s inclusion in the program could have. The final decision is expected to be made by the end of the year.

Regardless of the outcome, para-surfers from around the world are hoping to make their debut on the Olympic stage. We spoke with two members of the German Para Surfing Team which is part of the German Surfing association. Christina Paetrow, the team manager and Johannes Laing, the athlete representative and athlete himself, shared their thoughts and let us know what preparations are on the way.

Credit: Ben Reed/ISA Surfer: Johannes Laing

ISA Parasurfing Games Pismo Beach 

Last year in December 2022, the annual ISA World Para Surfing Championship was held in Pismo Beach, California. With a new record – more than 180 athletes from 28 nations came together to surf the waves. Since the beginning, the sport is constantly growing and has evolved, Johannes mentioned. He has the feeling that especially in the last couple of years and with the inclusion of surfing in the Olympics, the para surf movement and its community has grown  and strengthened a lot.

The ISA World Para Surfing Championships have been around since 2015, Christina told me. And since 2017, the German Surf Team with Johannes Laing as one of the pioneers in German Para Surfing is part of it. There are different classes in the Worlds, as Christina explains:

There are five main classes, the lying or prone, the sitting, the kneeling the standing and the visually impaired class for surfers with visual impairment or complete blindness. Some of them are divided into sub-classes. In the prone class, there is Prone 1 and Prone 2, for example. Prone 1 is for surfers who are able to surf unassisted, like Johannes and Antonio from our team, which means they paddle and surf independently on their belly. Prone 2 is for surfers who need assistance in the water. A “pusher” pushes them into the wave and a “catcher” receives the surfer at the water’s edge and helps them to get out in the line-up again after the surfer has ridden the wave. Surfers in the Visually Impaired classes – there are two as well depending on the level of eyesight – are joined by a guide in the water who supports the surfers with verbal signals, for example when to start paddling and and with regards to the direction of the wave.

Credit: Sean Evans Antonio Müller, Prone 1, won silver medal for Germany at 2022 ISA Worlds
Credit: Sean Evans | Antonio Müller, Prone 1, won silver medal for Germany at 2022 ISA Worlds

For the visually impaired the assistants do not touch the surfers compared to prone. There, so to speak, the surfer or the board is allowed to be touched. And in the standing class, there are three different classes.

The standing class is not exclusively reserved for amputations. There are also other diagnoses, but otherwise, that’s right. So: Upper body respectively, lower body and below the knee, Johannes Laing added.

The categories and each classification also compete among themselves. So there is no overlap. For example, prone 1 and 2 are different classes, and so to speak, also two gold medals that can be won. Johannes said that there are also different contest formats around though, where classes are mixed and compete against each other. But that’s not the case for the World Para Surfing Games, there it’s divided into different categories.

Judging in para surfing 

Johannes explains the difficulty: Mixed competitions in para surfing make the judges’ job difficult because they have to adapt to physical limitations and physical abilities.These can vary quite a bit within one class.The judging criteria are more or less the same as in non-adaptive or non-para competitions, so speed, power and flow. These are the three most important. But you have to realize that the sport is still young and still developing. That means that the level increases from year to year. Each year, I am amazed how the surfers, skills, and equipment develop. It’s getting better and better and the criteria are more effective than they were three or four years ago.

Qualification for the Paralympics

The qualification process of surfing for the Olympics 2024 in Tahiti is a mix of the WSL tour ranking and the ISA Worlds’ outcome. For the Para Surfing Championships, there is no qualification process announced yet. As Johannes says: So far, they are all open, which means that whoever has the financial means and who can pay the start fees, can also start. The ISA Games are so far the only ones where you have to go through the association. 

In all other competitions, you are allowed to participate, and that makes sense because the numbers are not so big. So, if the WSL would say, everyone can participate, then they would not be able to save themselves from people who are professional surfers or think they are. That would be different with the Para Surfing League, if you introduce restrictions there, it would probably hurt more at the beginning. Therefore, practically everyone can participate.

How does the German Para Surf team train 

Until now, it’s been a very individual thing. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have the financial resources to organize regular and professional training camps – something we’re working on, tells Johannes. The current active team is spread across Germany and Europe. Antonio Müller, one of our prone surfers who has one the silver medal in the 2022 ISA World Games, lives in Gran Canaria, for example. He’s just in the fortunate position of having a lot of water time himself and having the surf spot at his doorstep. Johannes lives in Mainz, Germany, and Ben Neumann, one of our blind surfers, learned to surf on standing and river waves in South Germany before he surfed in the ocean for the first time.

Johannes and Christina, who manage the team with coach Florian Schäfer,  want to grow the team organically: Interested and potential para surfers can approach us to find out more and get in touch with us but we need to grow according to our resources. Last year, we initiated a call for female athletes to promote gender equality within our team, Christina says: Inclusive surf projects like Open Ocean which Johannes has founded with his friend Fritzi are also a possible source where we become aware of interested surfers with future potential. 

Ben Neumann - Para Surfing
Credit: Jersson Barboza, Surfer Ben Neumann, VI-1, won bronze medal for Team Germany in 2021 and copper medal in 2022.

Christina summarizes the current situation: At the moment, our athletes need to be prepared to invest a lot themselves – financially and with regards to organizing their own effective training. This simply comes down to our limited resources, especially time and money as all of us do this voluntarily. We love what we do and want to grow Team Germany and the para surf sport. However, to achieve this, we need partners to build the future and to further develop professional structures incl. regular training possibilities.

Training for specific needs 

Competitions always require training to get better and work on your skills. In Para Surfing there are many different people with different conditions. So how do they train to meet all the different needs?

Johannes answered: Often or most of the time, people have not just had their disability since yesterday, but have been living with it for many years or always. You are the best expert on your disability. If you are into sports and enjoy them, you don’t need someone to tell you how to do them, it’s about figuring it out. For example, if it’s a new sport like surfing that someone with a disability has never done before.

In the beginning, it’s about what skills and abilities the surfer brings to the table, and how you can apply them in the water. This is a very individual thing. Athlete and coach need to work on this together and and figure out what position and equipment suit best and what to possibly adapt from session to session. Both athlete and coach need to have an open mind, experiment and continuously adapt the surf style and equipment as needed.

How would it feel for you if surfing will be included in the Paralympics 2028? 

Johannes and Christina both screamed out a euphoric YEWWWWWW and then found some words :

It would be a dream come true, especially for our active athletes. As team manager, I’d like to create a good basis and smooth experience if we go paralympic. I think it’s a great opportunity and I am positive, but I will only believe it when it’s official and I can read it in black and white. Sure that it would have a great impact on the para surf sport, not just in Germany, but worldwide. Hopefully, it would also give us new opportunities to tap into sources that aren’t there yet. Surfing as a whole would become more accessible and the para surf movement could expand beyond its current state. – Christina Paetrow

Johannes Laing said: I have a very personal view of it. I know many of the old, the very old dogs and the pioneers of this sport and have been able to spend vacations and camps with them. I know their stories and their journeys and how they are connected to this community. I’ve been able to see how adaptive surfing has evolved from its beginnings through the founding fathers and mothers to Paralympic inclusion, what a journey there has been in between, and how many individual building blocks have been laid, by each and every person involved and committed. Be it us with the Open Ocean e.V*. association, the Inclusea** project where we are also involved with the German Surf Federation*** or just all the small competitions.

At some point, someone from Wales said he would also like to do a contest and he has the first wave pool in Europe, Snowdonia, on his doorstep and he now organises a surf contest out of nowhere, which has now been going on for about four years. It’s just really nice to see how all these little bricks complement each other and how the community grows and sticks together and gets stronger and stronger. And I’m also sure that even if we don’t become Paralympic, that alone this process of the last ten years will continue. I think that’s nice, simply because it’s the first time in my life that I’ve felt such a real community spirit and to be so close to the development of such a young sport, that’s just exciting.

We keep our fingers crossed that by the end of the year, we will receive a positive decision from the IPC for the inclusion of Para Surfing in the Paralympics!

Credit| Jersson Barboza | Team Germany at 2022 ISA Worlds, left to right: Christina Paetrow, manager, Ben Neumann, athlete VI-1, Antonio Müller, Prone 1, Florian Schäfer, coach

*Open Ocean e.V. is a German non-profit organization which has been founded by Johannes and his friend Friederike Schulz. It currently offers inclusive and fully accessible surf courses for people with and without disabilities and is working on expanding its activities to additional water sport activities.

**Inclusea is a European project (Erasmus+ Sport) where the Adaptive Committee of the DWV e.V. is involved. This project seeks to foster and promote greater inclusion and accessibility for people with physical and/or sensory disabilities in surfing in Europe. e.g., by developing an inclusive methodology and framework for surf instructors and surf schools. From April 27-30, the final event will be happening at Somo Beach (Spain) consisting of various workshops and outdoor activities.

***Deutscher Wellenreitverband e.V. is the national umbrella organisation for German surfers.

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